The Last Man in Caen

Come to the place where his house stood whole,
Where grass grows tall over ashes and coal,
And shed your tears in this quiet glen,
Where died he, last man in Caen.

--From the Ballad of the Last Man in Caen

            A man could be seen walking along the edge of the Forests of Selene. He wasn’t tall, rather wide in the shoulders and dark-haired. His clothes were of obvious high quality, and made according to the latest fashion of Caen. For no good reason, he clutched a long, slim sword of excellent make. At the moment, it was also red with crusted blood. There was also a suspiciously reddish stain over his tunic and pants. The man looked worn out, but still focused. After a while, he seemed to notice the sword for the first time and carefully wiped it with the edge of his cloak. Damn gnoll. He journeyed on…
            Tylock stepped forward to feel the worn stone of Caen’s outer wall. It had always been a symbol of the city’s power, and even now, years after all the rest of Caen lay in ruins, it still stood, impervious to the effects of time. He felt the edges of the huge blocks. Thirty meters thick the walls were claimed to be. Brought up by troll slaves in times of old, or so it was said. The remains of many of these laborers could probably be found under these stones, if any wizard or scholar had the desire to look. Tylock stepped back and glanced along the wall in both directions. It went on for a long time. The journey around could probably take days.
            ‘Come to the place…’ he muttered under his breath. As a child, that verse had always bothered him. ‘Come’ it said. That was hardly incidental. He had asked if anyone had ever listened to the ancient words. Most adults would just give him strange looks. Some, like his father, would joke. Even fewer, those like his mother, would spin him a tale of adventure and heroic deeds. Those had satisfied him and the ballad of the Last Man in Caen and the wonder that it inspired were laid into a far-off corner of his mind.
            His adolescence was taken up by other problems.
            Tylock began to walk. Of course, he had no intention of pacing the whole circumference of New Caen. That would take two days, at least. A shorter way could be found. Not everything was as eternal and mighty as Caen’s great walls.
            It was a windy spring day. The sun blazed warmly and the air was just cool enough to be pleasant. Ragged clouds, driven by the wind, drifted southwards, creating patches of shade on the smooth grassy surface of the Central Plains. It was a good day to be alive.
            Tylock grinned as he found what he was looking for in the wall’s broad expanse. It was a sturdy-looking door, made of heavy wood, positioned in an alcove several human heights off the ground. This had been made as precaution against siege. Even if the enemy managed to heave a battering ram to that height, it would be nearly impossible to swing it with any amount of force. And then, of course, there would be the second door, separated from the first by a narrow L-shaped bend. Yes, without doubt, the architects of Caen knew what they were doing, how ironic that all their work had gone to waste.
            Caen had fallen without even a major battle. The population had been evacuated, a good part of the garrison had deserted and the rest had been left, leaderless and disorganized, to the elves.
            Tylock stopped below the doorway, his gaze traveling up and down the wall to study cracks and possible and handholds. He had come well prepared. Easing his bag onto the ground, he withdrew a set of metal spikes, meant to be attached to the hands and feet. ‘Cat claws’ as they were known in circles of thieves and assassins. Measuring the smooth surface in front of him with his eyes, Tylock thought again back to his youth.
            He had been in a lot of criminal circles during his adolescence, although no such though had ever even crossed his mind in his carefree childhood. He had wanted to be a merchant like most of his family, and earn a good deal more than those good-for-nothings who could do nothing but kill and steal. No, it was not the desire for money that had driven him out of law. It was revenge.
            His parents had been murdered. He could remember that day well, but wouldn’t remember it willingly. The… event… had followed an angry talk with his father, who had ordered him to find a purpose in life. He had a point, of course, Tylock had been drifting for the preceding few months, not really doing anything and not achieving anything, but truth is always the hardest to bear. He had listened to his father calmly, then run off to think. When he had returned to tell his father that he was sorry and would start working from now on, his whole life had changed.
