“This is it. It has to be.” said the outlander. His mouth was dry. The air was fresh, rain had not fallen for months and the wind whistled. There were no footprints or tracks at the base of the stairs except for his own; evidence suggesting he was in the wrong place.
“No. I’m sure it’s the right place.” The outlander grinned and wiped the sandy sweat from his brow. His beard hadn't seen a blade in months. Running his fingers through his curly jet black hair, that matched the colour of his eyes, he climbed the great staircase. His confident manner, broad shoulders and sword at his side exemplified an adventurous occupation.
“I’m getting closer. I can feel it.” His legs lifted rhythmically although they felt heavy; painfully lifting himself onwards. He was weak, in need of lodging, and down to the last mouthful of water.
“Which way?” The outlander knew that once the main access to the city had been in the south; but recent information told him he had to ascend to the terrace from the west.
“Yes. This is the right way.”
The individual stairs were very low, and although welcoming the climb, he still felt it tiring. For a split moment the outlander envisaged horsemen climbing to the terrace.
“You were right Pindar.” He remembered the Greek lyric poet. He loved his lectures and philosophical debates. He once told him that these stairs were built this way to force you not to slouch. Anyone standing before the gates will do it with a respectful posture. However, he felt the opposite; half bent over and exhausted.
When he finally reached the top flight of stairs, he was confronted with a gate.
“So this is the Gate of All Nations. Magnificent!” He winced at his dry throat. He remembered the teachings; they inspired the Parthian architects of the sanctuary in Konkobar.
The gates appeared battered, worn and in disrepair. They matched the colour of the sands. Cracks covered the large surface and evidence of broken bits of stone left crevices and hollow concavities as if armies had tried to force entry, only resulting in failure. The large beasts must have taken a decade to erect in those times, brought adrift on floating rafts and ships from Greece.
“Pheidias! If only you could see these gates. I’m sure you could do no better.”
The ochre stone oozed craftsmanship and the perfection of their creator, and the travail of the labourers who built them. Carved patterns depicted historic and prosperous times of an affluent society. The white washed walls around the city within showed deterioration, but they were still righteous in grandeur and important as a defense point. Although many cracks and fissures were visible, it clearly didn't hinder the apparition of the stones strategic importance.
On either side of the gate were large statues, the lamassu, Babylonian protective demons with a bull's body, eagle's wings and a human head. The outlander shuddered at the monoliths as a chill crawled across his dehydrated skin. He had seen these representations along his travels before, after crossing the Caspian Sea; acting as gateway guardians at the entrances of royal palaces like Khorsabad and Nineveh. His eyes ran across the details of the lamassu recalling their purpose as protective spirits warding off evil and fiendish deities, but the outlander knew they could also harbour them. He pulled an animal skin from his belt and raised it high.
“The last of my water.” he said whilst the warm water trickled gracefully into his mouth, wetting his lips, then he used the last of it to moisten his hair and neck; he had rationed well.
Walking closer to the gates he looked for the largest fissure between the two doors. He bent forward arching his back, stooping slightly and with a level head closed one eye, keeping the other open so he could peer through.
“What? Nothing. This can’t be right?”
He witnessed no life or cradle of humanity, it was a desolate place. All he could hear was the reverberation of the wind as it was forced through the fissure. He scanned wide but could only see a lizard scampering hurriedly away from small chasing tumbleweeds.
The outlander straightened himself, “I don’t understand. This is the right place.”
He then began to worry about his food and water which was now gone. The desert is a place of great stillness, and a place that silence suits well. Sound is the most evanescent of all sensations - here in one second, then gone in an instant leaving no trace. He had traveled through desolate terrain before, but never on this scale.
“To be deaf in the desert would be to become a part of it. Maybe I’ve been traveling too long.” He said.
On turning around to make his way back down the great stairs huffing with discontent, a cacophonous noise made him stop; the doors suddenly shifted and slowly opened, grinding against the ground until they were wide open. He turned slowly in the broken silence and focused at the sight in front of him. Astonished he saw a busy and jubilant society which reminded him of cities like Attica and Thasos. He shook his head with confusion, then smiled and wiped his mouth in relief. He had arrived at the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire; he had arrived at Persepolis.
The marbled streets were filled with energy and people staggered past him with their animals, as well as carrying loads of other commodities. It was a rich and colourful atmosphere, full of noise and flurry, the cry's of bargaining women, and children running to and fro, the cluck of hens, barking of dogs, the vociferations of men about their daily chores; traders shouting strenuously with intentions of pursuing their scheming plans.
