Aphelion Issue 296, Volume 28
July 2024 --
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Locks of Lodern

by Logan Swartz




THE MAN lay adrift in the darkness of his cell, his limbs splayed across the cold stone floor. Clad in threadbare rags, thanks to the relentless gnawing of rats, his skin was pallid and prune, having long forgotten the gentle embrace of the Warmth. Beneath lifeless eyes, dried tears traced hopelessly down his cheeks, to and through a scraggly red mess of a beard.

The man extended his sickly arm toward the iron bars beside him, the raspy cadence of his breath blending with the oppressive stillness of his confinement as he shifted his achy bones. A texture of cold rust filled his empty mind as his index finger traced the nearest bar, a futile attempt to grasp onto any semblance of reality, any semblance of place.

Repas!" shouted a voice from the abyss, sharp and sudden. “Back from the bars!”

The sound of shifting rotten cloth and iron chains scraping against stone followed as other men in other cells retreated to deeper shadows, away from the hall. Yet, even mealtime failed to deter the man; his finger persisted in tracing up and down the rod.

“I said back, if you intend to eat this morning,” muttered the voice, now above him.

It was a young and wiry guard, towering over him with an awkward stance, his oversized helmet slightly askew atop his head. In his hands, he held a bowl of steaming potage stew, his expression a mix of authority and uncertainty.

Morning? the man thought hollowly, ignoring the threat of an empty stomach. Will my mornings always be shrouded in darkness, hidden from the Warmth of the waking world?

The young guard kicked the iron bars, sending a splash of stew leaping from the bowl as he jerked his hips. Fatty-brown droplets sprayed through the air, transforming his uncertain expression into one of anger as the steaming contents pelted the signature green cloth of his uniform.

"Heh, better yet, how about I spill this over your—"

A hand, firm and unyielding, intercepted the impetuous gesture of the young guard.

"Calme-toi, Bracham" intoned the hand's owner, emerging from the shadows with a feeble-lit lantern. In its dim glow, he loomed—a figure of imposing stature, the strap of his helmet securing a jaw exuding authority, a stark contrast to his junior’s gauche demeanor

"Apologies," Bracham sighed to his senior with a hint of frustration. "This one refuses to cooperate." His hand trembled as he held the bowl of gruel aloft the man’s head, his voice tinged with palpable exasperation.

…At least I'll escape the morning unscorched.

Strong-jaw shifted his steely gaze from his Bracham’s agitated eyes to the man, a prone form on the ground below. “Nennil, it matters not. This one gets no meal.”

"And why's that?"

Strong-jaw lowered himself, the creaking of his aging knees echoing in the dim chamber. As he descended, the lantern's feeble light swayed, casting elongated shadows across the cold stone floor. Kneeling beside the prone figure, he extended the lantern, its flickering glow illuminating the man's face through the bars.

"The orders of the Diacre were simple," Strong-jaw explained, his voice carrying the weight of a solemn responsibility. "Retrieve another from the depths. Bring him to the altar of the Chapleur—this time, the one called Lodern.”

…Lodern?

He sighed with a tinge of resignation: “I almost feel sorry for him.”

******

THE TWO, guiding Lodern through the dark corridors, pressed onward. Strong-jaw bore the weight with one arm, his sturdy frame propelling them forward, while Bracham struggled to keep pace, occasionally faltering in the flickering light of his senior’s lamp.

Lodern... The name had reverberated in the man’s empty mind since they had left his cell, stirring something long forgotten. Yes, he thought. I am Lodern with the red locks.

Finally, Lodern was led out of the dungeon, through a dimly lit barrack, and into the open air of a fenced-in garrison. It was the first time in an eternity he had felt the breeze on his skin, seen the vast expanse above him, and, in the distance, through the slits between the brass balusters, a great wall encircling the surrounding landscape, the Girdle. The Girdle of the realm of Kendravan.

Yet, Lodern couldn't feel the Warmth he expected. The radiance behind the clouds had since vanished, replaced by cold, grey skies that stretched endlessly and over the distant city. The air was biting.

Where is It? Lodern pondered, noting the absence of incandescence in the air . It’s morning, is it not?

The Bracham’s gaze traced a winding path leading through a gate and to a distant hilltop, where the Chapleur, a cathedral of white stone adorned with gold, rose against the grey. Surrounded by sparse woods, the cathedral stood solitary, its gnarled branches reaching where the Warmth once was. Amidst occasional clearings, empty wooden outposts and banners of green and red scattered across the hill.