            With a scrape of metal on stone, he reached the ledge. Heaving himself up, Tylock scrabbled for purchase, found it and pressed back against the doorway. A cloud had covered the sun and he squinted upwards. He sat there for a second longer, then slipped the claws off and tucked them back into the sack. Another look around and he got down to opening the door. The wood was still solid, and, by looking intently through the crack he could see the thick rod of a bolt. The hinges were a different matter. Although might have been powerful once, they were now rusted and one had already nearly fallen off. Tylock set to work.
            He had organized a decent funeral and taken over his father’s business. He had known how to run it well enough, but questions had continued to gnaw at him. Who? Why? Answers could be found… for a price. He had paid well.
            With a crack, the last hinge parted company with the door. The door leaned outwards ominously, but ducking down and pushing it over himself, Tylock managed to remove it with the minimal amount of risk and fuss. There were several snakes, adders by the look of them in the narrow passage, probably just coming out of hibernation. On seeing him they hissed and retreated into the corners. Tylock had no time for it. Methodically, he chopped away at them with his sword and threw the bodies aside. The ruins of Caen were prime territory for all kinds of reptiles…
            The walls were indeed thick. As he had presumed, there was a second door, but this was in worse condition than the first one and several minutes of hacking with an axe put an end to it.
            Caen lay before him. Or at least its remains. When the elves had overrun it they had made sure that no one would use the city ever again. The whole of it had been burned to the ground. What didn’t burn was smashed. They could do nothing to harm the walls, of course, not at the time, but after the war, one of the terms I the peace treaty was that humans would not recover Caen. This might seem surprising, but it was actually agreed to almost unanimously. For the orcs, dwarves and trolls, the city was a symbol of oppression. The newly formed human city-states weren’t too hot on the idea of someone having the full power of Caen. So the city was abandoned.
            From where he was standing, a set of stairs led down into the city. Tylock took a final glance, trying to fix the direction he had to take in his mind. With a sigh he descended and began to cross the ruins. Down here everything was confusing, and he would stop every once in a while to orient himself by the position of the sun. It was easy to get lost.
            At first progress was slow. The streets in the part of the city were narrow and many were blocked by rubble or overgrown. However, when, scratched and bad-tempered, he finally arrived on the Emperor’s Way, a broad avenue running through the heart of Caen, he could travel in relative ease, looking around.
Long-empty windows looked down at him. Where buildings had collapsed or been knocked down, the charred, jagged remains of wall stuck forlornly out of the rubble. Plant life had, of course, found its way in. Even the impeccably laid cobbles of the richer areas were sprouting trees and bushes. The poorer areas had turned into a jungle. Tylock went back to his musings.
            It had been elves who had killed his parents. Killed them for no special reason, the way Tylock saw it. There was no robbery, no political reason. As his informers had explained to him, his father and mother had broken some elvish religious law. That fact maddened him most of all. Tylock had turned all his resources against the elves. The arson of the Elven Quarter of New Caen in the Lower City was still unaccounted for and attributed to elvish crime groups.
            Many elf bodies had been found in the river.
            Many more had not.
            This was where the Imperial Palace had once stood. Tylock gazed in awe at a huge pile of marble. The palace had been built at the same time as the walls, and by much the same architects, but here the elves hadn’t spared time or resources. No two blocks were left standing. Tylock stood there for a while, trying to imagine what it must have looked like in Caen’s better days. Tylock started nervously and looked around. Had it been imagination, or a sixth sense? It was the same feeling of coming danger he had felt so often back in prison. He gritted his teeth. There had been many things trying to stop him from reaching Caen. He wondered if it was coincidental.
            It had all ended one day as he knew it would. There had been a witness, someone had been caught and snitched. He had been prepared, of course, but the New Caen City Watch had grabbed him before he could make a run for it. There had been only one charge brought against him: the murder of an elven family. A loyal man had taken the blame onto himself and had been hanged. Tylock had been sentenced for life.
