The shackles cut into his tanned skin, drawing a small amount of blood from his trembling wrists. Every step he took down the dim passageway caused the unforgiving iron to cut a little deeper and a fresh dagger of pain to stab up his arms. It was not cruelty, though, which had forced the guard to lock the metal so tightly against the old man’s loose skin; it was fear. The man’s palms had to be kept apart; he could not be allowed to bring his hands together.
The manacles were specially designed to hold the captive’s hands back to back, and were tightened firmly around the wrist to stop the wearer from twisting their hands round. The guard who had chained the man was young and his childhood had been laced with stories about the fate of the hapless men who treated creatures such as this old man without the respect they deserved. So, as the guard had bolted the metal loops around the man’s wrists, he had twisted the lock a couple of extra turns.
Even the young guard’s Captain, who possessed the pragmatic mind of an experienced soldier and usually met everything before him with unerring and undaunted eyes, looked on with slight apprehension as the man’s bonds were tightened. This was the moment in History, the defining moment in Man’s development, and nothing could be allowed to go wrong.
The three of them, one captor either side of their captive, carried on their slow walk along the corridor, two of them marching with slight flamboyance as the third shuffled and stumbled between them. There were no windows along the walkway, but an orange pink glow emanated from periodic torches that were fastened to the walls by ornate metal clamps. Between every flickering flame hung a heavy tapestry that depicted, in rich reds, blues and gold, scenes of extravagant beauty. Even down here, in the bowels of the castle’s dungeon, no expense had been spared on the decoration. It was the penultimate insult to their captives, a belligerent flaunting of their wealth and status before the ultimate extinguishing of their being.
As the three men silently trudged on, though, the old prisoner did not once lift his eyes to the fine art. He did not avert his eyes either. To him there was nothing worth looking at on the walls. He did not avoid admiring the great tapestries or delicate metal work; he simply didn’t notice them.
At the end of the corridor was an arched doorway onto a long spiral staircase. The steps started out as plain, broad flagstones but at some undetected point they morphed into marble slabs inlaid with swirling blue stones. Each step looked like it was hewn out of ice, veined with deep blue cracks. Eventually the staircase halted and, by way of a series of tiny square rooms, suddenly opened out into another corridor that put the dungeons dimly lit passageway to shame.
The white marble floor continued but was now flanked by two towering walls clothed in intricate arabesque. The ceiling pitched and gathered in a series of marquee-like turrets that each housed a circular skylight at their middle. These round portals created thick columns of light that appeared to support the whole structure and were so intense that a visitor’s natural urge would be to walk round them as if they were made of stone.
The guards ushered their charge a little faster but the old man’s only response was to twitch slightly as he stepped through the first bight golden column. The rays warmed his hunched naked back and he tried to slow his loping stride a little so he could enjoy the sensation for as long as possible.
From somewhere ahead, the murmur of a crowd bustled passed them and the two guards stiffened their shoulders into their official posture. The old man bobbed into another gleaming shaft of light, his knees appearing to flex a little more as he became immersed in the sun’s cascade.
At the end of the corridor, to which the three men were fast approaching, was an archway that echoed the pointed shape of the ceiling and beyond that a doorway. The two heavy oak doors were open, allowing more light to poor into the corridor, along with the increasing clamour of people. As the old man stepped through another golden column his back straightened a little and his biceps tensed as he lifted his arms out in front of him. The guards appeared not to notice though as they approached the arch, their minds were on the thousands of eyes that were soon to be staring at them. The thousands of people looking at their gleaming armour and marvelling at their prestigious duty.
As the old man passed through the final column of light he was walking with no stoop at all and had his arms fully stretched out in front of him. The two guard’s faces had taken on a glazed expression as they stepped through the arch and beyond the oak doors.
Outside the crowd was buzzing. There was a small band of drummers at the edge of the courtyard, hammering out an ominous beat and the whole crowd seemed to ebb and flow in time with their rhythm. A small path led between the milling people, from the big oak doors of the castle to the pyre in the middle of the courtyard. On the far side, away from the big doors, were a myriad of stalls selling everything from spices to throw on the burning flames to sugared berries of the children. No one bit of the courtyard was still for longer than a second as the people swarmed around the unlit bonfire like ants erupting from a disturbed nest.
Suddenly though, as if a silent trumpet had sounded, the crowd went quiet and everyone stood still. The two guards, one rosy cheeked with pride, stepped out into the blooming sun and started to march between the oceans of people. A step behind, and seemingly forgotten by his captors, strode the old man. His gate was steady and his head held high. As the sun pressed its nourishing warmth onto his face he let out a broad smile.
The crowd watched in silence. Even as the panic swept through every man, woman and child in the audience, not one of them spoke a word. They had all known they were powerful, these men who lurked in the forests shadows. That was why they had to remove them, because their power was as unknowable as their true purpose, but not one of those staring, white faced spectators could have imagined what was about to happen.
It took no more than a few seconds. From the moment the old man, whose body now seemed to ripple with muscles rather than sag from his bones, twisted his wrists in one violent thrust, a deep purple light grew from between his hands. As blood poured from the man’s wrists, so did light pour into that growing orb. Tiny strikes of forked lighting clawed at the inside of the orb, forcing it to expand faster and faster with every hit. The wind started to dance around the courtyard like a circling cat around a stricken mouse.
The purple ball of dancing light reached to the man’s shoulders before it finally happened. Like a lone forgotten balloon, it popped. The crowd didn’t see it though, before their minds could comprehend what had happened, the light had burnt their bodies to dust. The old man collapsed onto his knees as the courtyard, the castle and all who lived there charred into black lumps. He was once more an old man, his body nothing more than that of a man near death. He raised his head slowly, his squinted eyes burning as he surveyed the black remains of the world. There was nothing left. His eyes closed slowly and his frail old body collapsed to the floor.