Chapter 15: Beyond the Eastern Gate
Colin gazed at the eastern gate of Gilead as they approached, the massive wooden doors towered fifteen feet high and opened to the residential streets beyond. He saw dulled and dirtied copper fittings fastened across their faces. Ornate gold-leafed carvings on inset panels of the door, that once could have gleamed, were sullied by the graffiti of vandals. As they drew closer Colin eyed the crumbling faces of two huge stone lions that lay on either side of the gate. Cracked and broken, their backs seemed to almost sag by the weight of the rotting barrels, crates, and waste piled on them.
Colin tightened his grip on Balaam’s mane as they approached.
“Easy boy, you’re about to see things you wish you hadn’t. Don’t be intimidated and don’t catch their eyes for too long,” Balaam whispered.
As Balaam walked under the raised metal grill of the great portcullis, two guards leaned on their spears and studied them with cold, cruel gazes.
Colin and Balaam moved forward into the shadowy street. Torchlight illuminated the hustle and bustle of drunks, some retching in the alleys, others laughing in a stupor. Colin and Balaam moved like whispers past a side street where Colin spotted two men beating on a wailing woman in the middle of the road. The men paused as they spotted the pair.
“We have to do something,” Colin whispered to Balaam.
“We’re not here for that boy! Be silent!” Balaam whispered back and quickly trotted past them.
The two made their way past leaning, storied homes with pink, blue, and orange lanterns hanging from their eaves. Colin could hear moaning, laughing, and cries coming from the ramshackle homes on either side of the street. Women and men, many covered in dark tattoos and rigid piercings, stood in the doorways.
“Ah, new flesh! Come taste our love!” a woman cried towards them.
“Nah, you’re not that kind of man are ya?” a man in a silk camisole called towards Colin as he passed. “Let me show you feelings you never knew you had,” he offered, lips pursed towards Colin.
Colin looked down, disgusted.
“Keep off my coin, you whore’s son!” the woman screamed at her competition.
“Filthy wench!” the camisoled man screamed back and tackled her as Colin and Balaam quickly moved forward.
Balaam turned down a side alley past an abandoned temple. Colin paused to glance past the crumbling stone pillars at its entrance to a doorway, barely lit by torchlight. Within he spied long copper poles, all of them made in the shape of a naked woman with wings.
Colin pulled on Balaam’s mane. “This is one of your holy places?”
“Hardly,” Balaam said, “It’s been littered with Asherah poles, the Amorites’ tribute to the dark one. Nothing holy remains there.”
“The dark one? The one your Maker defeated?”
“If you believe the stories, yes.” Balaam snorted. “Most do not.”
“Who is he? This dark one?” Colin asked as he watched the shadows run across their inhuman figures, a chill ran across his neck.
“He has no name, but he’s timeless. The Logos says once he was a being of light, but became the first falling star, and has been compelling others to fall away since the beginning,” the donkey said as he moved them past a ruined metal gate hanging open, into the great cemetery. “Chained to his black throne, he sits at the edge of the void and casts a shadow over the Maker’s creation.”
“And this Dagon serves him?”
“Those who serve their own purpose do, whether they realize it or not,” Balaam said as they climbed a small knoll surrounded by gravestones.
Balaam paused to catch his breath, and Colin felt the chill in the air as he watched the wisps of steam rise from the donkey’s muzzle.
“This place feels off,” he said.
“Aye, you’re not the first to think so. The cemetery is the oldest part of the city, and one most people avoid. But this path will lead us past prying eyes in the market square to the castle courtyard, so I guess it has some use.”
A six-foot high cobblestone wall surrounded the area, and Colin wondered if it was in place to keep the living out or the dead in.
Balaam shook the chill from his mane, “It’s best if we keep moving.”
As they scurried forward past several graves Colin saw firelight flicker next to one of the crypts. Men, covered in strange markings danced about the fire. The crypt’s doors opened and one man came forward.
“Brothers, there’s one here that’s fresh and still a virgin!” he called to them and beckoned.
“They’re not going to--” Colin started, horrified.
“I told you there are things here better left unseen.” Balaam shook his head and quickly took them up a lane.
“How could Alex make her life in such filth?”
“Gilead was not always so. It was once a bastion of light. Now, the people are seduced by their basest natures, and have forgotten themselves, forgotten their true names.”
“Names? What is it with you people and names?” Colin asked.
“A name has power, boy. It speaks of who you are and what you’re capable of. All living things have a true name given to them at the beginning, but the world makes us forget.” They walked forward in silence for several minutes. Even the grave robbers had left this area of the cemetery undisturbed.
A shadow passed ahead of them, jumping from a large tomb and darting around a corner.