"Can we make this quick?" Bracham’s voice trembled, burdened by Lodern's weight and the chill that pervaded the air.

Strong-jaw ignored his junior’s discontent and continued to trudge on. With each step forward in his black leather boots, he remained resolute, knowing full well the fate that awaited Lodern at the Chapleur. His commitment to duty was unyielding to the weight of the task (and the weight of the man).

Lodern's thoughts danced between fragments of his identity and the absence of the Warmth in the sky as they neared the cathedral. Despite its formidable presence, he remained disconnected, as if the gravity of his impending fate were beyond his grasp.

Why was I condemned to that darkness, to begin with? Lodern asked himself as his eyes, still adjusting to relative brightness, studied the landscape as they ascended the hill—woodlands rolling toward the Girdle in the distance. What purpose do they have for me, Lodern? Perhaps I was cursed since birth… The chill of the air seeped into his bones. Though Kendravan was condemned to darkness too, it seems.

******

THE THREE stood before the Chapleur, looming with golden spires stretching upward like pale jeweled fingers. An unsettling stillness cloaked the grounds, as though the very air held bated breath.

The towering mahogany doors of the Chapleur groaned open, their massive frames looming nearly four meters tall. Etched into their red weathered surface were intricate carvings, their ancient forms seeming to echo the tales of Kendravan long ago.

“Step forth!” came a voice from within. “Step forth, couriers!”

And so they did, Lodern in hand. As they stepped over the threshold, a wave of warmth washed over them, akin to what formerly inhabited the air above.

Within the Chapleur, flickering candlelight danced upon golden mosaics that adorned the stone walls above the stone floor. Among them, deacons and diviners stood tall, their faces weathered by time but their presence undiminished. Bracham’s eyes lingered on one mosaic depicting a nude man kneeling atop a mountain, his outstretched arms seeming to beckon toward the heavens above. The illustration was of the patriarch Zeugan, the First to Witness the Warmth.

Strong-jaw’s gaze remained fixed ahead as he and his junior guided Lodern toward the heart of the Chapleur. An altar adorned with polished marble at the center gleamed softly in the dim light. Gold ornaments adorned the edges of the felt platform and cloths of dark red and green draped gracefully around its base.

“Halt, couriers,” spoke the voice. “As you know, only he may step upon the altar.”

Strong-jaw relinquished his firm grip on Lodern as they stood in the chancel; Bracham followed suit, releasing the man’s weight with a sense of relief as Lodern crumpled to the stone floor.

“Here you are, seigneur,” said Strong-jaw to their unseen host. “Upon your orders.”

“Grace, Herluin. You may both leave now.”

Herluin’s strong jaw dipped as he bowed slightly toward the unseen Diacre and the altar, before making one final glance at Lodern and exiting the Chapleur. A slight grin of accomplishment stretched across Bracham’s face before adjusting his helmet and tagging behind his senior.

Lodern’s face lay cushioned from the stone floor on his red beard, his eyes gazing up from the ground. The final echoes of the two guard’s steps petered out throughout the Chapleur, a final slam from the massive doors closing out any who might interfere.

“Rise, Lodern,” spoke the Diacre after a moment of silence. “You must rise with your own volition.”

The flame-haired man remained unmoved, his spirit weighed down by fatigue and resignation. Can’t you see those two had to carry me here? Lodern's thoughts simmered with irritation at the Diacre's request. In that void, my volition vanished long ago.

Yet, when the soft candles of the Chapleur suddenly quivered and extinguished, leaving the glimmering whites and golds of the walls in hush, something flickered within him. Surrounding Lodern was now a familiar darkness, a familiar cold, and out of the black, an apparition came. The Diacre, seen but unseen.

“Surely, the absence of Its luminance was vexing,” said the Diacre. “Even to you, who endured quite some time in that depth of obscurity.”

Lodern’s weakened eyes pierced the black as he mustered the strength to push his face from the floor, the Diacre’s voice echoing about him in the lightless nave of the Chapleur. But what he pushed against was not stone; it was felt, the same felt platform of the altar. By somevolition, he found himself atop it, face to face with the silhouette of the Diacre.