            In jail, the elf inmates had been only too glad to see him. After eight years he had decided enough was enough. He had killed two fellow prisoners, elves, and made a run for it the same night. He had recovered the gold he had hidden away for so long and turned back to his old purpose with renewed vigor. And more caution.
            The sun had mounted the apex of its path across the sky and was rolling slowly down towards the horizon. Tylock was now reaching the other side of the city.
            There had been another murder uncovered by the Watch and this time he had gone into hiding. More years were spent in the small towns and villages of the far east, where his name was unknown. Lack of purpose was depressing. He had even turned to drinking. And then he had been reminded of the only person in the world who hated elves as much as he did. The Last Man in Caen.
            Tylock reached the outer wall. After a few minutes he found a small gate, leading outside. The bolts were so rusted that there was nothing for it but to attack the hinges again. According to the legend, the Last Man in Caen had actually lived somewhere outside the city. Tylock raised hammer and chisel…
            A mass of snakes, a sinewy torso, the coils of serpent’s body, two flashing blades and two hatred-filled eyes… An irate snakewoman blocked his path. Tylock jumped back, drawing his own sword with one hand and fumbling behind himself with the other. The snakewoman attacked with the frightening speed and violence of her kind. He parried one strike that left his arm numb and just jumped out of the way of a second.
            He was not unduly worried. Retreating and keeping just out of the snakewoman’s reach, he finally found what he was looking for. A crossbow, compact and powerful. Dwarf design. Made in Maach-Kaala. He glanced down and saw that there was an arrow slotted into it. The snakewoman darted forward, but now he danced back carelessly, letting his sword fall and spinning the crossbow’s windlass with practiced ease.
            There was a click.
            There was the distinctive twang of a bowstring.
            There was a wet thud and the snakewoman folded gently onto the ground.
            Tylock breathed out again. He reloaded quickly and shot the carcass again. The snakefolk were not to be taken casually. Fortunately they were solitary creatures, so it was highly unlikely that there was another in the vicinity. He gave the dead body a wide berth, in any case.
            The tale of the Last Man in Caen was simple. When most of Caen’s population had fled, he had stayed behind and fought. He had continued to fight even after the garrison had been defeated and the city was in flames. In the end the elves had cornered in his house and laid siege to it. Ridiculous for an army of twelve thousand. Catapults were brought in and laid waste to the house, but he had continued to resist. One and a half weeks later the elves had been forced to storm his position. He had died a hero. Of course, the ballad was much more exaggerated.
            ‘Come,’ it said.
            Tylock was coming.
            A mad half-scramble, half-jump down the wall, which was fortunately more pitted and uneven than that on the other side, and he was standing among more derelict houses that petered out as they moved away from the city. The Last Man in Caen had lived yet a fair distance away.
            What if that enigmatic phrase was no more than that, a bad rhyme? He shrugged mentally. Unfortunate. It would not be a radical disappointment in his life.
            Ah, there, at the edge of the suburb, the remains of a stone wall, a garden now long overgrown, a small pillar that could have been the remains of a fireplace.
            ‘Come to the place…’ he stepped forward.

            The landscape around where the house used to be was pretty much unremarkable: the Central Plains. The chimney was laid out crudely in flat slabs of shale. A small depression started just at the foot of the chimney and continued east. Its sides had been washed away by rain, but the bottom sprouted a thick carpet of vegetation. The gully ended abruptly at a wall of mud. This was it.
            Come to the place where his house stood whole…
            Tylock let his feet carry him down into the depression and looked around, taking everything in. Slowly he crouched and, pushing through the thick grass, dug his hands into the soil. They came up holding a pile of fine charcoal. Promising so far.
            Where grass grows tall over ashes and coal…
            The next part was easy, although it had taken him some puzzling to figure out the meaning of the words. He suddenly felt very foolish. This was a preposterous enterprise. His doubts came back from the little crevices of his mind that they had been hiding in. Tylock paused to reassure himself. What was he going to do if all this failed? Nothing. It wouldn’t change anything. But it was always worth trying.
