WARRIOR, FALLING AWAKE
A Short Tale by David Memmott
He'd been falling for a long time. The last he remembered before falling were cries of battle as he charged on horseback, sword drawn, being felled from his horse by a blow to his head. No ground stopped his fall. He just kept falling.
His falling must end sooner or later, he thought. Eventually he must find some ground.
Until then, there was nothing to do while falling except learn to fall with some style. If he couldn't control the fact of falling, perhaps he could at least control how he fell. So he learned to barrel-roll, clutching his shield close to his armored body and extending his right hand. He learned to reverse the roll by switching the shield to his right hand and extending the left. He learned to use the shield, his body and the force of the wind to fall faster or slower, to dive feet first, head first, looking up, looking down, stretched out, spread-eagled, knees tucked in to roll forward, arcing his spine to roll backwards. He somersaulted, looped and spun. But no matter what he did, no matter how much he learned about falling, he could not stop falling.
Some days he baked in iron helmet and copper breastplate, the sweat sizzling his eyes; some days he nearly froze.
Then out of the void a star appeared, winking in the distance, growing as he fell. Maybe he was falling into the sun, he thought. He would burn up long before he reached the surface. But it was not the sun. It was a Firebird diving after him until perfectly matching his speed, rush of wind stripping luminous feathers from its streamlined body.
When he barrel-rolled, the Firebird barrel-rolled with him. When he somersaulted, the Firebird somersaulted. When he spread his arms, the Firebird spread its wings. It mirrored his every move, accomplished his every feat of falling with exalted ease. They waltzed together like this through the vacuum of space.
For the first time, the warrior felt what it must be like to fly.
"Am I flying?" he asked.
"No, you are falling," the Firebird answered.
"Are you falling?" he asked.
"No, I'm flying."
The Firebird maneuvered closer, hovered above him, grasping his shoulders, sharp talons scratching his body armor before catching a seam. The Firebird beat its wings, trying to stop the falling.
"Are we flying now?" the warrior asked.
"No, now we're both falling," the Firebird said.
Instead of the Firebird gaining altitude, now they plummeted.
"You are too heavy," the Firebird explained.
The Firebird beat its wings furiously, but still they fell. "Drop your shield. It's weighing us down."
"But it's part of me," the warrior objected. "I won it in battle. No sword can penetrate it. Without my shield, I am vulnerable."
"If you don't get rid of it, I will let you fall," the Firebird replied.
The man thought as he fell. He was not so much afraid of falling. He'd been falling for a very long time. But he realized how lonely he'd been and did not want to fall alone any longer. So he bit his lip, closed his eyes and hurled the shield like a discus across the dark sky where it turned into a silver moon.
The Firebird beat its wings more furiously and they fell more slowly. But still they fell.
"Throw away your sword," the Firebird instructed him.
"Not my golden sword!" the man cried. "I won it in battle. It can penetrate any shield. Without it, I am powerless."
"If you don't get rid of it, you'll end up nothing more than a stain and I'm not going down with you."
The man thought. He was not so much afraid of being nothing more than a stain. Many powerful warriors he'd faced in battle were nothing more than stains. Yet hearing the Firebird's voice made his falling more bearable, so he let out a warhoop and slung the sword with all his might. It struck the silver moon like a bolt of lightning, splintering the moon's core into golden rays which lit up the dark sky around them.
The Firebird beat its wings even more furiously, huffing and snorting with effort, and they fell more slowly. But still they fell.
"Throw away your helmet," the Firebird demanded.
"No, no, not my iron helmet," the man pleaded. "It's a magic helmet. Without it I cannot think."
"Do you have any other bright ideas?" the Firebird puffed. They looked down and saw a vast plateau of glittering clouds rushing up to greet them.
The man thought and thought, slapped himself with open hand alongside his headpiece and thought some more. He chewed his lip until it bled. But no bright ideas came. So he removed the iron helmet and released it. The helmet rolled with thunder, ripping a hole in the clouds. They plunged through after it and saw the earth below, a line of light breaking over its surface like a wave.
The Firebird beat its wings even more furiously than before, each ragged breath escaping in short, exhausted bursts as they fell more slowly. But still they fell.
"Throw away your breastplate," the Firebird said as a last resort. "Let it go. I promise to set you down easy."
The man appealed to the Firebird, "I can't. Not my breastplate. It is grafted to my heart. As long as I wear it I have the heart of a warrior. Without it, I'll have no will to serve my king."
"Then chant your deathchant, brave warrior. I must release you.You have chosen your fate."
