Hephaestus Sanctuary – Short Story

A door opened and a man stepped out, squinting at the sun. The day was clear and he let the sun fully engross him. It had been a long winter, he thought as he went out to inspect the field. Much of the snow had melted, but the ground was still hard. It would be another month before he could sow the seed for this year’s harvest. He glanced up at the mountain that was tall in the distance. It was still covered in white but he knew (as sure as spring would come) that they would come knocking on his door.

And so the people tilled their land and sowed their seeds. The harvest was good and the air was mild. The farmer went to bed early, knowing that tomorrow, they would come. And he was right, for later the next evening, a tall man knocked on their door. He wore a black cloak and a sombre expression. The farmer knew they weren’t much for talking and went to business. They exchanged food for silver. The stranger raised a large sack, filled with various animal produce, over his shoulders and was gone. The farmer stood by the doorstep and watched the stranger lumber away, carrying much more than any normal man ought to. He didn’t think of them during the winter, he didn’t like to, because they were not men, they couldn’t be. A cold breeze caressed his forehead. The summer was at an end and it would be another year before they descended the mountain.

**

In a small, dimly lit room, she was staring at a fire. The flames engulfed the pot that hung over it and she waited for it to settle before she’d pour water into it. She was not used to sitting alone, and her mind drifted away. She was reminded of her husband, sitting next to her, being silly and making the time fly by. The fire settled into a hearth and she poured the ingredients into the boiling water, tasted it, and waited.

She knew nothing of what was happening outside:

The sun had almost set, casting purple twilight over the horizon. Men in dark hoods wandered between the houses, disappearing and reappearing as they became invisible in the shade.  There were several of them, dashing ghostly from wall to wall, some standing like a sentry, watching the horizon. On the southern end of the village, one of those Sentry’s kept his eyes peeled, when a figure emerged from the horizon. Snow, that had collected on his cloak, crumbled as he dashed towards the stranger:

The stranger was a weary soul. Each step felt like a ton as his feet were buried knee deep in the snow and he did not notice when two dark hooded men emerged in front of him. They seemed to tower over him as he himself stooped to keep the wind from his eyes. “Are you lost, friend?” One of the Sentries asked in a dark sort of way.

Was he lost or had he found the right place? He wasn’t sure. The only thing he knew was that something drew him, something burning inside him that forced him to go on. The stranger glanced up at them and saw that half their faces were covered by a hood, their left and right eye respectively. When they saw his face, their one eye widened as if transfixed by his appearances. But nothing else revealed what they were thinking as their expressions remained cold and neutral. The stranger touched his face, wondering if there was something wrong with him when he realised he could not picture what he looked like. After a moment, the dark hooded men collected themselves and gently placed their hands on his shoulders, urging him to follow them to a small cabin where he could rest. But the burning did not allow him to rest. Feeling close to his goal, he quickened his step, but the two black figures lurched on him and grabbed him by the shoulders, insisting that he cooperate.

They pinned him down, and his chest burned more brightly, glowing in bright red and orange through his clothes. His weariness melted away and with new found strength, he broke free from their grip and rushed towards the village. The Sentries didn’t hesitate and drew their weapons. Beams of light zoomed through the air, hitting the walls on the houses, harmlessly melting the ice and snow that caked on the walls. They all missed and it seemed like the stranger would get away when he felt a pain through his ankle and he collapsed around the corner of a house. But when they came to collect him, he was gone.

Do you remember the woman from before? She had heard the commotion and she looked out to see what it was about. It was almost night now, only a slither of light still remained in the sky and it took a moment before she realised a stranger sprawled on her doorstep, half covered in snow. She stared at him for a while, conflicted. She wanted to help him, but what if he was dangerous? He squirmed in the snow. Her heart could not bear see him suffer and she opened the door and dragged him inside. Black liquid streaked on the floor from his ankle which she patched with linen as best she could. His clothes were soaked and she undressed him, wrapping him in blankets near the fire. For a moment, everything was still as she gazed down at the stranger on the floor. She noticed how his face was in perfect symmetry; his chin was strong and his hair curly and yellow. Everything about him was perfect and she thought he must be a god. She felt her cheeks flush and she forced herself to look away. Maybe this was a bad idea? He was a stranger and they were sure to come looking for him. What would they do if they found him here? As she contemplated her choices, there was loud knocking on the door that made her wince.

One of the dark hooded men stood on the other side, asking if she’d seen any strangers pass by? The woman glanced at her neighbours houses and saw that they were knocking on all the doors. She realised they had no idea where the stranger had gone and that they did not suspect her. “I haven’t seen anything,” she said and the hooded man nodded, thanking her for her cooperation and went away. Now, you might find it strange that they didn’t search her home? But you must realise, this sort of thing had never happened before. They did not question the villagers loyalty and they certainly did not expect it to be broken by a kind heart and a beautiful face.

