The Eighteenth Brumaire of Peter Sclemihl by Marc Nash
Tidal Flow by J S Watts
Now is once upon a time. Then was now. Time once was then and will be again.
The priest is listening to the waves hissing at the edges of the beach and to the air hissing from the lungs of the dying soldier laid out at his feet. He is certain he is dying. British spears have pierced his flesh and British magic is coursing through the streams of his blood. The time left to him is ebbing with the tide, but in the meantime the steady retreat of life is leaving truth in its wake.
“Tell me what you see. What is it in the air?”
The dark haired man struggles, but then the words start lapping at his throat,
“Eagle. It’s an eagle. Big. Proud as the Ninth. The air is his. But something else. Red wings. Serpent tail. A dragon. A dragon is challenging the eagle. They are fighting. Beak and teeth and claws. Now there is fire, dragon fire and the eagle is falling in flames and there is blood. Flowing in the streets. Women and children slaughtered. Blood and flames and the screams of the dying. So many dying….. All dead now.”
He stops, but the bubbling of his lungs indicates that he is not with the dead. Not yet. The priest wants more. The slaughter he knows about, even if the soldier didn’t. Three of the intruders’ citadels have already fallen in blood and flames. The people were the dragon and the dragon was victorious. What he needs to know is what comes next.
“Tell me what you see now. What happens once the eagle falls and the killing is over?”
Silence. He checks the soldier’s breathing. He is alive. Just. He pours more liquid between the man’s lips.
“Tell me. What is happening now?”
The breathing quickens, but is growing shallow.
“The dragon rises glorious. He shines in the sky. Bright, so bright, but the eagle is rising again. His hurts are healing, feathers regrown. Circling. Circling the dragon, holding to his blind side. Now falling like a rock. Dropping down the sky onto the dragon, his claws blinding. They are both falling. The dragon hits the ground first. Blood flooding the earth where men lie dying, hacked and torn and bleeding. The eagle kills. The dragon is ended.”
The priest has heard enough. If the dragon is going to perish then he, for one, will make sure that he kills as many of the eagle’s followers as he can in the time remaining to him. His knife is already against the throat of the dying man.
“Now, the eagle…,” the knife pauses, “rides the dragon’s carcass, seeping into it. Both melting. Soaking into the ground together. Then red shoots rising. Dragons in eagle feathers, eagles with the scales of a dragon, flocking, filling the air. So many, so…”
Whatever the soldier was going to say dies with him as the priest’s knife slices into the man’s neck and the blood flows. The dragon isn’t dead yet.
A cave on the sea shore. A man, a wise man and an adviser to kings; a man who would deny the magic of the old priests as a little herb lore and too much superstition, but who will be known, after his death, as the greatest magician the islands have birthed, is listening to the waves as the tide is coming in. He will be safe and dry enough in the cave, but he will be cut off for a few hours; time enough to escape the demands of the King’s hall and to think things through, but focussed thinking eludes him. His mind is tired and needs sleep. He indulges it and shuts his eyes. Pictures play across the inside of his eyelids. Dragons: one red and one white; deep in the earth under a citadel, high in the sky, fighting. Always fighting and the white dragon seeming to be winning until one destroys the other: the red dragon victorious. The white disappears into the dark of the sea and is forgotten until the red plunges into the water and the sea is bright with red and white striped fish: swimming, splashing, leaping. The nets of time will be full.
He wakes or, if he wasn’t fully asleep, he opens his eyes. The red dragon victorious is the message he will take back with him. It is what the people and his King need to hear. The fish are for the future.
A sea shore on a south easterly coast. An old woman known equally for her herb lore and her good crab stew is searching the rock pools for her dinner. She is careful because she knows that more than sea creatures may be found along the sea line. The sea serves as a border for the King and his high men, but it is a boundary for other things too; a place where land, sea and sky meet in constant flux and none holds sway. Where borders are uncertain it is easy for things to pass through; sometimes unnoticed, sometimes not. Sometimes welcome; sometimes not.
She has seen the signs in the pools and knows that a new king is coming and blood flows in his wake. He will come from the sea, while the now king waits for him on the soil, only to receive his fatal message unlooked for from the sky. One king dies and another takes the throne and the land and the rights of the people, but in the end the people will prevail; they always do. The foreign king will install his own high men and strengthen his frontiers, never knowing that the boundaries of the people are as fluid as the sea. It will take generations, but eventually there will be generations in which the land and the sea are inseparable, past borders forgotten. The wind has whispered its truth in her ears, but it is a truth for the future. Just now she is resigned to the fact that you can’t hold back the tide and she needs to find her crab before the rains come and mix the sea with the sky still further.
Fast-forward with the technology of later centuries. Tides have come and gone. Waves roll in. A vast city squats on the sides of a meandering river. Its roots deep down are in the soil and ashes of a citadel that has felt the heat of the flames: again and again. You cannot hear the sea from here, but the river eventually crawls into an estuary and mixes its waters with the ocean’s and the ocean’s tides lap back up to the edges of the city stones. It could be any time or no time, but it is always this time.
Those calling themselves prophets have, yet again, predicted rivers of blood, but this time their sanguinary nightmares have proved false. Less intelligent men continue to preach the old lie of maintaining the purity of the blood lines, a return to the days of the white dragon; forgetting that in its time it was not the ultimate victor and that in our time our souls are mottled red and white and many other colours besides, our boundaries blurred and opened to uncertainty and opportunity by the constant hissing of the waves.
You are waiting for an end to this story: A climax. We are instructed from childhood that all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end; a protagonist, a dilemma and a resolution, but I beg to differ. Borders shift, blood pools, the tides ebb and flow and anyway, it all depends on where you choose to start and what you decide is the end. Any absolute beginning or ending that might have been, or may yet be, are so very far away as to be incomprehensible and who is to say that stories must have straight lines? Water droplets pull themselves spherical, regardless.
Today I am listening to the river water with its tang of salt lapping against the edges that contain its flow; the edges as they are currently. Dragons dance on the edges of imagination, but maybe that was all they ever did. It is a good day. The air is mild. I have prepared fresh crab for supper. Dark hair, light eyes and pale brown skin reflect brightly in a nearby mirror, themselves reflections of a nation of once upon a times. Now is once upon a time. Then is now and what was once then is with us still.