The Game never ends......
Laughing, she pushed me through the tent flap. “I'll get the beers,” I heard her say.
I stumbled then walked the last few steps nonchalantly. The woman at the table beckoned at the empty chair. I looked around, after the bright sun the inside was a den of shadows. My gaze settled on the woman’s face. Jet-black hair, blue eyes, skin very pale, the sheen of perspiration giving it a waxy aspect, she whispered a name, foreign sounding.
“You come from a long line of gypsies I presume.” I said with a smirk.
“ A long line of charlatans and con artists actually,” she replied.
“ Reverse psychology.” I quipped.
“It can be reverse polarity if that is what you desire. Here shuffle.”
She pushed the cards towards me.
I shuffled them like a professional. I noticed two dice next to a small figurine, some sort of deity.
“Is the dice loaded?” I joked.
“No. But the cards are. Loaded with your expectations.” She said flatly and without a hint of irony. I laughed as I cut the deck and fanned out the cards, momentarily they seemed to hang between my palms.
I placed the pile neatly down. She pulled the first card out.
Even I could see this didn't look promising.
“Joshua blew the trumpets and the walls of Jericho fell.”
How did she know my name?
No, she was only repeating a phrase.
She looked into my eyes. “What walls will tumble before you, Joshua?”
“You're the fortune teller isn't that your job?” I said sarcastically.
“The walls of reality perhaps.”
She flipped over the next card.
Ten of swords.
A man lying dead with swords embedded in his back, like a savage, hastily erected fence.
“Lord of Ruin. All is Desolation.” She smiled. A feline smile, enigmatic.
“Swords rule the mind, communications, who is plotting your demise, who wishes to destroy you?”
Nine of Swords. A figure sat upright in their bed, holding their face in their hands, anxiety leaking over the covers like a stain.
“Lord of Despair. Nightmares gnawing at you, beware that you are not trapped by hopelessness.” She tilted her head, her voice rose. “Wake up. Spiraling into skepticism cannot save you.”
I tried to swallow, my mouth was dry, I wanted to say something but couldn’t, she turned the next card over.
Ace of Swords.
“Triumph. Success could be yours. Look to the East.”
Sweat was trickling along my forehead. It was too hot, hotter than outside and more airless. I wished Amy hadn't convinced me to come here while she stood in the bar queue. Why did we come to this Halloween fete? Just another reason to spend money, it wasn’t really Halloween, it was spring here, not autumn and today was more like summer.
I tried to concentrate.
I noticed there was a new card on the table.
The sorcerer. Was that it?
“Joshua, are you paying attention? It's too late to wish for a different outcome the cards have fallen and you must deal with what fate has in store for you.”
She did know my name?
Had Amy set this up?
Trick or treat?
“The Magus. Ultimate power. Everything is laid out before him, all he has to do is take it.” Her voice was commanding. “Is this you?”
“Why would it be me?”
“To wield power one must be prepared to leave everything behind and take it. No looking back. No regrets. Are you ready to do that?”
“Yeah sure.” I replied sick of this; this was just Amy’s prank.
Her fingers hovered above the pack.
I bet it's the death card.
“You shouldn't wish for that not with what's already in front of you.”
Her words cut the air.
“Here, tonight, in this place it may very well mean actual death.”
She placed the last card down.
A roaring lion with symbols of 8 cascading around it some looked like the infinity symbol endlessly looping.
“Justice. Strength. The power of the Sun. Courage and self control is the key.”
I listened despite my cynicism.
I was feeling nauseous. I felt like I was in a swamp. There was an underlying stench of something fetid and decaying. The humidity permeated the atmosphere like a presence. Man, that beer was going to taste bloody good.
“I wish you well in your journey.” There was sincerity in her tone.
I stood up. I felt dizzy. My legs wobbled. I threw some notes on the table.
She took my arm and led me to the back of her tent.
The night air was full of the aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cardamom. There were undertones of sandalwood, frankincense in the smoky tinged air. It reminded me of the bazaars of Marrakesh or Cairo. This must be a separate section to where we had been, I glanced around trying to orientate where I was. Behind me there was a wall, a very high wall.
I placed my hands on it, solid, cold stone. I turned; people jostling as they passed me, some in long swishing robes. There were copper urns and elegant bronze jars, oriental fabrics hung from the stalls, ornate silver mirrors and Moorish lattice lanterns swayed in the breeze.
The blow hit me on the back of the head; my last thought was that this was not Summer Hill.
I woke up on a hard floor, staring at a wall.
Nine swords were slashed across it.
