In the midnight moonlight, the Tower of London loses its man-made features. Long ago, this imposing figure sat at the centre of an ancient city. Where in unwritten antiquity a deal was struck between a divine king and the magical realm. An immortal kingdom for the price of his undying head. Now, around him, the banal yellow glow of twelve million windows bleached the land, the twin spears of Tower Bridge dominate the sky, as technology continues its 200-year command over nature. The tower's ancient walls stand sturdy and unrelenting in defence of his centuries-old stare. Inside the moons silver beams fall untainted and sharp as an axe. Each blow coaxes out the voices of the long-dead who have left ripples of their lives here.
In the witching hour, the sleeping stones wake and release those they have interned. Banging like a war drum from deep within the chapel, King Henry VI can be heard weeping and beating his chest to the news that his son has been slain. Edward and Richard, the young princes killed by their king, fearfully leave their hiding place, which still eludes the living. Soon they can be seen as the shadows that play across the battlements, dancing around Lady Margaret who is frogmarched by her executioner. Her indignant cries echo through the chambers, “No traitor, no, not I!” Deeper, in the impenetrable dungeon, Sir Francis spits and rages against those who have conspired to break him. And Anne Boleyn’s headless body continues to bounce blindly off the walls.
These are but a few of the hundreds of dead who lead the ghostly, howling choir. Throughout the many chambers, you can smell the iron and rust of the centuries-old bitter blood that can never dry. An entire history of vicious rule-bound with bitter anger cursed to replay itself for eternity.
The horrors of this place do not stop with the tower above, for beneath the soil of Tower Hill lies the head of the Great King. Hidden in the foreground are a flock of his eyes. Like a shepherd tending to their herd. Through them, the spell is kept alive. They keep him trapped in a world that had seen his dreams destroyed. Glittering amber in jet black bodies they patrol these walls on his rotten behalf. A tower on a hill. This was all he had left. Long gone was the kingdom that met the sea in every direction, the bygone king now sits besieged by the city’s financial district. Still, it is important that the king be here.
So important in fact that two generations ago when the Germans crossed the ocean, just as they had in the king’s age. When they rained hell-fire from the darkest skies, Churchill himself ordered that the eyes of the Great King must be protected. Now as then, these people, who had never spoken his name, demanded he is kept here. Alive.
His ancient purpose had been forgotten, even by him. He once walked these lands as a giant, named Brân the Blessed, the greatest of kings. Now he was nothing but a bitter and twisted stump. In the world above him, he and his people were forgotten, dismissed, or considered to have never existed at all. Just as the faery-filled forests which blanketed this land are far beyond the imagination of those who now come to visit his tomb. The legends of his golden age live on twisted, broken, and distorted. They have been wielded to subjugate others in far-off kingdoms unknown to his people. So long has he been entombed here that he has no memory of that fateful day, or why he is here.
Above him sits the tower whose roots have grown so deep into the land that it is now all he knows. An impeccable crown for a rotten head. Its white highlights punctuate the darkness that the King so desperately desired for himself. This world he had promised to maintain had become so alienated from him, from itself, that its people hurtled towards disaster, unwilling to save themselves from fire and flood.
Like everything in the world beyond these walls, the ravens have become gluttons. The noble sacrifice that had manifested them was gone forever. But just as the people who live today hold a deep nostalgia for this tower, the ravens hold a deep nostalgia for King Brân.
As the furious spirits sweep through the tower complex and the rigid stone angles warped and melted in the heat of emotions desperate for a resolution, only the ravens were protected. The deep magical power of their head the sovereign of their cursed lair. As the ghosts began to rip themselves apart in a howling ritual of hatred, Brân and his ravens sat silently.
The walls crack like glaciers as hundreds of ghosts batter against them, bouncing, desperate to return to the lives which were stolen here. It watched with sorrow. His presence trapped them here and the ravens trapped him. Just like every night, the hurricane would pass unseen. It is a special kind of torture just for him. As suddenly as it begins, it is over. Brân is alone again. His eyes continue to patrol the tower.
A thousand years ago on this hill, when Brân had sworn his hated oath, he had overlooked 34 babbling rivers. They had once filled his world with vibrant shades of blues and greens. The water embarrassed by its abundance of fishes. They had brought life to this region, but just like Brân they were buried and forgotten. They were stained black and brown by poison.
The world had replaced the offensive sight with a thousand roaring motorways. Choking with cars that flicker red, blue, and green in a perverse imitation of the fishes of Brân’s kingdom. This poisoned land was ruled by poisoned people. Was this what Brân had sacrificed himself for? It had become a forgotten pact that filled him with hate. They could not know now that he desperately wished to die.
