Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge— a 1000 word story using five words out of the following list–
This isn’t going to win any Hugos, but I took a shot.
“Topaz!” Orphan came running up the trail. “Master!”
“Boy, stop yelling,” Topaz said. “I heard you coming minutes ago. What’s the trouble?”
Orphan stopped, panting. “General…Foxglove…he’s coming. With…soldiers.”
Topaz sighed. He stood up from his seat in front of his hut, leaning on his cane. His knees creaked. “Orphan, go find Cassia– she’s by the pond. Take her up to the hut by the falls. A young girl like her will tempt soldiers. Both of you hide until it’s safe.”
“What about you, master?” Orphan asked.
“Don’t be concerned about me,” Topaz said. “I have nothing these soldiers want. If I’m wrong, well, at my age death is always hanging about, anyway.”
“Master…,” Orphan said, horrified.
“But you youngsters are in danger. Get Cassia up to the falls.” He started to turn away, stopped. “You know, if this does go poorly, it occurs to me I should finally give you a proper name. I’ve been calling you Orphan all this time, but you’re nearly a man grown.”
“Is this the time, master…?”
“There may not be a later time,” Topaz said. He studied the younger man. “I name you Arrow, for you have always been swift and true.”
“Master, can’t you come with us?”
“No,” Topaz said. “Someone has to greet our guests. Go.”
Arrow turned and ran. Topaz stepped forward into the clearing. He leaned on his cane and waited.
The jingle of harness, the tread of boots; Topaz glimpsed the riders, and the foot soldiers coming behind. The company wound its way up the trail. Topaz waited.
The soldiers entered the clearing. The riders pulled up short at the sight of Topaz. At their head rode a big man, all in armor, as if he rode to battle, instead of a hermit’s cottage. Suspicious eyes peered out of a scarred face.
Topaz bowed. “I greet you, General Foxglove, Lord and General of the Five Lands. You honor my humble house.”
“Are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” Foxglove demanded.
“Some call me that. My name is Topaz. I greet you in peace, as a guest. If it please you, my lord, there is tea and bread within.”
Foxglove squinted at Topaz. One of his officers turned in his saddle and gestured. Two of the foot-soldiers broke ranks and hurried past Topaz into the cottage. Topaz waited.
The two re-emerged. “It’s empty, my lord,” one said.
Foxglove grunted and dismounted. So did his officers. The foot-soldiers spread out in a perimeter around the hut. Topaz led the way into the cottage.
The kettle was hot, the tea steeping. Foxglove and his officers crowded in; no one sat. Topaz noticed Foxglove’s gaze fall on the small silver casket on the table. The casket was old and battered, but it was bright in the room.
“I heard that you were a man of wisdom and simplicity,” Foxglove said, as Topaz poured tea. “Yet you have that.” He pointed to the casket.
“An heirloom,” Topaz said. “It contains nothing of value.”
Foxglove loomed over Topaz. “They say that no man becomes Emperor without speaking to the Hermit of Blackfalls.”
“People do say that,” Topaz said. “There has been no Emperor in five hundred years, so it’s not been tested lately. Do you wish to be Emperor?”
Foxglove smiled. Topaz shuddered. “I shall be Emperor. I want the Empire, and I will take it. I take everything I want.”
“So this is why my lord favors me with a visit?”
“I came to see,” Foxglove said, “if you had anything that might help me.”
Topaz sighed. “My lord, I’m sorry, but my wisdom is merely that which comes from living a long time. All I can tell you is that, just because we want something, it doesn’t mean it is good for us to have it.”
Foxglove glowered at him. “What is this? Why shouldn’t I take what I want? If I’m strong enough….”
“Strength is no justification for taking,” Topaz said, “and taking without right always ends badly.”
Foxglove growled. “This is a waste of time. I thought you would pass on some secret of the Old Times, something useful, but I see you are just a weak old man.”
“I am weak and old– some mornings my sciatica is terrible….”
“Enough,” Foxglove said. “I should gut you, hermit, but that would stir up the peasants. So I’ll just show you how I take what I want.” He scooped up the casket, tucked it under one arm. He sneered at Topaz. “Have anything to say about it, old man?”
Topaz spread his hands. “You may take anything you want, my lord. I greeted you in peace, I say farewell in peace. But while my lord may take that casket, I would caution you against opening it.”
“Opening it?” Foxglove said. “Why shouldn’t I open it?”
“You won’t like the contents.”
Foxglove growled. “Come, let’s leave this fool.”
The soldiers stepped back out into the sunshine. Topaz stayed where he was, waiting. Through the open door he saw Foxglove fumble with the latch of the casket, and throw it open.
The sun disappeared; blackness swirled all around. Topaz could see nothing, but he heard screams, howling, and the sound of rending flesh. He felt it– the ravening hunger. The screams faded. Topaz felt the hunger turn on him.
He stood straight. His cane glowed in the darkness. You have fed, he told the hunger. Now, back to your prison, thing. Leave the world of the living to the living.
The hunger fought him, but it could not resist the light. The light grew and grew. The hunger shrank and howled and shrank yet again.
The sun shone; birds sang in the tops of the pines. Topaz breathed a deep breath. Leaning on his cane, he went outside. He stooped and picked up the casket. He shut the lid and snapped the latch closed. There was no sign of Foxglove or of his men, save their footprints.
“Some people just won’t listen,” Topaz said.