Slowly he walked through the bustling community, treading carefully and with a watchful eye, patting a cow as it passed him. He continued glancing from side to side at the mixture of faces who tended to ignore him, clearly used to strangers. His caution urged him to keep one hand free near his weapon, whilst the other safeguarded his wares.
A small child ran up to him and tugged hard at his leather vest. "A copper coin Sir? I'm hungry.”
The child was about three-foot high, had long brown wild hair and a soiled face, her attire was tattered, but those large hazel eyes overshadowed her bedraggled look. Her left arm was fully extended, her palm wide and wanting.
Reaching into one of his many small pockets he pulled out the last of the rye bread and placed it in her hand, knowing he had nothing else to give. She examined it with a frown expressing borderline disappointment and belittlement.
"Dry bread?" She said.
"I'm sorry little one, it's all I have."
"You must be joking? A coin will feed me better than this piece of bread. Do you expect me to believe you?"
He bent down until his eyes met hers. He stared at her in the hope that she would hurry along, but his thought lingered just like the little girl and he smiled at her brazen manner. He liked children, and the thought of one day having a family of his own, warmed him. He felt they were the product of true love and innocence.
His hand left the comfort of the hilt of his sword for a moment as it traveled along the pockets of his burgundy vestment. He pulled out a small piece of brown cloth and smiled.
"This won't help you I'm afraid." He then placed it back into his pocket and patted it a couple of times whilst his eyes surveyed the crowd. He dipped his hand into a lower left pocket and located a coin. It was his last and he knew he needed it to feed and clean himself. He felt bad but could not part with it. She sighed heavily waiting. He gave the coin a couple of turns in the pocket whilst thinking hard but he had already made his decision. He then withdrew an empty hand.
"I'm sorry, but that was all I had."
The girl crumpled her nose as she stuck out her tongue before vanishing into the crowd.
"Charming! Really…' He smiled as he pushed himself up, placing one hand on his knee. He almost staggered with hunger.
"You've got to be careful around here; the little ones are the worst. Think with your head, not with your heart." said a woman whose face was partly hidden behind a shawl. "Most of the children here make their living from begging and stealing. Their parents depend on it.”
The outlander’s eyes met with an attractive dark-tanned woman with dark eyes, green eye shadow and luscious lips. She was smaller than him and wore a shawl over her head. You could see her black hair poking through, laying either side of her forehead. She carried on walking, carrying only a spindle.
"Then someone should teach their parents a lesson." said the outlander.
She stopped short and turned. “Parents here avoid confrontation or any actions for that matter which involves convincing their children of the wrongs.”
"But they're thieves!"
"No, not all of them. Just most of them."
"Who keeps the town-folk in order?"
"The enforcers who usually keep everything in order are away at war. Fighting somewhere in the name of the Persian Empire. Most of the others choose a more, placid existence."
The outlander’s expression changed to quandary. There was a bigger question on his mind. "When I looked through the gates the city was empty. Then the gates opened and the city was suddenly full of life."
"You must have been traveling for a long while. You’re tired. Dehydration can cause hallucinations.” The outlander moved on and was surprised to see her walking besides him, saying, "You see my friend--"
"I am not your friend." He cut in.
She smiled and continued, ignoring the comment, "People here are greedy and full of anger. There’s lots of emotions running wild due to the war. You can’t really blame them. Take the children for instance. Most kids don’t have toys or weapons. If they don’t have them or make them they steal them.”
“From people like me?”
“From anyone I suppose. Steeling seems a better way to make a living. What would you do? Join the army, go to war and die. Or steal and have a better chance of staying alive?”
“And get rich because of it.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Listen, this is not a nice place to spend your time I’ll confess. If I were you I’d move on quickly after you've rested. You look really exhausted."
"You’re right, I am tired, but you’re also wrong. I've traveled painfully to get here. Why would I leave if I've just arrived?"
"All I’m saying is that things can get a bit rough around here. Things between the Persians and the Greeks are, well, in turmoil at the moment, all the cursed politics has caused this civil unrest."
"I can handle myself. And I don't care for politics. I leave those things to the politicians."
"It's people like you who make the politicians what they are."
"Like I said, I don't care.
