I’m bored of my recent blogs. Let’s have something different. Here are 5 settings of classic showdowns that form the finale of epic stories:
(You can click on the headings for more information.)
A quick glance over her shoulder, and Angharad saw the shadows of the men appear far behind them.
“We have to hurry!”, she shouted, but by now their horse was utterly exhausted and their pace was slowing. Without saying a word, Matthew took the stern rope in his hand, pulled himself up and over the roof of the boat with the other, and jumped onto the path. He spun around, wrapping the rope across his torso, and then he hooked it over his shoulder and pulled. His dark face crumpled into a frown as his back hunched over and he forced his way forward; his bulk now another stumbling dark shape against the reddening sky.
Angharad felt the boat move faster, but she knew it wasn’t fast enough. She looked again, and the men were riding fast towards them with young, and fresh, horses. The Sergeant was breaking out in front of them, and she could see him bobbing up and down in his saddle with the speed. She glanced forward, and saw Elin and Pedr were also watching the horsemen too. They gazed through her as if she wasn’t there. Suddenly they looked old, and the shadows of sunset cut deep creases into their faces. They seemed very frail, and very mortal.
They were halfway across the aqueduct by now, and the Sergeant’s men would soon reach them. The children were in the cabin… maybe, she thought, Matthew could take them on the horse, and get them away. She called to him, but he didn’t seem to hear.
She felt her heart sinking. Almost calmly, she felt it was such a shame that they should have travelled so far, and got so very close, and it wasn’t enough. She started running through in her mind what she would say when the men reached them, what excuses she would make. But then, deep down, she knew that by now it was far too late for that.
She could now hear hooves galloping on the bridge and even feel the vibrations through the tiller. As she turned back once again she could see his face now, and as their eyes met he raised his right arm and pointed a rifle directly at her head. His horse stormed towards them and she waited for the rifle’s crack – hoping to hear it and to know she was still alive.
But there was shouting in the bow. She turned her head forward once more, and Eli and Pedr were shouting. The children were out of the cabin now, scurrying around them, and one of them was on the path.
There were horses coming from the other side of the bridge. Uniformed soldiers. Scores of them. On the boat, the old couple and the children were shouting and waving, their voices pitching higher and higher, and now she thought she could feel the whole bridge rattling with hooves.
She looked back at the Sergeant for the last time. Both the man and the horse had been struck motionless. The rifle hung limp, pointing down into the water. The light was ebbing quickly now, and she could no longer see his expression. He looked like a statue of some great heroic figure. He looked like… he symbolised something. Honour or sacrifice or piety or something. He seemed to look like he was part of the bridge perhaps – something you walk past everyday and eventually stop noticing.
The uniformed soldiers were off their horses now and had reached the boat. Angharad saw one of them embracing Matthew, and heard them both speaking Welsh, which sounded strange on Matthew’s lips after all this time.
And then she was being lifted up into the air by the strong arms of a stranger, and found herself walking along the high path in a swirl of uniforms and grease and laughter and children.
“Angharad.” Matthew was beside her now. She looked up into his beaming face, and was going to say something, but instead she smiled too, and reached for his hand.
The gap in between the containers was barely big enough for a person to walk through, and Hughes could feel his jacket catch on the container walls as he ran. The sound in front of him stopped, and so he also stopped in his tracks, momentarily.
And then, almost immediately the sound of running started again, and he followed. He could see ahead of him that the gap tunnel hit a dead end, and he would have to turn either left or right. The running sound was clearly coming from the left. He didn’t have time to slow: he turned and smacked into the container wall with his shoulder, and then leapt off to the left.
The gap between these containters was wider, and longer, and he could still hear the running, but there was no sign of anyone in front of him. Given a long unbroken stretch he was able to pick up some speed, and he began to ready himself for a struggle.
Suddenly he was standing in a clearing. Empty rectangles on the ground where containers should be, numbering themselves quietly into the distance. He looked around. There was no one. The running sound had stopped. In the yard it was quiet but for the dull hum of the world outside it.
He walked forward, expectantly, walking swiftly towards the nearest point of cover, expecting to hear a gunshot at any moment. There was none.
He turned and kept walking, peering around corners. Nothing moved.
Worried now, he slipped between two containers, and waited. And waited. Minutes passed, and passed, and passed. There was no more sound of any kind of movement: running, walking, shuffling, crawling.
Now he was starting to panic. He darted out into the clearing again, and began to shuffle back and forth, walking swiftly and then running again. Each corner he turned around presented 10, 20, 30 hiding places. He started to lose his bearings. Had he been through this part before, from a different angle? He realised he should have tried to remember the numbers of the empty spaces marked on the ground. He tried to be systematic, to walk in a straight line and check every artificial alleyway methodically.
Suddenly the overwhelming futility of the task hit him.
Hughes sat down on the ground where he was. He had lost him. And clearly, he had lost him for the last time.
