As the dark hemp hoods were slid back four faces emerged, young looking yet strangely serious, their eyes dark and unreadable in the torch light. In stark contrast to these youthful faces the fifth figure was aged and wrinkled. White hair gleamed just as brightly as the marble walls which they had passed through. The old man glanced at each of his four companions before placing the torch in a holder beside the marble slab. The four in turn faced the back walls to do the same before resuming their first position.
As the aged man began to speak he removed a small clay pot from his robe and slowly hoisted it above his head.
Gracious spirits of mountain and earth
That bring us light, bounty and mirth
Hide not your faces from our plaintiff cries
But guide us in these endeavours
The plague which smotes as it flies
Burns destruction through this great land
Its people fall as they stand
No lasting life nor ageing worth
Send forth your arrow of golden light
To bless us in our final plight
Shroud fiery snow upon this slab
For one life given a nation’s birth
At once a breath of mountain air streamed through the open door and swirled around the room causing the torch fires to sputter and spit tiny embers to the carved ceilings above. The four young sentries did not stir or seem alarmed. They waited patiently though keenly as the old man placed the small pot carefully on the slab before him and slowly pulled the wooden lid from it.
The wind continued to swirl in the room, fluttering the old man’s rob around him and tugging at the hanging sleeves. Slowly particles of red dust began to lift out of the small pot, turning and twirling upwards as it caught the draft.
One of the sentries let out a soft gasp of wonder as some of the red particles caught alight and flew higher from the pot. More turned to fire as they sparkled and danced upwards. All four youthful faces watched the sparks rise and dance in the air, their expressions a mixture of awe and relief.
But just as suddenly as the red dust had caught alight it turned to grey ash and fell surprisingly quickly down to the slab. The old man wore an expression of pain as he tried to catch the ash as it fell and lift it again into the air.
‘Spirits of Hebes!’ he implored as the ash now steadily fell around the empty clay pot.
A sentry began to cry from his post and the rest broke rank to cluster around the slab and stare distressed at the grey powder which had all finally settled.
‘We have failed’ the old man whispered, and in the dancing lights of the torches he seemed to whither and wilt.
Some sentries pulled at their robes in anguish while others stared beseechingly at the stooped man who had turned away from the slab and stood with his back to them.
‘The final hope for our people is lost.’