"No doubt." she looked at him, her eyes traveled from head to toe, "You look a bit Persian which would work to your advantage," she took a step backwards to get a wider view of him, tapping her lower lip sensually with her finger, "but you also look Greek. Must be the curly hair."
The outlander grinned at the woman's cursory examination.
"I'd keep your comments to yourself woman. Like the Greeks, women know their place. I assume Persian’s are no different. I need rest, food and wine. Where’s the nearest tavern?"
"'The Allotted' is the only Inn in Persepolis. It’s just below--"
"Just take me there." The outlander shook his head; he didn't trust the woman whose radiance looked self-assured, calm and over-confident. He gestured with his hand for her to show him the way.
All she could do was smile, "Very well, and by the way..."
"What now? Are my eyes to your distaste? My knees too stumpy?"
She paused but then said, "Welcome to the City of the Persians."
They walked on through the dusty tracks and high-spirited people, through small alleyways to larger pathways. The outlander kept his hand ready on his sword, still unsure of his surroundings and the woman. They continued down a small uneven dip before turning down a remote footpath with nobody in sight. The outlander stretched his fingers before grasping the hilt of his sword. As quick as the wind blew, two figures leapt out in front of them. More men emerged from both sides, then a flurry of children ensued like a swarm of bees.
The outlander unsheathed his sword but failed to use it; so many children around and he couldn’t bear the thought of bringing them down. The men were fast, grabbing and restraining the outlander by the scruff of his neck. His sword fell from his grasp but he didn't hear it hit the floor. He managed to look down through the maddening hands and it had vanished.
The men were well built, making the struggle harder to break from. The outlander used what little energy he had left, but it was useless and futile. The men whistled and a further swarm of children appeared, this time like a foray of bats. It wasn't long before the path was filled with small heads and due to the hold of the restraining men; the outlander could do nothing but watch.
Smaller hands checked and emptied his pockets. Without delay the outlander was thrust forward onto the ground. By the time he mustered enough energy to get to his feet, the looters had disappeared.
The outlander scanned for the woman who slowly emerged from behind a tree. When he finally regained enough breath, he spoke.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before. I thought I was quick.”
The woman said nothing.
"Who were they anyway? And where did you go?"
The woman walked up to him ignoring the second question. "Thieves, nothing more and nothing less. Like I said before, don’t let your guard down, never. You're lucky you've still got your clothes on. Mind you, they look Greek; it’s probably why they left them."
The outlander checked his pockets and wasn't surprised to find his property missing, his last coin, comestibles and his sword. They had even stolen his scabbard. His head darted frantically in every direction, he located a scrap piece of cloth on the floor in front of him. It was the only item the looters had left behind. He picked it up and gripped it with verve whilst letting out a momentous sigh of relief.
"This is more important to me than anything." He muttered.
"A piece of cloth?" the woman managed to hear him.
"It's more than that." He was firm and quickly placed it in his pocket with care. He composed himself dusting the dirt from his trousers before they both left the footpath. He was now more watchful then ever, but nothing happened until they reached the Inn. The outlander lifted his head until his eyes met the wooden sign that hung high above the doorway on iron rails. It read The Allotted and was written with a careful and masterful hand. As he approached the front door he read another sign and laughed, it read 'Beware of pickpockets and loose women.' What about thieving children? He thought to himself.
They walked through the doors and made their way to the counter. He sat on a wooden stool that had peculiar carvings depicting the war of Thermopylae. The outlander looked at the woman who stood.
"Persepolis used to be a lively place." she said in an outspoken tone.
The noise in the Inn was at a reasonable level for a conversation. Many of the men glanced at the woman, and as she returned the gaze they looked away hurriedly and uneasy, as if almost in fear.
“Still is!” the outlander replied.
"I think you have a habit of getting into trouble. I think it's fate." she said.
"You mean trouble follows me?"
"No, I was right on both accounts."
"I blame this place."
"It's not the place that needs blaming. Times are changing, so do people.”
“That’s got nothing to do with fate." He said whilst looking at her spindle.
"Are you a cloth merchant or something like that? You haven't put that thing down for a second."
"Something like that." She replied whilst restraining a grin. "I've been here a long time. Persepolis used to be a place of peace and solitude. Now there's little of either left and everyone seems to make wrong or rash decisions."
"I wonder why? Why don’t you to move on then?" the outlander pressed.
"I'm sure my time will come."