“Did you see that?” Colin asked Balaam.
“Hush. There are worse things than Amorites in the night.”
As they walked closer to the tombs, Colin felt the same cold presence as he’d felt back in his mother’s room. Somewhere close, something was watching them. Colin saw Balaam’s ear prick up and without a word, the donkey quickened his pace. They followed the path until they came to a locked gate, leading to the temple district.
“This should be open,” Balaam said. “Something isn’t right.”
Colin could feel the hairs on his neck stand as he slowly turned to see three sets of glowing yellow eyes move toward them from the shadows. The creatures were taller than men, their cloaks covered their figures, their necks seemed long, and their eyes the same yellow slits Colin had come to fear. Their clawed hands reached out and their hoods dropped from their heads. With horror Colin realized their torsos were scaled and where legs should be, was a long slithering tail. He saw a demon. Half man, half serpent.
They hissed in unison as they closed in.
“The shadows have become flesh!” Balaam snorted and backed up against the locked gate.
“No, no!” Colin shook his head. His heart raced and, at that moment, he saw every beating he had ever taken, every face that had ever caused him to cower, and his fists clenched. A single word flashed in his mind, one he did not know but was compelled to speak. With a swift kick to Balaam’s side, he screamed, “Animus!” His voice echoed throughout the graveyard.
Balaam’s eyes narrowed. He reared and charged towards the creatures.
Alexandra moved past the crowds unobserved, noticing that once bright smiles were replaced with dull looks and paranoid glances. What happened to you? she wondered as she gazed around at the people. Like a mouse, she scurried from shadow to shadow and kept her head down as she walked along the King’s Way, the central road that led through the heart of Gilead, across the main bazaar, and eventually to the castle. As she moved silently past the guards without their notice and made her way into the main market area, she came to a small shack, nestled between two boarded-up shops. She hopped a small worn fence and knocked on the front door, the sound no louder than a footstep.
A quiet voice responded from within, “Go away, we have no money.”
“Helen, it’s I, Alexandra, please, I have need of you,” she whispered.
“My lady?” Helen slowly opened the door. Alexandra’s face fell as she saw her closest handmaiden and friend, gaunt and haggard, wearing simple rags, barely stitched together.
“Helen! What’s happened?” she said embracing her friend.
“I would ask the same of you,” Helen replied. “We were told you’d abandoned the kingdom, gone to live as a nomad.”
Alexandra shook her head, “I would never. I could never. My heart lies here. How has a year’s time brought you to this?”
“We make do,” Helen beckoned her in and closed the door. “We scrimp and save, but the queen has instituted a city watch and their taxes are high,” she turned to straighten a few meager blankets on a cot. “I hear they protect us from the rabble, but their manner is cruel.”
“Your husband was a soldier in the king’s army, Helen! How could such a ridiculous tariff be brought against you?”
Helen looked away. “M’lady, I thought you knew.”
Alexandra shook her head.
“Avery was demoted from his station. The queen saw him stripped of rank when he refused to enforce her ordinance for burning the old annals and histories.” Helen moved to a humble table and set a few dishes aside, avoiding the princess’s gaze.
“Burning the books? In the libraries?” Alexandra asked.
“Not all, just the ones that give mention to the Maker and his works.” Helen sighed. “I suppose it was a stupid thing to fall low for.”
Alexandra took Helen by the arms. “No. No, it wasn’t. Stay true to his decision. You’re his compass.”
“I know,” Helen said and nodded. “Now he’s a lamplighter. He has friends still in the guard, and it’s their quiet generosity that keeps bread on our table.”
“This wrong will be righted. There is treachery in the Hall of the Lion and I think Samuel the soothsayer has words that will open the king’s eyes to it.” Alexandra held the sealed letter up.
“M’lady, didn’t you hear? Your father’s deathly ill has been for some time now. Queen Mariselle tends him day and night.”
Alexandra shivered. She knew beyond a doubt her stepmother’s hands were wrapped around her father’s throat. “What illness?”
“Hard to say. Little word comes from the castle these days. But we haven’t seen the king’s face for several months. Rumor is he’s not long for this world.”
“Helen, can Avery get me inside the castle? I’ve heard word of a jailor who might sneak me to my father’s bedchamber.”
“Well I suppose, yes, but why? You’re the heir apparent, you could go straight there.”
“No, there is no welcoming for me. Trust me on this, Helen. The queen would see me dead long before I reached the upper hallways of the castle.”
“Then I’ll take you to the market stands. Avery will be there with his wick about this time. He’s always given access to the castle courtyard and could at least get you that far,” Helen said and grabbed her shawl.