“Yet, obscurity is not confined solely to those depths, but also encompasses the expanse above, as you played Zeugan what is now outside.”

What I witnessed was not morning, he thought. That I know as much.

“It is from that obscurity we summon you, Lodern,” the Diacre continued. “To restore what once radiated above—our Warmth in Kendravan.”

The air in the Chapleur leveled with the chill outside. The Diacre’s words swirled in the dark like leaves in a tempest, yet still it remained. Lodern, now upright, sank his knees into the fibrous stage beneath him.

“Know this, such occurrences are not novel: eras elapse, leaving the realm snared in frigidity. In every instance, however, there emerge beings of extraordinary potential. Vessels of red, with the capacity to become a Fervelian . Such is you, Lodern.”

Vessel of red? Memories resurfaced within Lodern’s scrutiny. I suppose, I’ve been called worse thanks to these locks.

The Diacre continued, reaching through the darkness.

“Within a Fervelian, within you, lies the essence of the Warmth, compelling you to be the flicker, the flame that ignites upon this altar.” He placed his hand on Lodern’s head, atop his tangly red mane. “This is the decree, as it has been decreed before, and thus it shall be, time and time again.”

An onset of numbness enveloped Lodern as the Diacre’s touch permeated his mind as if penetrating his very skull.

This touch. Upon my head. My… Lodern…

His name, lost but recently found, now dissipated like smoke in the wind. But that wasn't all that was fading. From the strands atop his head to the minuscule tufts on the knuckles of his toes, the red was fleeting. And as it receded, a fiery sensation surged through his skin, rising towards the figure of the Diacre, smoldering.

"From ferveil comes the flame, from the flame comes the fire," intoned the Diacre, enveloped in radiant light. "Pure as we begin, take what we desire.”

Again, light flooded the Chapleur's center, but now the man, flickering, was the candle. The altar regained its luster, casting a radiant glow. The Diacre's hand protruded from the sleeve of a cowled dalmatic, unyielding in its extraction.

Peeling it. Peeling it from me. Thoughts ignited in kind. Morning… Warmth… What I once yearned for.

And the flame rose to its feet. Like a curious child recoiling from a hot cauldron, the Diacre withdrew his hand from the scorching heat. His commanding gaze, once firm in the shadows, now betrayed a flicker of fear as the fire grew before him.

“No, it is not yours to take,” the inferno cracked. “I am no vessel.”

The Diacre recoiled, seating himself on the ground and pressing his heels against the felt top of the altar in an attempt to retreat while shielding his face with a maniple draped over his arm. But the flame surged, a primal scream piercing the air, the man's form contorting in agony as the fire consumed him, casting flickering shadows across the walls. The aureate faces of Chapleur mosaics watched as the Diacre’s imposing figure dwindled until it was only ashes.

As the flames waned, only he remained. Not the Diacre, but Lodern, his locks now a radiant white. He glanced down at himself, once clad in rat-ridden rags, now adorned with obedient embers.

"I am Lodern," he declared, his voice echoing through the empty cathedral. "And this blaze is my own."

******

THE FLAME burst through the stained windows of the Chapleur like the rouse of a stone kiln, its searing heat melting the intricate designs into shimmering pools of molten glass. Ribbons of fire licked at the air, dancing with wild abandon as they cast flickering shadows across the ancient structure’s white walls.

The once solemn cathedral was now engulfed in chaos, the fire roaring like a feral beast unleashed upon the world. The air sizzled with energy, and the heat was so intense that it seemed to warp reality itself, distorting the greyer-and-greyer skies above the Chapleur. Atop the hill, where the morning had once been cold and still, now flared with the fury of the flames.

The enormous mahogany doors of the Chapleur were shaken loose from their hinges by the force of the inferno, crashing to the ground with a thunderous boom! and sending shards of wood flying in all directions. The fire surged forward, its tendrils reaching out hungrily as they devoured the unfortunate trees that sat just beside the building. And amidst the destruction, Lodern came forth, his figure silhouetted against the furnace behind him.

With each step he took, the flames seemed to bend to his will, dancing around him like loyal companions. Lodern stood before the wreckage as remnants of the Chapleur collapsed into smoldering ruins, his chest heaving with exertion, his breath ragged with exhilaration. And as the flames danced around him, casting their warm embrace upon his white hair and bare skin, he slowly turned with a primal fury in his eyes, first toward the distant Girdle, then to the garrison that once condemned him to darkness.