Several miles away, a Ford Fiesta nervously worked its way towards the tower. Flickering under passing street lamps, as if it were moving through water. En route to its destiny, Brân still hadn’t seen it coming.
Inside the car sat five angry idealists acting on a prophecy. Light flickered from the passenger seat as Rhodri lit another cigarette, and tapped it against the edge of an open window. Tense and silent, he was desperate to maintain the strength that had been draining out of him since they entered London. He leaned his head against the glass and was soothed by its vibration. The thin canyons of Georgian buildings that dominate West London briefly blurred into nothing, and Rhodri felt strong enough to raise his head again. Taking another drag, he stopped to stroke the stubble running up his cheeks while he focused his blue-green eyes on the road ahead.
Bronwyn, the driver, was at her limit. Nicotine had been soaking into her each and every pore since they crossed the Severn. She had never seen a city as brazen as this. One that was primed to crush any one of its inhabitants.
“Turn right here,” the GPS blared, making them both flinch. Bronwyn eased the car off of Euston Road. She began fluffing her close-cropped hair as if it would shake out the smoke. She was hoping it would calm her down, however, the high brick houses of Imperial London that sparkled with the lights of lascivious windows made her feel like a mouse already in the cat's jaws. She desperately wanted to get out of the stolen car that had brought them here.
“How much further?” was all she could manage to ask.
It had been a long journey from their native Wales.
“10 minutes. The British Museum is coming up,” Rhodri answered as if he had been to London before today.
Lewis Lewis’ voice startled Bronwyn and Rhodi. “After that, it’s not far…” continued Lewis Lewis from his uncomfortable perch of the middle seat, repeating nervously. “Not far after that.”
Lewis Lewis, as his name suggested, had a habit of repetition. He had taken the name for this mission, hoping the world would see it for the historical reference it was. Instead, it had caused nothing but confusion. He was struggling to look composed with his limbs piled on top of each other. He leaned forward forcing his face into the waxy light that washed over the car’s interior, eager to discuss the plan he had masterminded.
“And after we’ve done it, what will happen?” Gwilym’s choir-trained voice illuminated any space he graced it with. His barrel frame lay blanketed in darkness, blocking Lewis Lewis’ view to the other side. But the bouncing of his Welsh Valley vowels perfectly suggested his enormous dimensions.
“I’m not sure exactly. It won’t be physical like, but it’ll be chaotic.” replied Lewis Lewis.
“No, lightning like.” Rhodri chuckled uneasily.
“All change is chaotic, that’s what no one can accept,” pursed Bronwyn through her thin lips. “And this change is going to be big.”
Rhodri began to regain his strength, ready to make a difference.
“A revolution.” said Lowri who had woken up without anyone noticing. She wiped the hair from her face, sat up straight and wondered aloud, “Do you think we’ll notice straight away?”
Everyone looked to Lewis Lewis for an answer.
“Not straight away, no. It’s like pushing a pebble off a mountaintop. It takes time to build an avalanche.” He replied while staring off into the distance.
“The avalanche has already buried us.” Bronwyn was deadpan. “Look.”
The shabby car quietly drifted down the hill of The British Museum before turning across its Olympian front. A legion of neoclassical columns stood at attention, holding up the enormous roof to the temple of imperialism. Outside the gates were dozens of tents. People young and old shuffled between them, as vibrant as ghosts.
“Fifteen million people in poverty in one of the world’s richest countries. You all know what it’s like back home. What it’s been like for decades. That’s the country they built, that’s the country they want. This is about digging our way out, destroying the foundation.”
Silence descended on the car once again. The five sat ready for what was to come.
In the King’s dark fortress, there is no sense of impending doom. His feathered eyes continued their ritualized patrol. Examining each and every corner of his tower. His head had been rotting there for so long that it had learned, forgotten, and relearned every detail of the tower. While the New Kingdom continued to roar outside, King Brân sat silently in his prison, waiting for the inevitable morning.
Bronwyn eased the car into a corner darkened by the tower’s shadow. Lowri got out of the car first, stretching her long legs and pulling her elbow above her head. The others tumbled out in numb silence behind her.
As they slipped on their balaclavas, Rhodri stared up at the ancient walls. Their power was overwhelming. Each and every feature of them seemed insurmountable. The parapets like bared teeth, ready to chew up and swallow any threat the ancient world could have imagined.
“Here. Take this.” Gwilym slapped a steady paw on Rhodri’s shoulder and passed an air rifle into his shaking hands.
Rhodri’s eyes scanned the hidden faces of his comrades. Four featureless marionettes, struggling to move in the direction they knew that they needed to go. Rhodri tugged on the bottom of his balaclava anxiously and joined them. One by one they ran up the hill. Sprinting between the small shadows where the tower’s squat figure, still interfered with the light cast down by skyscrapers, before throwing themselves against the wall.
