Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.
The Setting for This Story
If We Must Die
A full moon illuminated the landscape as peasants crept out of limestone houses. They fetched water from streams and food from gardens with frequent glances into the sky. Murmurs blended with bird songs and the rumble of waves breaking against distant cliffs. Men hunted wild pigs and deer while hiding in shadows from the hungry eyes of the winged predator.
The people returned to their homes where they huddled near the fire with curtains drawn and doors barred. A widow was late returning. The creature dropped on wings that whispered of death and plucked the woman up a few feet from her door.
The peasants named the creature, Broga, which in their tongue meant terror. Fire roared from his gaping maw edged with spikes. The people had seen many of their own ripped apart and devoured when the scaled beast went hunting. Some of the men formed a battle line to fight the serpent. With one swing of his venomous tail, Broga cleared the battlefield of defenders and robbed families of their men.
Charles sat up in bed. Sweat soaked his pillow and blankets. He looked around until his disorientation cleared. He was in a cancer treatment center inside a restored castle located on a seaside peninsula. His son, James, had convinced him to allow the doctors at this facility to assess cancer that had invaded his pancreas. Charles had fought cancer before and couldn’t bear the thought of the tests and drugs. He knew it was hopeless and refused treatments but accepted medication for pain. He agreed to come here because he felt drawn to the castle, not to the treatment center. Charles rested his head on the pillow, hoping the dream would continue.
Cimorelli - Worth The Fight (Official Music Video)
In his youth, the king challenged Broga. They battled from sunrise to moonrise on barren terrain, in forests and on cliffs above the sea. Each had suffered grave wounds, and Broga had disappeared for many years. After the serpent returned, the prince watched his father grow more ambivalent by the day and his people fewer by the night. Powerful fingers that once gripped the hilt of a sword and drove it deep into the beast's belly wore grooves of worry into the ornately carved armrests of his throne. He had barely beaten the serpent once. He couldn’t face him again.
The prince spoke truth that stung like the creature's tail. "Father, Broga must die. It will do no good to hide in the castle, for when he finishes with the peasants, he will not rest until he has feasted on you and me as well. If we must die, let us die fighting."
Charles stared at the stone ceiling. The dream made his heart race. Was this an echo of those who had lived in and around this castle? His eyelids fluttered, sleep came again.
The king retired to his quarters. At dawn, the warrior-king emerged wearing his armor and carrying his sword and shield. "If we must fight, let the battle be today. All who will join me, step forward. The entire room of servants, noblemen, and the royal family moved as one.
A ragtag army of peasants and castle folk chose their battlefield beyond a nearby stream and waited for Broga to answer the challenge. Children hid among rocks and trees wondering if their parents would survive to share the evening meal.
Broga did not disappoint. He swept the challengers with fire on his first pass, but everyone huddled beneath their shields and escaped harm. Children dashed in with buckets of water, extinguished the flames, then retreated. On the second pass, Broga landed and swept his tail in a circle; that should have ended the battle. But on command, the army dropped to the ground so that the serpent's tail passed over them. The warriors leaped to their feet, and the king shouted, "Death to the Invader!"
The king and his force roared and charged. At the same moment, a second force emerged from the forest and attacked Broga from behind. The king and the prince positioned themselves beneath the scaleless belly of the creature. They thrust their swords upward into soft flesh and vital organs. Others joined them and skewered the beast with dozens of swords and pikes. The village butcher pulled a long knife from its sheath and slit the serpent’s belly from rib cage to hind legs. The beast swayed as its blood and guts poured onto the people beneath him. They scattered as their enemy fell. The people who had suffered under the terror of Broga, burned the body and buried the bones in a stone covered mound where he had fallen.
Charles rose slowly from the bed and made his way to the Gothic window, the wheeled I.V. pole with his morphine drip clicking across joints in the stone floor. The sapphire sea blended with the cerulean sky at the horizon. Closer, the windswept countryside might have been unchanged for centuries except for the chain-link security fence around the facility. He was astonished at the dream's clarity. He envisioned Broga in the sky, and the last battle played in his mind. The king had given up hope, but hope was all they had. Then Charles saw it. Beyond a dry stream bed, grass-covered and appearing to be a natural hillock, was the low mound. The door opened behind him.
Charles dragged the I.V. pole across the room and grabbed his son by the shoulders. "You do still have hope, don't you?"
The expression on James' face––the furrowed brow, the silent opening and closing of his mouth––told Charles that his son was not on the same page. "Do you still have hope, son?" He shook James in his newfound resolve.
"You know I do. I've never lost hope."
"That's right. If I must die, let me die fighting. And maybe not die at all, at least not today." His hands dropped, and he took a step back. "Let's find that doctor. We have a beast to slay.”
© 2017 Chris Mills