The outlander pondered for a short moment then he propped up his left leg and placed a foot on the stool. He rolled up his trouser and untied a leather strap from around the bottom of his shin. It appeared to be the bottom half of a leather greave. Inside were four small flaps containing four coins.
"For a rainy day?" said the woman.
"With this heat I’d welcome a rainy day. At least the water would be free."
He placed them on the counter and banged two times with his fist. A dark tanned female sauntered over and addressed him carrying large shears. The outlander immediately swiveled round to locate the woman who had accompanied him, but she had vanished again. He was perplexed, as her similarity to the barmaid was uncanny.
"You’re sister was here!" he said.
"What can I get you?"
"Are you twins?"
The barmaid didn't answer; instead she stared at the outlander, waiting patiently whilst tending to her shears.
"Been gardening? Haven't noticed much growth around here."
The maid didn't answer.
"Some wine and food." he said finally.
"Anything, I'm not fussy." The outlander didn't give her time to finish.
"Ale or win--"
"Again, I'm not fussy."
The barmaid left to what appeared to be the kitchen. The outlander looked around at the faces in the inn. Some were fat, others thin, a few dirty, whilst too many stared at him boldly, yet nowhere did he see a happy face. The woman brought a large wooden goblet of wine and a wooden plate full of what appeared to be the shank of a pig. The roasted aroma made him immediately grab the goblet and shank simultaneously and he himself started to eat and drink ravenously.
After gulping down the prized wine, the outlander spotted the two men who had robbed him; they were selling things to local traders. He burped and wiped his mouth with his sleeve and was about to get up when the barmaid interrupted.
"Are you Greek? You don’t look Persian." the maid asked whilst cleaning the wet and dirty tabletop. She left her shears to one side but only for a moment.
"Yes on both accounts," the outlander replied in a modest tone feeling as if he was conferring with the law. He pointed,
"Those two stole my things!"
"Those two are always stealing things. I’d be surprised to find anyone here who hasn’t wronged in one form or another."
“Have you wronged then?”
“Like I said,” the barmaid pressed. “The only way to get revenge here is to steal them back."
"But they are my belongings?"
"Were yours. If you attack them, everyone here will rally together against you. You'll be outnumbered."
"Next you're going to tell me to leave while I can." He gestured to the woman to top up his goblet with more wine full to the brim.
"As a matter of fact yes. We have rooms to let. We don't get many visitors here so you'll have your pick."
"Thanks for your concern.”
She ignored his senseless assertion, picked up her shears and placed them into a large pocket of her apron.
"I'm actually quite thrilled we have a new face amongst us, I thought at first you were another one of those greedy travelers who had heard about our legend," her eyes narrowed as she looked at him, "…The Thread of Life?"
"The thread of life...you know of it?" the outlander asked quickly knocking his goblet, spilling a little of his wine.
"I must say I did had my doubts for a moment, but they always surprise you in some way," she leaned a little closer to the outlander and whispered, "mind you it's been ages since our last traveler."
"How long?" he asked with full attention and commitment.
"A long time ago, about five years I'd say. The traveler gave up everything he had to go in search of the Thread of Life, the key, which would lead to all riches. He said he only wanted to see the thread. But we all know that he who beholds the thread will want no more. The traveler wanted more than just to hold it, what he didn’t know was that it carried a heavy price."
"Every legend has a prize as well as a curse, without them there wouldn't be any incentive or sense of adventure, would there?" he said.
There was a short pause in the conversation as the outlander sipped his wine. The maid put her hand on his arm and he felt uncomfortable but at the same time couldn't move.
"Look, you seem like a man of the world. This legend derives from Ancient Greece."
"Yes I know, I am Greek or have you forgotten? Everyone in Greece knows of the legend." he broke her grip and pulled his arm away.
"Yes, but it only takes one fool to act on impulse."
"What do you know of it? he asked, sneering.
"Actually, I know it quite well."
"Then you know what the prize is?"
"It's only a belief. The thread is the product of eternal life and he who beholds it can choose his own destiny."
"Yes, and that's my prize - my own path, my destiny, a life towards riches."
"But you know that power can be used for good as well as evil. The thread consumes your strongest will."
"Listen barmaid, and such a pretty one too. A legend is put there for a purpose, handed down from the past either true or invented. So it's up to me to believe and act accordingly to my own destiny. With God on my side I will conquer and win."
"A line I’ve heard all too often. If only the Gods could help," said the maid with an expression of disappointment.
