‘The Very Strange Adventures of a Travelling Knight: Part Seven – A Battle of Shades’
Part Seven: A Battle of Shades
And so there he was, our boy Phillip, descending the pitch black well, down into the history section of the Library. Only he seemed less of a boy now, with wings sprouting from his back and his hands re-shaped into claws. A few hours ago, plummeting through the air like this would have terrified him out of his wits. Now it seemed as natural as breathing. He could never have done this at the Castle without being burnt as a monster but then the Castle seemed so far away and so long ago now.
The ground was coming. He could see a circle of red carpeted floor, light streaming from open doorways all round it. There was no sign of the creature he had followed down here. Perhaps she had already found her way to whichever histories she wanted to read.
He slowed his descent, regulating the beating of his wings down to a steady pulse. He landed easily, his legs bending and straightening as though he had been doing it all his life. His new claws seemed to make it easier for some reason.
He took a deep breath and looked around him. There were eight high openings around him. Beyond each one was a long corridor, lined on both sides with bookshelves and wooden doors. The spaces between the openings were lost in shadows. There was an unpleasant, metallic smell in the air. It was bitter and angry and it made Phillip feel on edge.
Her voice had the same amused yet kindly tone it always seemed to. It was like a hug and a joke at the same time.
‘Hello’ he said. ‘It’s nice to see you again’
The Giantess stepped from the shadows between two of the openings. She stood looking down at him.
‘You too. Though you look a little different’
Phillip realized that with his wings, he could finally look her in the face. He took flight, ascending until he was level with her purple eyes. This close, they were even more hypnotic.
She smiled at him and he had the very pleasant feeling that he had impressed her for once.
‘Where did you get the wings from?’ she asked.
‘Ah. And the claws?’
‘The snake woman’
‘You must have been doing some good then, for them to give you such gifts’
He thought about it.
‘I suppose so’ he said slowly. ‘Though I don’t think I did much. Not really. I told the insect it didn’t have to keep moving. And I told the snake lady I didn’t think she’d been sent here to be punished’
‘Why did you tell them?’ asked the Giantess, cocking her head curiously to one side. ‘You must have found them both frightening and unpleasant’
Again Phillip had to think before replying. So much had happened that he hadn’t really had much time to consider his actions so far.
‘At first, yes’ he said. ‘But then I began to see ways I could help them. And…well, I felt I should help them’
‘Even though you were frightened of then?’
Phillip didn’t like to admit to fear but there seemed no point lying.
‘Yes. I stopped being frightened of them after a while. After talking to them’
The Giantess sounded thoughtful. ‘But you still think you should have done more?’
She gave him a strange look he didn’t understand. Was it mockery or amusement or pleasure? Even face to face with her, she was a mystery to him.
‘Do you know where you are?’ asked the Giantess
‘The history section’
‘Quite right. And what do you think that means?’
He thought long and hard. He didn’t want to disappoint her.
‘Stories about things that never happened’
Her laugh was delighted.
‘Oh I can see why you would think that. Very good! But no. These are the records of the histories that were never properly written down, the lives which were forgotten which shouldn’t have been’
She sighed heavily and the air around her became colder.
‘It can be a very sad place’
‘Yes’ he said slowly. ‘There’s something about it I…I don’t like’
She nodded in sympathy.
‘This is the War History section. It’s the saddest place in all the Library. The Lions hold a remembrance ceremony here every evening’
Then she brightened again.
‘Still, here you will have an opportunity to do more’
She pointed at the opening behind her to her right.
‘Go down that corridor. Take the second door on your left. There you will meet a man who needs some assistance’
Phillip pounced on one word in what she had said.
‘A man? Not an insect or a snake woman? A man like me?’
Oh he would like that! To talk for a while with another ordinary man! Someone he might understand straight away and who would be sure to be impressed by all the stories he had found to tell. What a joy that would be!
‘Tell me’ asked the Giantess ‘What kind of man do you think you are now?’
And he knew straight away what she meant. He was a man with wings and claws. He couldn’t even show his face beneath his visor. What kind of conversation could he hope to have with an ordinary man? They might run screaming the moment they saw him. Or worse, try to slay him in the hope of winning a hero’s glory for themselves
And then extraordinarily, the blue Giantess reached out and patted him softly on the head.
‘You’ll be fine’ she told him. And he believed her.
He flew back down to ground at her feet.