            What did he expect from this, anyway? Some kind of revelation, probably. Or maybe he just had nothing to do and wanted to satisfy a childhood desire. He shrugged. It did not pay to descend into such questions when the answer was so near. Ceremoniously, he rubbed the two handfuls of charcoal dust into his eyes.
            And shed your tears in this quiet glen…
            Immediately they were watering, and he felt the tears flow unrestrained down his cheeks and drop down into the grass. He sat blinking for a while to clear his vision. Nothing had changed. He rose after a while, disappointed. So much for that. He would go back home then. It was a foolish idea, anyway. That was when he heard the soft, unmistakable sound of a polite cough.
            His hand reached immediately for his sword, but he changed his mind midway. His crossbow was still with him and it was at his shoulder in an instant. All this happened even before he had fully turned around to face whoever was behind him. He loaded, cocked, aimed… and froze.
            Where died he, last man in Caen…
            There was a man sitting on the fireplace, leaning casually back. His hair was brown, long and tied back by a length of fabric. His eyes were a dark brown color and looked slightly distant, even though they focused directly on Tylock. He was wearing light leather armor and held a business-like bow. There was a quiver slung behind his back and a heavy-looking spear lay next to him. Quite unmistakably, it was the Last Man in Caen.
            For several seconds, Tylock could only make inarticulate sounds. He paused eventually, studying the long-sought ghost. After a while he realized he was still holding the crossbow and let it gently to the ground. The silence stretched.
            ‘You’re the Last Man in Caen?’ Tylock burst out eventually.
            It was only partly a question.
            The phantom nodded. With a careless gesture he lifted the spear and traced some sort of pattern in the dirt beneath it.
            ‘You hate elves,’ he said by way of conversation.
            Tylock nodded fervently. His mind was in a bit of turmoil. Emotions were surging and tugging him this way and that: elation, gratification, surprise, curiosity, anger and all the rest. Several possible phrases tumbled across his tongue, including ‘Who…?’, ‘What…?’, ‘Where…?’, ‘Why…?’ and ‘How…?’, but none of them seemed appropriate. He wisely shut up and let the apparition lead the conversation.
            The latter was looking at Tylock with curiosity, his head cocked to one side.
            ‘You’re a smart one,’ he said finally, ‘if you thought of finding me, and you’re a tough one, if you have come here at all.’
            He smiled at Tylcok’s confused expression.
            ‘Did it seem funny that so many creatures went out of their way to try and kill you?’
            Tylock’s face grew impassive. The specter was looking at him in that same funny way, head slanted to the side and a smile on his lips. He seemed to be able to read Tylock’s mind.
            ‘No need to be like that. You can consider yourself honored to be the only one to have met me in over eight hundred years,’ he paused. ‘Everybody is an enemy until proven otherwise, you know that well.’ Another pause. ‘To put it quite simply, you are my heir, in spirit if not in body.’
            The Last Man in Caen grew quiet again, his gaze traveling down to the ground. When he looked up, his eyes were hard as diamonds.
            ‘Have you any idea how it was that last autumn, the autumn that I died?’ his voice was fierce. ‘I’ll tell you. It was beautiful, a time for life, and then the elves came and burned that autumn. My family, my friends… Not in Caen, of course. The people of Caen fled and I would have joined them, but then… There was nowhere to run to… I fought. They cornered me, they couldn’t kill me, so they starved me.’
            He smiled sadly.
            ‘I have watched your deeds with interest,’ he added.
            Tylock sighed. ‘It’s over. If I show up in the City-States again, it’s the chopping block for me.’
            The ghost winked. ‘Then maybe it’s time to move on. I can help with that. If mankind hasn’t changed in these last eight hundred years, which I doubt…’ He rose suddenly, ‘A word of advice: don’t let the elimination of the elves rid your life of its joys. Good luck.’