"Psst... psst." A noise jumped from behind the outlander; he placed his goblet down on the table and slowly turned. In the corner was a hooded figure with long auburn hair protruding from each side of the tatty hood. Apart from the hair, all you could see was a pale face. The figure raised one hand and waved beckoning the outlander to his table. The other hand was firmly gripping a large staff. As he got up the bar maid grabbed his wrist with a firm hand.
"Choose the right path while you still can.
The outlander pulled free from her grasp and sauntered over to the scrawny little figure. As he sat down he noticed the man's decayed and missing teeth as his grin grew, portraying a lack of oral hygiene.
"I heard you're looking for something of great interest. If you like," the scrawny man implored, "I may be able to assist you."
"Everyone around here thinks they know best, thinks they can help me, yet everyone's either deceiving or a thief. Why should I believe you?" The outlander waited for the man to reply as he wet his lips.
"I can help you to fulfill and achieve what you desire. I know everything that happens here, the good and the bad. I consider myself to be the only neighbourly and compassionate person in Persepolis. You don't notice these values in people around here anymore." said the man, followed by a deafening dry cough.
"You got that right little man." He looked at the man’s hands. "You've got hands like a woman."
The figure left the staff leaning on the table and showed them to him. "A keen eye, yes. I am a woman even though I don't look like one to most men. Thin hands and a hoarse voice is the result of my debilitating age I'm afraid. Enough about me, do you want my help or not?"
The outlander pondered, and then replied. "Evidently I do, but I haven't much to go on myself, only that what I seek is in a certain part of this city." He pulled the brown and delicate piece of cloth from his pocket and showed the woman, reluctant to let it go.
"You will see that on the material there are many spots in an orderly series of lines, does this mean anything to you?"
The outlander's facial expression depicted full quandary, his stare at the cloth resulted in scrutinizing it. He didn't know what it meant, the significance, or for that matter how it came to be in his possession. His examination of the material was broken by the woman's reply.
"We will leave at dawn, when the air is cool and manageable. Wait for me in front of the propylon and I will lead you to your fortune."
"The propylon that's next to the entrance. I assume you have these in Greece?"
"Of course we do, I'm not stupid." he replied, but he obviously didn't know what it was.
The outlander looked down to check his belongings, he still felt uneasy but then yawned and stretched. When he recomposed himself the woman had vanished.
"Great, doesn't anyone believe in a goodbye?" he said to himself.
He approached the maid and asked for a room for the night. She showed him to a large room with a single bed.
"Guess it's just me tonight then?" he asked the woman who smiled as she closed the door behind her.
The outlander scanned the room. Apart from the bed there was a small table with a fresh towel and a chair to one corner. He unbuttoned his vestment, took it off, fashioned it into a ball and threw it in the direction of the chair without moving from the side of the bed. It didn't make the chair, but he couldn't be bothered to go and pick it up. He then slumped his weighted body on the bed. His hand flew of the side of the bed touching a bucket that was close by. It was a used wooden bucket full of relatively fresh water carried from the nearest stream, evidently placed there so the lodger could get a drink upon waking up in the middle of the night, and afterwards use it to relieve himself.
He thought he would fall asleep the minute he hit the pillow, but he didn't. He couldn't help but think about the day's events. The twin sisters, even though they weren't, their gleaming eyes, soft brown hair, and the curvature of their smile which accentuated their luscious and tempting lips. He felt a warmness in him but took deep breathes to calm his urges. He muttered to himself, and started to think about the map and the scrawny little woman. Was she really telling the truth? Did she know the location of the thread? Would tomorrow be the day he finally finds what he's been searching for? After a short psychical conflict the reply in his contemplation was...It has to be.
He tossed and turned for a while, until a fragrant evening breeze wafted into the room, exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally, he slowly drifted into what was his ultimate dream world.
A mild and chilling breeze sprang from the window to the left of the outlander. He lifted himself from the warm and comfortable pillow and threw aside a thin white sheet. He sat yawning and blinking in the rising sun, pretending not to notice the untouched bucket of water by the bed. He dipped his head into the bucket and smelt the wet and damp wood. He pushed his head back as the water flung upwards which caused it to trickle down the sides of his ears and then his shoulders. The light and water made his hair sparkle with the light and grabbing his shirt made his way out of the inn.