When the door closed, she pressed herself against it. Her heart was at her throat and she breathed heavily. She had never lied before, but now that she had, there was no turning back. The stranger did not wake up that night, nor the following morning. The feast, that she had prepared for, came and went, and during all this time, she could think of nothing else but the stranger. But one night, when she was asleep, she heard bustling downstairs. She rushed down and saw the stranger rummaging through her drawers. He was completely naked and in any other situation, she’d look away, but now, she simply stared. His limbs were in perfect symmetry… and his muscles… He was perfection! Except for the bandaid on his left ankle. It took a moment before she became aware that she was staring and she quickly looked away and covered her face with her hand. “I’m sorry!” She shrieked.

He stood there, silently observing her. “Where are my clothes?” He said.

She pointed to a coffin next to the cupboard. When he was dressed, he turned and said. “Thank you.”

Silently, she turned to meet his eyes. It was the first time she’d looked directly into them and somehow she could not draw her gaze away. He observed her too, for a moment, when he suddenly hissed and clenched his teeth, moving his hand towards his chest. “I must go,” he said and turned towards the door.

“Wait!” she said, placing her hand on his, hindering him from turning the doorknob. He glanced down at her hand, noticing she was missing her ring finger. She removed her hand as if burned by his gaze and hid it behind her back. She didn’t know why she did so; she had never felt ashamed about her missing finger, but seeing the perfection that was this man… She wanted to hide it. “I— They are still after you, you know. They’ll catch you if you leave,” she said.

But the stranger just looked at her vacantly and made another effort to leave. “You can’t!” she shrieked and embraced him around the waist. She didn’t know what had come over her. Why was it so hard to let this man go? She didn’t know, but, for whatever reason, she knew that if she let him leave, she’d never see him again and the thought alone made her tremble. The stranger did not resist her at first, but as she refused to let go, and the burning in his chest became stronger, he tried to force her off. Then, it all stopped. All the energy that had gathered within him drained and he collapsed on the floor. She held onto him, still, and he fell into her lap. For a while, he didn’t open his eyes, but when he did, it was as if he saw the world for the first time. His mind was clear and the urgency was gone. He noticed how pleasantly the room smelled of firewood; how the furniture was half-moon shaped to accommodate the rounded walls; how her front teeth peaked behind her lips; and how her soft breasts pressed against him.

They didn’t move from that spot for a very long time. Only at dawn, when the light shone through the windows, did it revive them. She was the first to rise. She held out her hand and led him upstairs to her bedroom. They spent all day in that bed, and only the next morning, did they finally talk: She felt his chest rise and fall and she thought there was nothing in this world that could make her get out of bed. A pang of guilt clenched her hand, scratching the stranger’s skin over his stomach. What would her husband think if he knew? How would she feel in his situation?

“Is something wrong?” the stranger asked.

She glanced up at him and their eyes met. Somehow seeing them made the guilt wash away. He was a god, she was sure of it, only a deity could make somebody feel this good. She sat up and locked her hands together and took a breath. “I have a husband,” she said.

There was no reaction from him, which surprised her. “He… He was buried in an avalanche a month back.”

“I’m sorry,” he said and placed his hand on hers.

She held it and caressed his hand with her thumbs. “Don’t be, he’ll return, eventually.”

His eyes grew wide. “Excuse me?”

“The Maker will get him back to me, when he’s ready.”

Her whole body quivered and she stared down her hands. How would he react to this? Would he leave her, or… would she make her leave her husband? Her cheeks flushed at the thought, both embarrassed and guilty for thinking it. But the stranger’s mind was somewhere else. He was seeing back to a time when he was still searching the world. He’d seen people die. He’d seen people buried or burnet when their bodies won’t carry them anymore. He’d seen people crying over the dead because they knew they would never see them again. The dead do not return, he was certain.

When no answer came, she tried to lead the conversation elsewhere. “A— Are you going to tell me about yourself?”

Broken from his revery, he blinked.

“Where do you come from?” She asked.

“I’m… I’m not sure,” he said, gravely.

“You don’t remember?”

“I…” He tried to recall, but all he could see was him walking, climbing, swimming; sometimes alone, sometimes with a group, but he was always moving, searching. “I don’t know… I have never considered it before…”

She looked at him, quizzically.

“It’s like I have never existed until now,” he said and placed his hand over his heart. He couldn’t feel it and he smiled. “It’s thanks to you,” he said and turned to her. “It must be… I wanna know more about myself, about you and this world.” Her heart skipped as he beamed at her. To make another person this happy…. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like. In her head, she decided that she’d do anything to help this man. “Do you at least remember your name?” she asked.

He shook his head.

She laid her head back on his chest. “Don’t worry. We will find out, together.”

He drew his finger through her black silky hair and thought of nothing when he asked. “What do you call yourself?”

“Jessica.”


Continue reading HERE

© Christopher Stamfors

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