As he descended the hillside, leaving a trail of scorched earth in his wake, memories of his agonizing captivity flashed through his mind, juxtaposed with fleeting recollections of the freedom he once knew—and the freedom he had regained.

In the flickering light of the consuming flames, Lodern's thoughts twisted and turned, weaving through the labyrinth of his past. I couldn’t even muster a beard in my days before dark, he ruminated. How many years have slipped away since the Warmth last graced my skin? Since sustenance bore any semblance of nourishment, and companionship wasn't confined to the scurrying of the shadows?

The weight of his captivity bore down on him like an iron shackle, each memory a link in the chain of his suffering. Yet, among the rancor and longing, a spark of determination flared within him, igniting his resolve with a singular purpose: retribution.

Halfway down the blazing hillside, Lodern's narrowed gaze locked onto Herluin and Bracham at the base. They were trudging back to the barracks, oblivious until the rising heat seared the backs of their necks. With dawning horror, they turned to behold Lodern, once red-haired, now a figure of white-hot vengeance, descending upon them like a wrathful spirit.

Immediately, Herluin dropped the lantern he had been carrying and seized Bracham by the nape, forcibly turning his head towards a distant bell tower looming over the garrison. Though Lodern couldn't discern their shouting amidst the snapping of the flames, the urgency in their voices was palpable, echoing through the havoc of the engulfed surroundings.

As Herluin pushed Bracham forward, the latter's panic became evident as he lost traction in the dirt and stumbled through the garrison’s gate. His movements were marked by desperation and fear, each step a clumsy attempt to flee the encroaching flames.

Meanwhile, Herluin stood his ground, his stance sturdy and resolute. After Bracham made his way through, Herluin closed the entryway, and with an instinctive motion, his hand found the hilt of his blade, drawing the weapon forth in a practiced motion. It was a bastard sword, and its steel gleamed in the flickering light of the approaching inferno, casting a shadow across the gate of the garrison.

As the flames licked closer, Herluin braced himself, his jaw set in determination. The heat intensified, but he remained steadfast, ready to face whatever danger came his way. With Lodern's vengeance fast approaching, there was no time for hesitation.

"Lodern, halt! This is madness! Stand down or face the consequences, you’ve wreaked enough havoc." Herluin's voice echoed through the tumult of the flames, his words tinged with urgency and authority.

But Lodern paid no heed, his mind consumed by the firestorm of vengeance that drove his every step. Consequences?  he fumed bitterly, his gaze fixed on the trembling figure before him. His thoughts, like embers in the wind, surfaced amidst the disorder, igniting a fierce rage within him. With a guttural roar, he unleashed the fury that had smoldered within him for far too long.

"What consequences have I not already suffered?!" he bellowed, his voice thundering above the crackle of flames. "The name of my home, the name of my family—both lost to me! I have already been stripped of all Kendravan has to offer." Each word seared with the intensity of his wrath, echoing through the engulfed surroundings just outside the garrison.

Herluin staggered backward, the force of Lodern's fury washing over him like a relentless tide. But his sword remained forward, and he remained focused on the flame in front of him. “So have we all," he retorted, his voice steady despite the chaos around them. "Not a soul in the Girdle has felt the Warmth in nearly a decade; the children of today only know lifeless skies. And I’m sure you heard that from the Diacre as well, before you burned him to a crisp.”

“I will not serve as kindling to a dying fire!” Lodern replied, something surging in his words.

Herluin, raising his sword fully, dug his feet into the ground. “Then I pray we find a Fervelian in the others.” His words began to trail off. “Heavens know how long we’ve tried…”

Others? The thought blazed across Lodern’s mind with confusion. The Diacre mentioned the sacrifice had been made before, but sifting through his returning memories, the only person he had ever known to have red locks was himself.

Clong! Clong! Clong!

Lodern's thoughts were severed as his mind was filled with the ringing of the distant bell, tolling with an urgency that echoed through the turmoil of the engulfed surroundings. The sound cut through the roaring flames and the burning of timber, commanding attention with its ominous toll.

“What is it you intend to do?” Herluin asked as the bell reverberated behind him. “Run away with the flame, and take the Warmth beyond the wall?”