The eastern sun was rising swiftly; taking a deep breath of the chilled yet sweet-scented air he made his way to the entrance of the city, not knowing what and where the propylon was situated.
The city was still asleep and quiet. As he walked he noticed the shape of the diminutive woman in the distance standing with an arched back and resting her weight on her staff. A hood covered her auburn hair. The sight enlightened his profound reflection that the time was near to finding what the journey had all been in aid of. He cautiously advanced and awaited for the woman's communication.
"Give me that cloth." the woman demanded in an abrupt manner flicking her fingers in a wanting fashion.
On dipping into one of his pockets the outlander withdrew the material. The fabric was well worn and discoloured from what was once slate-coloured. The fibres of the material appeared as though they might break at any moment and great care was needed to handle what was indisputably material of an antiquity. Cautiously he handed it to the woman, preparing at any moment to recant.
Raising the cloth into the air she pointed to the map whilst gripping firm on her staff.
"You will see that on the material there are many spots in an orderly series of lines?" the outlander nodded.
The little woman turned and pointed to a series of columns. "That's the Palace of 100 columns."
"But there's not 100 columns on the cloth?" he said in an inquisitive yet confused tone.
"If you turn it towards an angle what do you see?"
The outlander squinted and poked his head forward. "All I can see is an arrow?" he waited for the correct answer. The woman said nothing but nodded.
"Close enough, what you call an arrow is an alignment of the pillars which point to the Palace of Darius I." She pointed.
"But there's nothing there. Just high columns and what looks like a building site."
"That's because Darius's son Xerxes has taken over the project."
"Where is Xerxes?"
"Fighting in the war. He wants to rule the world I imagine."
"Maybe he's looking for riches to pay for the kingdom? To finish the palace?" he said.
"There's another reason he doesn't want it built."
The outlander looked on in bewilderment. "Why is that?"
"That's the last place he saw his father."
"What happened to the Persian King?"
"The only piece of information people know is that he went in search of the thread. He of all people knew the power of the fates but chose to ignore them."
"He obviously wanted riches more than anything else."
"Doesn't everyone?" said the woman casually, "You should be warned that getting the prize is a greater tread than reaching the hallowed ground." The woman ambled away with intermittent coughs, the coughs similar to an ailed person.
"Where are you going?" he said with open arms.
"I've shown you where it is; now it's up to you. It's up to fate." She replied also opening her right arm whilst using her staff with her left like a walking stick.
"Fate's what you make of it!" shouted the outlander but she kept on walking without turning back. "Honestly, nobody says goodbye here. I thought I had the bad manners."
The outlander had a priming question running through his mind, how did she know where it was? And why does it all seem so simple?
The cool air dismissed further introspection and he said to himself. "Oh well, off we go then."
Kicking stones along a dirt and dusty ground the outlander walked along the outskirts of the palace grounds whilst occasionally lifting his head to peer at the large walls. It was the only mammoth structure that had been erected except for the columns which had strange figurines at the tips. He tried to focus on what they were but they were too high to see clearly and of no significance.
He made his way up the stairs until he came face-to-face with the large columns. He then walked through the uneven terrain, spiraling over stone boulders and around the columns, through congregations of rubble, which were littered with rubbish, bones and other unusable substances.
It didn't take him long to reach a gate. The heat was beginning to break in the sky and his shirt was speckled with sweat. His face was covered with a film of dust and prickling burrs had latched onto the ankle areas of his trousers. He pushed the door a couple of times until it gradually opened and the noise of old un-oiled hinges made him feel rather anxious. He entered looking up and down at the surroundings which led to a series of stairs.
"More stairs." he muttered. The entrance was dark and the shadows within made him swallow hard. He could feel anxiety take on a new level as he approached a small staircase. It was tight and he must have walked for ten minutes until he came to another level of ground. There was thin silence and all he could hear were solemn drips of water; he looked for then, but couldn't find where they were coming from.
As he continued forward he came to a cavernous concrete structure that was empty and desolate. His footsteps echoed off the walls and the sound contrived a cool sour sweat of fear that poured down both sides of his face. The sound of rats scared him. Horrible creatures that he detested, just like the thought of eating raw fish. The convivial assemblage of cobwebs gave the building a sense of age and apparition and he waved some from his path with the odd glance at the prospect of large spiders scuttling away or towards him.
With a cautious eye he continued until he was confronted with a trap door. He opened the door; an icy shiver ran up and down his backbone, curiosity enticed him to climb down the rusty worn stairs until he hit the lowest part of the underground.