I blinked before realizing it was only the moonlit shadows from the window bars. I pulled myself to sitting; I felt the back of my head, tender and bruised. I crawled towards the window and stood, the full moon seemed to spear straight into my eyes, the few stars visible, achingly lonely.
I must’ve fallen asleep standing up with my face against the bars because I awoke to the sound of a door opening.
“Oh how the mighty have fallen.”
I looked into a familiar face.
“I told you it would be death to return, and yet here you are.” He walked closer.
“Hello Frances.” The words were out so fast I wasn’t sure where they had come from.
“Why?” His face lashed into silvery silvers by the moon momentarily made him unknowable.
“There was no choice.”
“I find that hard to believe. Regardless of your reasons the outcome is the same. You will die.”
He smiled, turned and walked out.
I leaned against the wall, eventually sliding down to a sitting position.
Wake up, she had said, is that all I needed to do?
Waking up was surfacing through cramps and pain; it was like negotiating a flooded tunnel full of debris, with a blindfold on. I pushed my way through hoping I wouldn’t run out of breath. When my eyelids finally fluttered open and sunlight hit the optic nerve, the fragments of memories had realigned and coalesced into a twisted and tangled thicket of my past.
My brother paraded me through the streets. Humiliation was no doubt his aim, as he sat proudly astride his black horse, but he had let me bathe and change into something more befitting a prince of this realm.
He had personally tied my wrists together.
“You knew what would happen if you returned from exile.”
I walked head held high, the crowds had gathered I nodded and smiled at those I knew. Their faces were sad, oppressed. A few angry and defiant, they raised their hands as if in unity with me. Francis was a tyrant and he held on purely by force. There would be many that would rally behind me.
The route to the ruined castle that sat on the crest of the hill was circular and long by the time we arrived at the hanging tree. A giant, blackened oak; struck by lightning decades ago, it stood silhouetted against the eastern sky.
A noble woman approached me with a cup of water. She held it for me as I sipped.
Marguerite and I had once shared kisses under a waterfall of wisteria. Her brown eyes were steady as she leant closer.
“Look to the east.”
Francis was watching me.
Staring at him was like looking into a mirror. Identical except for the scars that curved along our cheekbones, his was on his left cheek, mine on my right. A practice sword fight that had turned murderous, a prelude to what would come. After my years of exile I could see how hardened his features had become. There was coldness in his blue eyes, his mouth thinner and crueler, his sneer hinted at brutality.
We were far less identical than before.
As I looked around it seemed that everyone was here, I glanced towards the west, the sun was low, a blazing ball but there was a small shadow that had gathered in the corner, the light was being nibbled away.
Our second moon was shadowing the sun, a very rare event.
Darkness was coming as the totality of this eclipse neared. I had very little time.
Everything is laid out; all you have to do is take it.
Her words cascaded into me like a torrent.
I looked at my people, their eyes staring up at me, above a raven flew, I felt the air from its wings tousle my hair, it cawed before landing in the oak. I turned and stared at its blackness on the blackened branch, I caught a glint of silver like a sly wink.
Francis walked towards me. “Time to die.”
“Untie me. With all these guards, what is you expect me to do? Are you that afraid?”
He beckoned and a guard cut the rope. I rubbed my wrists and stretched my fingers. I knew what his plan was, string me up by my legs, so I hung upside down and knowing Francis, he wouldn’t wait for my slow demise he would cut my throat, disembowel me even. Using the darkened sun as a portent of his potency, his divine right.
Or I could possibly, change that outcome.
I turned and sprinted the last few feet to the tree and caught the lowest branch and hauled myself up, climbed higher and reached for that glint of silver.
I held it high, it caught the last rays of the sun and shone for a moment. I gazed into the eyes of Raven and uttered those words I had not ever expected to say again.
The cloud of black ravens that winged towards us, another manifestation of the darkness. The clang of swords rang in this non-night. It seemed that everyone had come armed and rebellious, the ravens adding their beak and talon to the fray.
By the time the second moon had slid away from the sun’s face, an eerie sunset was slashing the sky like a wound. Behind me our main moon had cleared the horizon and I was washed in its silver hues.
Frances was on the ground, blood dripped from his pallid face, my sword tip at his throat, Raven on his chest.
“One of us will hang tonight.” I said. “But not me.”
She sat in the darkened tent; a moth fluttered above her and fell, landing on the table. “I’ve been expecting you.” She said, warm affection in her voice.
She turned the card over and caressed it.
A man hanging from a tree, his face twisted in scorn, pain, the scar on his left cheek livid. On the blackened branch a raven perched, ready for flight.
“One of you had to return.” She whispered as she placed the card back into the pack and shuffled them in preparation for her next customer.