A helicopter shot over their heads, very low, and flew towards the girl, banking in a steep arc when it reached her. The girl had stopped running. Ahead of her there were yet more men in suits, and yet more police officers. Behind them, another helicopter was approaching.
The helicopter stopped banking, levelled off and then rose directly upward. A search light flashed on one of its flanks, and the beam wobbled and juddered along the ground in clumsy figures of eight until it fixed on the girl.
They were getting close to her now. Special Agent Brizuela lifted his megaphone and it let out a squeal of feedback, but after holding it to his lips he changed his mind and handed it to the girl’s mother.
The air was hot, and thick, and still, and the clouds hung heavy and very dark right above them. The high-up sound of the spinning helicopter blades seemed to hold everyone in a momentary trance.
Then, before her mother could speak, Beppa screamed as loud as she could: “They made me promise not to tell anyone!” Tears were rolling down her face in streams.
“I know, baby, I know!” her mother called back through the megaphone, her face contorted with anxiety.
“You didn’t believe me!” There was anger in the little girl’s voice now.
“I’m so sorry, Beppa!” her mother shouted, almost in a scream. “I was stupid, baby, I should have believed you! But… I love you so much! And I just want you to come home… I was wrong! I was wrong and you were right! Just… come back… just come back to me honey! Just…”
The girl looked down, and looked at the object clutched in her hands.
Special Agent Brizuela quickly took the megaphone. “We need you to give us the toy, Annabelle.” His tone was firm now. “We need you to put it down on the ground.”
Beppa, still looking down, said something, but it was lost in the swirling blades.
She was surrounded now. Police, FBI, National Guard, civilians. Everyone was standing very still, and seemed to be leaning forward very slightly.
Suddenly Beppa looked up with fire in her eyes.
“They said you were all liars!”
A wave of panic passed through the onlookers. Her mother was shouting “Please! Please!” Beppa looked at her, and just said “I’m sorry, Mommy!”
Then she reached down. And the sky went white.
And suddenly there it was. Pristine. Rising up out of the hillside as if it was carved from the rock. Tunja found herself suprised by how much it did actually look like the fairytale castle that it had become in her mind these last few years. She was expecting it to look different somehow. More real. More beaten, ruined, damaged, perhaps burnt out completely. But it looked utterly untouched.
She was exhausted. The last few days had just got harder and harder, the closer she had got to the end of the journey. It had been sheer angry will that had kept her pushing forward, but that anger was fading now. The days of riding through trackless countryside, eating little, sleeping with a rifle in her hands, had made her weak to the point where she could feel illness settling in around her body.
But it had been such a joy to return to the village, and that had given her some of her strength back. It was a joy to be amongst them again, the chatter, the colour, the children. Although now there was something about this procession that only made her feel more exhausted, perhaps more than she had been at any point on the journey. The villagers were all in their smartest clothes, happy and chatting energetically. And in the middle of them, on a donkey that looked as exhausted as she was, she sat, in her dirty and torn soldier’s uniform, her matted hair still not fully clean. She felt like some dirty old holy man, being paraded around the lanes for trying to touch the young girls.
Her eye caught a figure, standing alone outside the church.
Suddenly her exhaustion was gone, and she was sitting up in her saddle. The figure was small, but Tunja recognised her instantly. And her heart started pounding.
Sister Dolores was still some distance away, but she was clearly standing very still, like a little doll, and looking dead ahead. If she noticed the procession making its way to the church, she certainly gave no indication of it.
Tunja realised that, having waited so long for this moment, she was unprepared. She tried to remember all of the things she had planned to say. Fragments of old well-rehearsed speeches came into her head, out of sequence, incoherent. She suddenly wished she had more time. She wished she could have asked the villagers to stop, so she could collect her thoughts, but it would have been too hard explain. Perhaps Sister Dolores had prepared a speech too? If she had, it was bound to be a much better one…
Something was wrong.
Tunja was close enough to see that that serene face now wore a strange expression. Anguish. Maybe even anger. Sister Dolores seemed to be on the verge of tears. As if she was trying to keep some overpowering emotion from registering on her face.
They were moving so slowly towards her, but the closer they got the more that face terrified Tunja. What had happened? What terrible thing was troubling her?
Then they stopped. The villagers shuffled, and continued to chat a little, and then a hush descended. They looked at Sister Dolores. Sister Dolores stared at Tunja. And now, yes, she had tears in her eyes. Seconds passed. The villagers exhanged glances, and their cheerful faces started to become clouded with worry. And then, finally, Sister Dolores spoke.
“You are not welcome here,” she said.
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Tunja, as it merely put into words the message that the face was telling. But if felt like being kicked in the chest by a horse.
Tunja opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t find any words, and her jaw hung open.
Sister Dolores made a wretched, pleading face that seemed to say ‘I’m so sorry! There is nothing I can do…’ She looked utterly helpless. She dropped her eyes from Tunja’s gaze, and lowered her head. Her body started shaking.