‘I suppose I should go straight away’ he said.
‘By the way, have you learnt anything about where the Goblin’s book might be?’ she asked
He sighed heavily. He’d hoped this wouldn’t come up.
‘I never seem to get the chance’ he explained, feeling it wasn’t a very good answer.
‘Well perhaps you’ll have better luck this time’
With that, she stepped back into the shadows and, as far as he could tell, vanished.
Phillip made his way to the opening that she had indicated. Second door on the left she had said. And of course, all the doors were on the right. Resigning himself to the unexpected, he made his way down the corridor. The air here was close, hot and almost smoky. He kept having to clear his throat. The title of a huge, red leather-bound volume caught his eye as he passed it; The Heroes of Shellshock. Whatever did that mean?
To his left, a section of shelving suddenly swung inwards. A hand seized his shoulder and dragged him through as though he were made of feathers. He heard it slam shut behind him.
In front of Phillip was a forest of stone pillars, each one the width of a great oak tree and reaching up to a low, plain ceiling. The columns were arranged in perfect lines, though some were cracked and leaning alarmingly to one side. He turned to see who had hold of his shoulder.
He saw an immensely tall and slender figure wrapped in a brown, hessian robe. He couldn’t see a face in the hood but he could hear the sound of hoarse, ragged breathing. The hand that held him was as white as bone, the skin hanging loosely from the fingers.
‘Reinforcements!’ hissed a voice close to his helmet. ‘I knew they would send some eventually’
The hooded head turned rapidly from side to side.
‘But we don’t have long! The enemy has driven us to the wall. The very wall! I have only two soldiers left’
The figure let go of Phillip’s shoulder and turned to point at two statues that stood close by. They were figures of warriors, one holding a sword, the other a trident. The sculpted physiques were undeniably impressive though the stonework of the faces was weathered almost beyond recognition. The wall behind them was made of the same stone as the pillars and was netted with dense creepers.
‘These are your soldiers?’ asked Phillip. Did people fight wars with stone armies in some distant land in the future?
‘Yes, of course’
A howl of distress suddenly burst from the cowl. The shrouded creature slunk to the floor and rose holding a large stone. It held it out for Phillip to see.
‘Look’ it hissed. ‘See what they have done’
The stone was carved on one side with the innocent, angelic face of a child.
‘Even the children’ wailed the figure. ‘Even the children aren’t safe from the enemy!’
So saying it flung the stone face to the floor where it shattered into a dozen pieces.
The creature seemed to straighten in its robes.
‘But you are here now’ it announced. ‘And I need only three men to secure victory’
Despite himself, Phillip found he was feeling excited. He had been brought up to believe that one day every man must prove himself on the field of battle. Though this really wasn’t what he’d been expecting. For a start he’d imagined a huge and mighty army he might ride at the head of, not two statues and a mad thing in smelly robes.
‘Who are you?’ he asked the figure, adding ‘Sir’ after a second’s thought.
It tittered to itself.
‘Why, don’t you know? I am the great General Sepi, commander of a thousand legions’
Phillip looked again at the statues.
‘A thousand legions’ he repeated.
Beneath the robe, high shoulders shrugged.
‘Sometimes a man falls on hard times. But surely you must have heard of me?’
Phillip didn’t want to be rude to a man who might be a famous warrior.
‘I don’t think I have ever been told about you Sir. I’m sorry’
Again the shoulders shrugged.
‘Well it is true that since the fire it is easier for the tales of a man’s life to be lost in all the noise. Even such a man as me!’
‘The fire?’ asked Phillip ‘What fire?’ Though he had a good idea what Sepi meant. He remembered the world the Flower had shown him. The terrible, burning future.
‘The fire that burst across the sky’ said the General quietly. ‘The one that ripped men’s soul’s from their bodies’
He held up his pale, ragged hands.
‘You don’t think I was born looking like this, do you?’
‘I’m sorry’ said Phillip gently. He had only met war-wounded once or twice at the Castle. He had always been impressed by them and yet unsure what to say in their presence. They had made him all too aware that he was just a boy and he had never liked feeling like that.
Sepi clapped him on the shoulder.
‘No offence taken’ he said, his tone slightly more friendly now. ‘The fire did terrible things to us all. Threw us to the winds in a thousand pieces. I doubt you are a pretty sight beneath all that armour’
Phillip was about to correct him that yes, actually he was generally considered a very pretty sight, but thought better of it.