Beneath the tolls, Lodern could hear the bustling of the garrison, guards gathering at the sound of the alarm. They moved with urgency, their footsteps echoing against the cobblestones of the courtyard as they rushed to arm themselves and prepare for the fiery threat outside the gate. Yet, amidst the clamor, Lodern's gaze remained fixed upon Herluin, his flames dancing wildly as he advanced.

“No,” he said. “I intend to snuff you out.”

******

THE GARRISON lay in ruins, consumed by the voracious flames that danced like vengeful spirits among the charred remains. Herluin, once stalwart and resolute, was now reduced to naught but ash scattered by the fiery winds. The metal fence surrounding the compound melted into grotesque shapes, a testament to the ferocity of Lodern's wrath. The guards, mere skeletons blackened by the inferno, lay strewn about, their forms twisted in agonized poses.

Amidst the chaos, Lodern moved with purpose through the smoky haze, his unforgiving stride a testament to the fury that burned within him. The final tolls of the bell echoed faintly, a somber reminder of the havoc he had wrought. At the base of the tower, amidst the wreckage and ruin, crawled Bracham, his shattered armor fused to his scorched flesh.

Hrngh…” Bracham moaned, digging his fingernails into the cobblestone beneath him.

Without warning, Lodern loomed over him, his expression stoic, betraying no hint of remorse or pity. The white hairs on his skin hovered like smoke in the dancing flames, a halo of heat around his figure.

Bracham, barely clinging to consciousness, gazed up at Lodern with a mixture of fear and resignation, his battered form a stark contrast to the imposing figure before him. With a final, desperate effort, he raised a trembling hand, his seared limb stretching as he struggled to point toward the remnants of the barracks. Amidst the crackling of flames and the torrid air, his will was fading.

Lodern followed Bracham's gaze, his eyes narrowing as he beheld the shattered remnants of a stone barrack. It was the very barrack through which he had been brought, the edifice that had obstructed the Warmth above for all those years. The barrack he had been swept beneath, like stray hairs under a rug.

Silent, Lodern turned his gaze back to Bracham, his expression unwavering as he acknowledged the guard's final gesture. In his heart, there was no room for pity, no trace of mercy, yet perhaps this silent exchange offered resolution. With a solemn nod, Lodern advanced toward the shattered remains of the barrack, and as he did, the radiance in Bracham’s eyes faded to inertion.

Calcined stones and blackened remains crunching beneath his steps, Lodern scanned the devastation as he approached the heap of rubble. The stones, once sturdy, now lay broken and shattered, their surfaces charred by the relentless flames. Amidst the wreckage, fragments of timber and twisted metal bore witness to the violence that had ravaged this place.

Gazing over the scorched remnants of a wall, his eyes delving through countless layers of the now-charred wooden floor, he stumbled upon an answer, hidden within his former abyss. During those days in the dark, Lodern paid what little mind he had left to the dwellers outside the bars of his cell, except for skittering rats and roaches. But there they were, clear as day—other prisoners, other vessels, their red hair exposed in the wisping warmth of the flame.

As Lodern's gaze fell upon the other prisoners, their eyes met his through the bars of the cells and the burnt-out floor. Men and women, their faces worn with the marks of suffering, their hair grown to unkempt lengths, stared back at him. These were kindred souls, enduring the same fate, all because of what smoldered within them, the extraordinary capacity that had brought them to this desolate place.

Lodern looked down at them, his expression inscrutable, his eyes reflecting the flickering flames that had engulfed the garrison. Yet, for a moment, rainbegan to fall, pattering gently against the earth, and wholly washing away the inferno of bewilderment and bitterness that consumed Lodern’s very being. As the heat faded, his wisp-white hair settled on his skin.

Stoicism melting away, as vulnerability sept in from the clouds in the grey skies above, Lodern’s strength ebbed. And with a weary sigh, he collapsed to his knees amidst the ruins, his body weary from the tumult.

Pure as I began, he thought, now back where he started with his back on the floor, droplets pelting his face. Reclaimed what I’ve desired.

THE END


2024 Logan Swartz

Bio: "As a student of history at the University of Pittsburgh, my fascination with historical narratives often inspires my writing in the fantasy genre, but other inspirations of mine include the world-building of Elden Ring, spearheaded by George R.R. Martin and Hidetaka Miyazaki, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, and songwriter Maynard James Keenan."

E-mail: Logan Swartz

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.