By Carrie Connel-Gripp
The blue-white charge of magic coursed through the rope woven with silver and gold threads and the hair of the king’s four daughters. Geradonis paced on the west side of the pyre. As the Harvest Moon rose from behind the hills in front of him, the great orb of the sun descended behind him highlighting the faces in the crowd to the east, behind Mithonel who mirrored his movements. Ahirom, Geradonis’ twin brother, stood to the north, and their friend Benbaal to the south. The others, especially Mithonel, thought that Geradonis occupied the lesser position, yet he had purposefully allowed Mithonel to win the last deciding competition. The east was revered as rebirth, yet it was the dying sun that Geradonis knew would release the king’s soul.
Each man held a length of the magic rope. As small boys, they trained in throwing the lasso first on stationary poles then on moving lambs, goats and cattle. Once they could rope the horn of a bucking bull, they worked their way back down the scale until they could capture a wild fox on the run and then a falcon in flight.
The crowd hushed as the white-robed priest slowly walked up the seven granite steps to the top of the platform. Geradonis and the others turned to face the pyre. The old man touched his torch to pitch-soaked kindling at the base which caught quickly, coursing through the extricate maze of piled logs. There was nothing to do now but wait and watch.
A burst of flame engulfed the body of the king. He had been their guiding light for more than thirty years and the people felt the loss deeply. The four men were chosen by the priests who dangled the crown in front of their newborn eyes, but only one of them destined to take the throne. Whoever succeeded today would rule. The king was not yet fifty, seeming to Geradonis to be in the prime of life. Treachery was suspected, but could not be proved. The successor would need to be constantly on his guard.
As the sun fell in the sky, the flames rose higher. Geradonis focused on the space just above the flames, the heat mirage of whirling dervishes and dancing girls. He blocked out the other men, the priest, the crowd, and the waxing moon in the eastern sky. He tested the strength of the rope in his left hand, felt the river of magic run its course from the end curled at his feet, circling the noose in his right. He released the lasso, sending it into a twirl, round and round, into the blur of non-existence.
The scent of spices, predominantly cinnamon, filled the air. Geradonis watched; Mithonel, Ahirom and Benbaal watched; the priest and the people watched. All saw the flames change in colour, from red and orange to violet and aquamarine, and in shape. Great ruby wings whooshed upwards, a span two feet longer than each side of the pyre. As wings descended and the crested head of the majestic bird appeared, Geradonis threw and his lasso fell over the crest and lethal beak to land around the sleek neck. Mithonel looped second and Ahirom’s landed third. Benbaal did not throw. Mithonel knew the reason why, but the others were too occupied to see that Benbaal’s chest had been pierced by an arrow, a wound that felled him instantly.
While the bird ascended, Geradonis leaned back against the force, wrapping the rope around his left arm from elbow to palm. Suddenly, he felt the scorpion sting of an arrow puncture his left shoulder. He faltered, and Mithonel pulled sharply to draw the bird to the east. Ahirom saw his brother in distress, being dragged towards the dying pyre. Keeping his own rope taut but careful of the bird’s wing, he walked slowly towards Geradonis until he stood at his left side. Together they heaved upon the magic ropes.
Mithonel was the strongest warrior of the tribe, always prepared to do battle. He pulled and yanked on his rope, cursing his opponents and the bird herself. This revered bird, the phoenix, its gold and scarlet tail now visible, beat her wings and screeched. She fixed Mithonel with her onyx eye, taking his measure as a man and a future king. She swung her wing and knocked him off his feet. He landed on his back, unconscious. The watching priest signalled to his two acolytes who dragged Mithonel away from the pyre and down the granite steps. The rope that was thrown by Mithonel disintegrated into ash.
The phoenix stopped struggling. The ropes relaxed as she landed upon the smoking pyre, settled her wings. The crowd murmured its disbelief. This had never happened before during a fire ceremony. Geradonis and Ahirom looked at each other, and then at the priest as he walked towards them. The holy man stepped between the brothers. Geradonis winced as he took hold of the arrow and broke the shaft below the fletching, pulling the remainder through his shoulder. The priest murmured instructions to the men then stepped aside.
The brothers did as they were told, walked forward matching step for step and stopped at the outward limit of the lingering heat of the pyre. They knelt, gazing up at the bird, and laid the magic ropes on the ground in front of them. She was free if she chose. The bird ignored them and preened her feathers. She passed each quill through her sharp beak. This went on until the two men kneeling in front of her shifted restlessly in their positions. She gazed down at them.
The phoenix tilted back her head issuing a shattering shriek. She lifted her great wings until the yellow-flamed tips touched above her head. A tremor ran through her body, red and orange coursing down the length of her. She shook her blue-flame crested head from side to side and beat her burning wings as if readying for take-off. In a lightning bolt of white, a second screech rent the air. Those who were not blinded saw the impossible: two great phoenix sitting side by side, crimson feathers aflame, each with a magic rope about her neck.
Behind Geradonis and Ahirom, the priest told them to stand. They did so, knowing from their training the physical sense of what was about to happen and they braced for it. The birds, now engulfed in flame, beat their wings and rose in tandem above all who watched. They circled in the air, hovering briefly before diving head first into the chest of their respective host.
Geradonis felt the impact, his back arching. In his mind he saw an explosion of colours swirling into images of prophesy. He saw battle, many dying and wounded. He saw the tribe rent in two, and he and Ahirom leading separate groups away from their homeland. Flood, drought, burning ash from the sky, death to many. But then, the two groups converging on a new land: peace and prosperity.
The vision ended and Geradonis realized he was now laying on the ground. He heard Ahirom gasp beside him. He opened his eyes to see the priest looking down at him. He raised himself up, stood and held a hand out to Ahirom. Flame danced between their fingers before they touched. Ahirom rose and they stood together and, as the people cheered, the moon smiled.
Carrie Connel-Gripp is a poet and fiction writer living in London, Ontario, Canada. Her stories have recently been published on-line at Aphotic Realm and Fterota Logia. She has published two books of poetry: A Day in Pieces (2013) and Persona Grata (2016) both from Harmonia Press.