‘Quite’ he said.
Sepi turned to the two statues.
‘And these two have seen better days, that’s for sure. But still up for a fight, eh lads’
And in, perfect unison, the two weatherworn statues raised their left arms in a salute.
They’re alive, thought Phillip. The statues are alive. Just like the Lions. Of course they are! Why didn’t I think of that? And for a moment he had a picture in his head of the Giantess shaking her head at his foolishness. He wouldn’t tell her about this unless he had to.
General Sepi returned the salutes of his men.
‘And now’ he said proudly. ‘We’ll show the enemy just how good we are!’
He swung round and pointed towards a path between two rows of columns.
‘We go to the far wall’ he proclaimed. ‘To the very face of the enemy. But first…’
The hand was once more on Phillip’s shoulder and the voice had dropped to a whisper.
‘You really must change. You’re not dressed for battle. Not in all those clumsy tin cans’
This man might be a great general, but this was a personal insult.
‘This is my personal armour’ protested Phillip. ‘Made by the finest workman in the land!’
That probably wasn’t true, he thought to himself. The armour was made more for show than anything and the Castle metal smith had been got on the cheap. But that was beside the point.
The hooded head shook.
‘No, no’ came the voice. ‘Not for this kind of battle. Only stone will do for that’
And suddenly Phillips arms and legs were heavy and his breathing seemed to be slowing…and slowing further still. He wanted to close his eyes but his eyelids wouldn’t move. He raised a claw to brush Sepi’s hand away. It moved easily and yet felt so very heavy.
Phillip saw his claw and arm through the slit in his visor. The silvery armour had turned grey, the texture rougher and darker. It had turned to stone. He opened his mouth to cry out and realized how dry and smooth it felt. The hunger that had been gnawing at his stomach was gone. There was a strange stillness in his chest.
His entire body had turned to stone.
‘What have you done?’ he gasped, noticing as he did that his voice was deeper, almost rumbling. Under other circumstances, that might have pleased him.
Sepi took his hand away.
‘You will fight the enemy better this way, my boy’ he told Phillip. ‘Now, forward!’
And with that, Sepi began to move slowly between the rows of columns. As Phillip watched, he darted from side to side, sheltering first behind a right hand column and then behind a left hand one.
Then, without the slightest noise, the two statues began to move again. They followed their leader’s steps almost exactly, walking with the same ease as a man of flesh and blood.
There was nothing else for it, thought Phillip, he would have to follow them. He glanced down at his hands. Still claws, albeit stones ones now. They looked as though they could do some damage to an opponent if it came to it. He tried flapping the wings on his back and found they moved just as easily as before. Could he fly on stone wings? That would give him an advantage against whoever Sepi’s enemy was.
And so Phillip followed the statues and their hooded leader through the forest of columns, switching from side to side as they did, concealing himself time and again even though there was no sign of an attack. He found he could move and think just as easily as before, but he had no need to breath. His body felt strong and yet numb and lifeless without blood running through it. It was a cruel irony. Imagine feeling transformed into a creature as strong as stone and yet no longer able to tell if you are even alive anymore!
It’s just another change, he thought. But how many more can there be? And he remembered the question the Giantess had asked him: What kind of man do you think you are now?
The moving statue in front of him suddenly exploded into fragments. Sepi swung round with a savage hiss.
‘Enemy attack! Take cover!’
Phillip used his wings to propel himself behind the column to his left. Sepi also darted to his left while the other statue took refuge behind a column to the right.
A silence descended. Phillip looked down at his feet. He was horrified to see what looked like a stone nose and part of a hand laying close by. Where his silent companion had stood, a foot still stood upright, one toe twitching.
His eyes sought out the other stone man. He was still sheltering behind a column. The ruined face was expressionless and yet somehow Phillip could tell that he was terrified. And with good reason. Because then Phillip saw there was a shadow behind the statue, drawing ever closer. Except it wasn’t a shadow. It was a tall, thin figure in brown, hessian robes. For a moment Phillip thought it was Sepi, but when he peered round the other side of his column he could see Sepi was still crouched in hiding just ahead of him.
The newcomer to the battle was nearly at the stone man’s shoulder. Phillip opened his mouth – dry as it was – to call out a warning. But too late. Far too late. A long bony hand darted out from the robes and struck the stone soldier on the back. He burst apart in a fountain of dust. The trident he held tumbled to the stone floor and snapped in two.