The entrance was nine feet wide but low, requiring him to stoop slightly as he entered. Once inside he was able to stand erect, for the ceiling was high enough for him to stretch his back. He could feel the warmth around his lumbar region and a slight tinge of pain. He wasn't getting any younger he thought to himself.
The place had a mildly dank and unpleasant musty smell; the large recesses on the stone walls were evidence of his presence in a catacomb of some sort. A small beam of light found its way to him by what looked like a foot wide water-covered hole in the ceiling, but the catacomb was cooler than the outside, which in one way refreshed the outlander.
He slowly made his way through the wet ground until he came to a junction, which way would he go? To the right the resonance of rats, which was one good reason for not selecting that passage. To the left a pale glowing light lit up a partial side of the wall; instinct played the part in choosing the way.
He picked up the pace until he reached the end of the catacomb. He looked up and in front was a gloomy lit chamber that looked warmer than it felt. The chamber was humid and in the farthest corner to the right was a pile of bones, mostly human. In front of him was a wooden box with an ornate gilt key still in the lock which appeared to be already half-turned.
Breathing through his open mouth to reduce the noise of his own rapid respiration, he gradually turned the key, slowly feeling the clicking noise it was making, until a large clunk unlocked the box and a clasp in the middle sprang up. The feeling of achievement had taken over his soul, and now maybe fate, which has always dealt with him in a supremely hostile manner, would rip him of his prize. He knew that fate was only a mythological concept. He did not believe there was a pantheon of rancorous gods looking down at him through their godly mediums scheming up cataclysm for him to hold out against. Yet he could not drain his superstitious thoughts.
He placed the box on the floor and with both hands gripped the top of the lid. He took a series of deep breaths before gradually opening the lid. As soon as the lid was open half-way he flicked the rest of it open with both thumbs. To his astonishment the box was empty.
It was then that his heart pounded like never before. A sense of failure sent a shock through his body. He felt the disappointment, anger and anguish rolled into one. His greed surfaced like a wild fire and he cursed the legend as he spat on the floor. Then it all went wrong.
Figures on the chamber walls began to dance. Wild beasts both familiar and unfamiliar skipped along the solid yet damp structure. The lamassu, the demons, appeared on the walls with stout bodies like a bull. They flapped their eagle's wings with ferocity and the wind thrust him back a few paces. The human head was menacing and their sharp teeth gnashing at the air.
The same chill that crawled across his dehydrated skin when he arrived had emerged once again. The two demons left the walls and hovered on either side of the outlander. He felt strange. His head became light and heavy at the same time. His back ached. His heart beat like a hummingbird's and his chest tightened. His mind began to play tricks, his outside world began to spin then distort, loud noises and laughter began to break into his mind and visions of past lives tortured his soul. He couldn't stand it, he shut his eyelids, his hands tight over his ears, when was it all going to stop? Was it all going to end? He fell to his knees and began to whimper. Then it turned to a shout until he began to scream. The chamber suddenly turned pitch black.
The outlander felt relief, his heart returned to normal and stopped pounding, but this was temporary. A coruscating light emanated from the walls which then filled the entire chamber. The outlander turned looking for the source, but the bright glare made it difficult for him to see for a few moments, until the light progressively faded and became a cerulean glow. To his astonishment, there in front of him were three figures as well as the two lamassu who acted like guards. He looked at their faces recognising each one of them.
"I know you all" He stressed whilst pointing at them with a finger, "You! You didn't help me when I was being mugged."
"I did warn you. I took you to get watered and fed, but you still didn't listen."
"Who are you anyway?" he looked harder until his eyes rested on the woman on his left. "Still holding that blasted spindle!"
The woman smiled. "My name is Clotho, the spinner of life."
"Spinner of what?"
"Life, everyone's life, your life. It is me who gives life to this world."
"Hang on...” he thought hard for a moment. “I know about you. They call you Nona? The Ninth? You’re the goddess called upon in the ninth month of gestation?"
The woman laughed then the rest joined in the lamassu agitated at their sudden movements.
"Now that's what I call a legend. No, I'm there from the beginning I'm afraid."
"And you!" He pointed to the figure in the centre. "You’re the old woman who sent me here. What have you done? What games are you playing? If I had my sword I would--"
"I am Lachesis. I am the measurer of life, dispenser of the Lots." Her voice was not coarse and chesty. It was young and fresh. "Each person is allotted a life, a thread which I measure with my rod--" she showed it to him.