Without his helmet, the man feared he would not be able to think, but his thoughts were clearer than ever. Was he nothing more than armor? Who was he now that he wasn't before he'd won all these prizes? Did he have less a heart before he'd cut out his enemy's? He imagined himself the nameless boy standing on the side of the road trembling with fear as the Romans marched through his village. He tugged nervously at his black beard, watching the earth rise. He slipped out of the breastplate and heaved it into the horizon where it struck the rolling earth with a flash.
The Firebird beat its wings and they fell more slowly.
The man looked down on a great city with massive temples, thousands of torches flickering in their windows, streams of living light flowing through shadowlands. Soon a deafening din washed over him and he covered his ears with his hands.
The Firebird spiraled down with the warrior dangling in his grip.
Once the warrior's feet touched the earth, the Firebird released him. The man dropped to his hands and knees and kissed the ground. He sang his victory song in the shadow of a towering stone. The Firebird took off again, tumbling in a near collision with a roaring glaring bird, but recovering to shoot upward into the clouds.
The warrior looked around. This was not his world. Where were the green meadows? the snow-capped mountains? the clear, running streams? The Firebird must have mistakenly dropped him into Hell.
Strange armored beasts slumbered between yellow lines on hot stone. He tiptoed around, not wanting to wake them when an awful noise startled him. Servants of the Underworld, he feared, coming to seize him. He reached for his golden sword, hand slapping an empty scabbard. He stood defenseless.
They looked like giant termites in their body armor skittering over baked desert floor searching for food as they emerged from the tunnel. "This way. It came down over here." Their captain advanced, eyes squinting in cold light. Though the warrior had faced many heroes in battle, he'd never seen such eyes as this, so vacant, so totally dead in something alive. These eyes never served a king.
The man removed the sacred scabbard imbedded with shimmering jewels. He tossed it at the feet of the termite captain. The captain squatted, sniffed at it, poked at the jewels with his knife. Then nodding at the nearly-naked and defenseless man, he held up the scabbard to the cold light. His black army hooted and howled. The jewels reflected eerily in their glassy eyes.
They could kill him easily. The man wanted to run, but held his ground.
The captain unslung a tattered cloth bag from his shoulder and tossed it at the warrior's feet as if giving something in return, then retreated holding high the scabbard. The others followed, shrinking back into the shadows.
Now the man had nothing left but his life and a sack of moldy bread.
When the sun rose, he stood alone on the floor of a stone canyon cluttered with broken glass and litter, the smell of garbage and rotting meat welling up out of cracks, lingering in the heat of day. Perhaps once there'd been something alive under all this stone, he thought. But what could survive here that didn't see the world through those termite eyes?
As the sun climbed overhead, he felt like a tortoise without a shell, hiding in the shadows to escape the heat, to avoid becoming prey to whatever had killed this world. And what would he become? He'd rather still be falling.
He made his way wearily up a ramp and stood at the edge of a busy thoroughfare. The creatures that slept on the stone ground were everywhere awake, sunlight glaring off their exoskeletons. The man had no armor; he was no longer a warrior. He'd lost everything of value, perhaps even his soul. With nowhere to go, he sat down, watching the scintillating beetles speed by, back and forth. They did not see him, or simply didn't care.
Everything was a blur. He did not know north or south or east or west. He could not feel the earth. Even the sound of water rushed muted under stone, locked away in some dark world below.
He glanced up. The sky was a toxic yellow haze roiled by monster birds unlike anything he'd ever seen in all his travels to strange lands.
When he looked down again he saw a ragged dog trying to cross the road.The animal's ribs stuck out; its fur was matted and tangled with burrs. It was trapped between unbroken ranks of charging beasts and did not know which way to turn. Suddenly, without taking his eyes off the dog, the warrior stepped boldly onto the hot roadbed. The sun-sparked beetles screeched and wailed but did not assault him. He squatted down and lifted the feeble dog into his arms, carrying it to the edge of the road. Unslinging the bag of bread, he picked off the mold and fed the animal. The dog licked his face in gratitude.
The warrior then noticed something floating down and held out his open palm to catch it. A Firebird feather landed on his hand, a pulsing, fading ember. A hot gust of wind blew it away. He chased after it. The feather landed on the thoroughfare and transformed into a white winged horse. The glaring, blaring creatures crashed into each other trying to stop. The horse stood unmolested in the middle of the pileup, surrounded by a soft nimbus, stamping the ground impatiently.
Cradling the old dog in his arms, its gray muzzle against his cheek, the warrior approached the horse. It watched him with fierce eyes, but did not move. He lay the dog across the horse's back, grasped the long white mane and mounted. The horse whinnied and reared back, but he held on.
The sky was suddenly clear and blue as they took to the air.
This time, he would not fall off.
from the story collection, Shadow Bones