‘Run!’ shouted Phillip. Without waiting to see if Sepi had heard, he broke cover from his column and began to run down the pathway behind him. Despite the weight of his new limbs, he could run faster than ever before.
On a whim, he turned to the right, and then to the left, and then to the right again, hoping to lose their pursuer in the forest of columns. The ceiling was too low for Phillip to use his wings or he would have taken flight at once. Ahead of him now he could see a wall covered in ivy but with a long, narrow opening running from floor to ceiling. The opening was glowing blue and red. No, he realized. Not an opening. A window of stained glass. Perhaps he could smash a way through?
Suddenly a hand had him by the shoulder and a voice was hissing in his ear. ‘Reinforcements! I knew they would send some eventually!’
Phillip stopped running and turned to face the owner of the voice. It looked and sounded exactly like Sepi and yet…
‘I have destroyed two of the enemy’s soldiers’ the hooded man said. ‘But more will come! They will drive us to the very wall. Even the children aren’t safe from the enemy!’ But you are here now’
Sepi’s words. But somehow not Sepi.
Phillip reached out and seized the man by the arms, holding him tight in his stone claws so that he couldn’t raise his deadly hands.
‘Sepi’ called Phillip. ‘To me sir! Come here’
‘But’ spluttered the voice from the cowl. ‘I am…’
From behind a column, Sepi slithered. The proud figure who had set out into the column was gone. He was almost bent double in fear.
‘I am here’ he said. ‘We must re-group and fight back’
Then he must have seen the prisoner held in Phillip’s unyielding grasp.
‘Who…who is that’
‘The enemy’ said Phillip. ‘The enemy you have been fighting’
He dropped the other man to the floor and turned to Sepi.
‘You’ he said quietly. ‘It’s you. You have been fighting yourself’
Sepi straightened shook his hooded head from side to side.
‘No! No that can’t be right! The war was against the enemy. The War came to us, even though we didn’t want it and I had retired from the battlefield long ago. All I wanted was my garden then. My flowers and birds. But the sky burst and soul’s were rent from bodies. And I was here and I had to fight as I’d always done’
A sound like a sob came from his hood. And then from that of the other man.
Phillip pointed down at the man at his feet.
‘He is you. I think your soul must have been split in two when the sky burst’
Sepi fell to his knees. On the stone floor, the two hooded men, both huddled and broken. Philip wondered why he had been able to work all this out when they couldn’t. It had been the same with the snake woman. Was being in this Library making him wise? Did just setting foot here bringing learning? Or perhaps the Giantess was right, and he knew more than he thought he did.
The two men – both Sepi – began to move towards to each other. They started to mumble, the words sounding as one voice.
‘So tired…I was so tired of the fighting…I only wanted it to end’
Hands emerged from each set of robes. Fingers explored until they found each other. Touched.
A final word.
Both robes crumpled, empty to the floor. A tiny plume of dust rose from between them and was carried away on the air.
Phillip stood alone. A man of stone, with wings and claws. He turned to look at the distant glass window. Was there a way out that way? And if there was, should he take it? Perhaps he would do better to remain here, a stone man in a stone world. In time ivy might grow over him and it would be as if he had always been here. Because he had failed three times to learn anything about the goblin’s book and though he had done some good on his way, now he stood surrounded by the remains of the dead. What kind of a hero could he claim to be now? He was more like a monster and wasn’t it always their fate to be slain?
From somewhere, he heard a gentle, kind voice.
‘You gave him the rest he needed’ said the Giantess.
‘And now look at him’ sighed Phillip. ‘Empty robes and dust’
He couldn’t see where she was. He stayed looking down at the ground. War had not been what he was expecting. Was there some kind of heaven that Sepi and his stone soldiers could hope to reach now?
‘Sometimes an ending happens that is not kind. But it’s still the right ending’
Suddenly the window in the distance was raising into the wall. Beyond was a white, gleaming space. And from it came the Giantess voice.
‘Your story isn’t over yet Phillip. The Court of Never Could Be is waiting for you. There’s only sadness here. That’s all there ever is after the battle’
He hesitated. If he stayed here, it would at least be his choice. But somehow he knew that was not to be his ending.
From the white space came the roar of a lion. Phillip took to the air and began to fly towards it. Something told him that everything was about to change again.
Damian Mark Whittle