"A staff!" He cut in.
"Call it what you want."
The outlander narrowed his brow as if in deep thought. "So you are Decima, the Tenth?"
"We are one. Different names for different cultures, systems of belief."
"But you’re God's, right?"
"In a manner of speaking." Said Lachesis.
"The barmaid. So is she your twin or not?"
The woman to his right opened her arms out like a divine spirit, "We are all sisters of the thread of life." She lowered her hands and brought out a large shear. It was bigger than the one in the bar.
The outlander became agitated. He glanced at the lamassu who were also appearing a little uncomfortable.
"You!" He pointed to the woman. "Then you must be... Morta... death?" He held his head in his hands and shook it violently. "This is not happening to me. It's not happening!"
"I'm afraid it is. Yes, I am Atropos, the Inexorable, the cutter of the thread."
"So you... you... and you." He followed each with a finger. "You're the allotted?" The women bowed the heads in unison as if they had been honoured.
"We like the more traditional description. We are The Moirae." said Clotho.
The outlander became angered and started to fidget nervously. "Didn't you cut the life of Zeus himself?" he said without conviction. The women looked at each other but didn't reply.
"So where is the thread? I deserve to choose my destiny!" He pickup up the box and examined it in a rough and careless manner. "The box is empty. Where is it?" He smiled, then smirked, then laughed frantically like a madman thinking it was all a game. All a trick.
The women sighed. "I thought you would have got it by now. The box has always been empty. Never a thread, there's never been anything in there. The thread of life is your life. How we choose to cut it is up to us and the way your destiny is planned out; from the day Clotho creates you." She pointed to her sister.
"What is this, some kind of malicious play by the gods? Some kind of sick and malevolent game?"
"It's not a game. Everyone has a path, a destiny. Everyone is born and everyone dies. It's just the manner in which these are given, used and taken away which differs." said Atropos.
"We did try to warn you. All of us did. But you still persisted. Just like everyone in this city you—“
“What do you mean everyone in this city?”
“Everyone. The children. The adults. The thieves. Everyone chose to seek the thread and they found it. Now it’s time for you to join them." said Lachesis. "Now it's time."
"I’m not going anywhere!" he shouted and looked around for a weapon. He ran to the pile of bones and picked up a human femur. "I dare you to even touch me!"
"We won't,” said Atropos glancing at the lamassu. “Yet.”
Suddenly the beasts moved forward, their wings beating. As they walked towards the outlander he began to swing the bone like a pendulum. Then he lashed out at the creatures in a frantic attack, shouting as he lunged forward. Then one of the beasts grabbed the outlander’s head, then the other creature grabbed both his feet with one hand. The lamassu titled the outlander like an egg timer, this time keeping him horizontal. The outlander felt helpless, his heart beating madly. He was drenched in sweat and the wind from the beating wings was anything but refreshing.
"Time for you to fulfil your destiny. Not even The Moirae can interfere with the Fates." Said Atropos as she lifted the shears, which suddenly grew in size until they where huge.
The lamassu raised the outlander and twisted his body until the shears where under and over him. A cerulean light surrounded Atropos, which then expanded to Clotho and Lachesis, who held out their hands and strings of light connected to the outlander. Brightly lit threads sprang from The Moirae. A force so strong drew him towards Atropos, he could not resist, the light encompassed him, drawing him closer... closer, he wriggled, trying to break himself free from the grip of the lammassu, but he couldn’t.
The threads of light finally became a unified beam of light as bright as the sun, Atropos was about to slice the outlander with the shears as if he were a piece of paper. The sound of the shears rang loud and resolving crack of explosive light turned the chamber to darkness.
It had ended as quickly as it had started.
The air was fresh and rain had not fallen for months. The gates appeared worn and colossal. Time had been kind to them, although others hadn't.
A small size of a man with a balding head walked closer to the gates and looked for the largest fissure between the two doors. He bent forward arching his back, stooping slightly and with a level head squinted and with one open eye peered through. He witnessed nothing. It was still, dry and empty; just like his rations.
He puckered his lips and on turning around to make his way back down the great stairs, a cacophonous noise made him stop; the doors suddenly shifted and slowly opened, grinding against the ground until they were wide open, as if the gods had opened up to him.