            With one gesture he cast the spear into the ground, burying it up to the very shaft. Gradually his contours began to fade and dissipate and he was gone, with a final laugh drifting on the breeze.
            Tylock stood dumbfounded.
            ‘Hey wait!’ he cried out suddenly, but it was too late. Spinning around, he tried to catch any glimpse of the Last Man in Caen. But he was alone.
            Tylock frowned. The Last Man in Caen was gone, and unlikely to come back, but there was his promise of help… He turned slowly to face the remains of the chimney. The spear was still there, although he had thought that it had disappeared along with its owner. Nothing for it. He stepped forward and grabbed it firmly by the shaft. One jerk and he held it aloft. Slowly, he felt along the handle, turning the weapon slowly. His hand strayed down to the point… and stayed there. In amazement, he spun the blade up to eye-level and stared. There could be no mistake. What he was holding in his hands was a rather long-handled shovel.
            The hint was obvious. Tylock sat back for a second, considering, then began to dig. The soil was loose and came away easily. So were the ashes that lay below, save for a few fire-hardened pieces of wood. Very soon he was several feet down, and that was when the shovel struck rock. After some inspection he realized this had been the foundation of the Last Man’s house. A little more poking with the shovel and he heard the dull thud of wood. More digging. It was a hatchway. In the confined space of the pit, Tylock tried to lever it open with the end of the shovel. The wood looked rotten, but still held. In the end, stabbing down at the hatch with all his might proved more effective. The wood cracked splintered and collapsed downward. He was faced by a dark, gaping hole. A wave of moist, stale air rose up at him. Lowering the shovel into it, he couldn’t feel the bottom. Nodding to himself, he climbed back out.
            A quick rummage in his bag produced a dwarf-made lantern, unbreakable, with a non-spilling oil supply and easy lighting system. Ah, the dwarfs. So much more like humans. He could respect them. The dwarves were rarely fanatical about anything other than money.
            The light revealed a large room, not very high, just enough for the shovel-spear not to be able to reach the floor. Gingerly, he let himself down. The floor was slightly uneven where he landed and the lantern tumbled from his hands and went out. He felt for it and managed to get it relit in the darkness. The first thing he saw was a skeleton prostrate on the ground. He jerked backwards and tumbled over, what turned out on inspection to be another skeleton. There were four of them in view, all apparently had been slain by arrows. A few feet away he came on to a fifth, which had had its head hewn off. More long-bleached bones revealed themselves in the darkness. There were fourteen skeletons in the room. Elvish by the look of the skull and bones.
            Finally, at the very end of the room he came at last upon a human body, a body that could have belonged to only one man. It held a dagger, and leaned backwards against the wall. When Tylock came closer he saw that the man’s last effort had been spent on carving a single word into the wall. ‘Here.’
            Tylock went back for the shovel. While he had been away it had transformed itself again, this time into a pick. Two strikes was all it took. The bricks fell away. There was a space beyond them, barely enough to accommodate a human. What it did accommodate was a lot of gold. Coins, bars, jewelry. Tylock grinned.
The Last Man in Caen had given him the most precious of all gifts. He had given him freedom.

            It was late afternoon and the sun was more than half-way down to the horizon. The underground chamber could wait. He needed some food and a fire. The apple tree presented itself, but he decided against disturbing it. There was a small clump of shrubs a little way away and he made his way towards it, taking his time. The wood was green and let off a lot of smoke when burned, but he managed to get a fire going. A brief hunt with the crossbow returned two wood-pigeons, and lost him nearly a dozen arrows. He was a hunter of elves, not animals. He cleaned them as best he could and set them over the fire to cook. They turned out burned on the outside and almost raw on the inside, but he wasn’t picky. He hadn’t eaten since the previous day when his supplies had run out.
            Tylock lay back, looking at the sky. He felt at peace with the world. The Last Man in Caen was right, enjoyment in life was important. Maybe he should take a holiday to somewhere far away where they had never heard of him… His mind drifted off.