Then she turned, and hurried back to the church. The door opened inward for her, and she was gone.
The Pit of the Paris Catacombs
The wick of the candle gently tilted over, like a felled tree, and the flame fell into the little pool of wax – flickering a little as it drowned.
And then there was nothing but darkness. More than darkness, it was an absolute black. Tom had never seen anything like that void before – even closing his eyes in bed at night had never been nearly this dark.
And his father’s voice kept ringing out through the tunnels. After so many years of cold, indifferent silence it was strange indeed to finally hear him talking, excitedly, in a high nasal voice. It was all pouring out of him now like a sewage pipe.
“How does it feel to know that you’re going to die very soon, my boy?” his father said. And Tom realised he was right. There was no way he would ever find his way out of the catacombs alive. He would die of starvation, or more likely thirst. Or… he might die sooner at the hand of whatever his father was looking for. As long as he had had the candle he had been able to keep the fear at bay, only just, but now it was gone he felt his body start to shake. It seemed as if the whole world had shrunk and shrunk and shrunk, and eventually vanished, and the only thing left was his father’s voice.
“I’m sure your dear mother has been waiting a long time to see you again, but I’m afraid… she won’t recognise you when she does! I wish I could see her face. Her dull little face, so untroubled by serious thought. Her emotions were the emotions of a child, like yours. Fear, sadness, happiness – not from the conclusions of her rational faculties, but only from whatever was directly in front of her. There was a moment – it makes me laugh to think of it – there was a moment when I thought she might even be able to recognise genius. That she might even see that she was in the presence of the rarest of minds, with a capacity for understanding far deeper than Newton or Bacon, or even Plato. Of course, she barely possessed the intellect of an animal herself, but surely, I thought, she must be able to appreciate the brightness of a sun in the sky, even though she had no idea what it was. But no. Originality, logic, insight… to her silly mind these things were so far beyond her that they looked like madness…”
Suddenly Tom felt something touch his leg, and he let out a cry. He wanted to run, but didn’t know where. And then he realised… it was the dog! Somehow, incredibly, the dog had found him. He could hear its breath. He bent down and reached out his hand, and felt its tongue on his fingers.
His father had stopped talking momentarily, and then he said, “Well, boy, I don’t expect you to understand what is happening any more than your mother did, but it might be of some consolation for you to know that after you die, your father will become the most powerful and respected man whoever lived. Little boys back in England will be envious of you, despite your horrifying fate. For your father… was the great sorcerer!”
Then he began to speak in a language Tom didn’t understand. The voice began to wail, high and wavering, almost like song. It seemed to be getting further away.
Moments before that voice had been the only thing in the world. But now there was the voice, and the dog. And the voice was strange, and far away. And the dog was right here. And was going to lead him to freedom. He found his fingers undoing his string belt and reaching for the dog’s collar, where he fashioned a short leash. And then the dog ran, and he started to run with it. He quickly realised that he was now so rake-thin that his shorts were slipping down as he ran, and at another time that might have seemed comic, but at this moment it didn’t seem funny at all. Clearly, anything that slowed him down at this moment might well kill him. So with his other hand he hitched them up like a skirt, and kept running.
His father was laughing now, with high-pitched and regular wails of mad excitement. He suddenly sounded young, like man of seventeen, uninhibited, silly with delight. The laugh became a cry of pure joy.
“They’re opening! The gates are opening! The gates of a hundred thousand years! Oh Baphomet, I cast myself before your cruel and infinite glory! Grant me but a grain of your wisdom, and let me finally cast my eyes upon your servant!”
And the floor and the walls shook with a rolling shudder that quickly rose until it felt like an earthquake. And within seconds, it had died away.
The boy and the dog were motionless, not knowing whether to go forward or backward.
The boy’s father was laughing again, but quietly this time. He seemed to be chanting:
“They’re open, they’re open, they’re open, they’re open…”
And then, very suddenly, his voice changed utterly.
“Oh sweet Jesus, mother Mary of God, Heavenly Father forgive me and take pity on my soul… oh sweet Jesus… no… No! No! No no please no God please no please no…”
The gasps of laughter turned mid-breath into gasps of panic and horror. He sounded like he could barely breath.
And then Tom heard his father say:
“T-Tom… my boy… run! RUN!”
And Tom did run. He ran and ran, pulled by the dog, until he thought he would faint from lack of breath. He stumbled and tripped, and each time the dog scurried back to him and nudged him. He ran until he forgot why he was running, forgot what was behind him, forgot what might or might not be chasing him. He ran and crawled and climbed and ran again until suddenly he was pushing open doors and rushing out onto the streets of Paris. And then he fell to his knees and rocked up and down, gulping the air. The dog watched him for a moment, and then put its paws on his legs and began to lick his ear.
It goes without saying, of course, that his father was never seen again.
But then, it goes without saying, no one ever looked.