Inside the tower, King Brân’s ever-watchful eyes ceased their idle movements. For the first time, he could feel it, a strand was being pulled from the fabric of his crest. He still could not see where or how. But he felt as if something might change. At the border, five hidden figures looked each other in the eyes and steeled themselves, ready to set fire to everything, King Brân waited inside. In single file, they worked their way along the wall to the window they had previously identified as the Tower’s most reachable weak point.
“Last chance,” Lewis Lewis said panting to which silence was the reply.
Gwilym tossed Lowri up to the window sill first. She grabbed the ledge with the expertise they had practiced on a skeletal Welsh industrial estate. Within a few seconds, a sprinkle of shattered glass rained down as she crawled inside. Gwilym battered his ham hock thighs and continued the circus act tossing Rhodri, Bronwyn, and Lewis Lewis up in quick succession. It took all four of them, in turn, to pull up Gwilym. Once he was inside, all of them fell against the wall stifling their gasping breaths while Gwilym brushed off the brick dust with the dignity of a revolutionary. In the cavernous room, where the ceiling arched like that of an Old Testament church, the weight of what was to come began to grow unbearable.
In black balaclavas, the assassins looked as if they were on their way to the gallows. Bronwyn crossed the room first, her footsteps on the paving stones filled the room with what sounded like ironic applause. Her face hovered mere centimetres from the lead framed window as she took in the sight of the moonlit courtyard; a rainbow of grey.
And there it was. The Great King Brân finally saw his salvation through a set of eyes that sat perched on the wall across from the window. His sight seeped into Bronwyn. He saw everything she wanted and he welcomed it.
Staring back across the glass Bronwyn stood frozen in fear. That primal fear felt by all modern people when faced with the powers of the ancient world. That terrifying confusion of seeing something you were never meant to see. That which bore no respect for the comforts that parents worked tirelessly to build around the speculations of their children’s imaginations—
“What is it?” hissed out from the shadows.
Bronwyn could not pull her eyes away from Brân. An open hand landed on her shoulder breaking the spell.
“What do you see?” Rhodri’s whisper was as loud as a scream.
“I see them.” Bronwyn nodded towards the courtyard. “Let’s go.”
Forcing open the final window, they clambered down to their desperate destiny. They fanned out in the deep sea of dark silence until the slapping of feathers made all of them stop dead in their tracks. King Brân stood prone before them. Watching through his twelve eyes. A long-dead warrior, defiant in the face of death.
There was no speaking now, the assassins moved in strained silence. Above them on the parapets, twelve black-feathered gargoyles settled evenly spaced, silently perched. Utterly unnatural. They knew the birds were domesticated, but they had expected a search. King Brân watched them expectantly.
Whop! An air rifle shattered the silence. Lewis Lewis was the first to fire. Chaos ensued. As King Brân’s first eye fell the grass ripped into a deafening canyon. The once perfectly manicured lawn suddenly became fissured and warped. Bronwyn was at the ready.
As a second raven fell, so fell three large bricks which were torn from the wall and thrown across the courtyard. Deep beneath them, King Brân felt his rotten flesh being torn from his skull and he howled at the darkness. His killers would not stop now. They were running, shooting, spinning, and dancing. Drunk on the immateriality of the collapsing spell.
Whop! The next raven sunk into the shimmering air. As it hit the ground so too did the tower’s turrets. As they blew apart, they hung ethereally in the air. The treaty had not yet been broken; the spell desperately tried to hold the Tower together.
Rhodri’s turn—Whop! He took out the next raven, and the walls fell like Jericho. They couldn’t comprehend the ancient power unfurling before them, worse, they couldn’t stop. The air itself felt as if it was being torn apart. All to the sound of King Brân’s agonizing cheers.
As a fifth raven fell to its death, the hill itself spit out an enormous column of rock and earth that joined the expanding cloud of debris. Lowri lay dead suspended inside of it.
Lewis Lewis looked down into the crater that had been left behind. There lay a yellowed skull in a pool of green, quickly decomposing flesh. It looked at Lewis Lewis and stopped his heart. He fell like the stones.
Oblivious to this, Bronwyn continued to skip through the shattered landscape eagerly hunting down her prey. But it was Gwilym who killed the last of Brân’s eyes.
For a moment, there was silence as the raven, trailing limp wings behind it, fell into a furious gorge. Gwilym choked on the thick earth that filled the air. King Brân, who had been imprisoned for a thousand years, was gone. The spell that had held everything together, that had fought so valiantly to hold him, collapsed in on itself. Falling with the suspended debris, it launched a tidal wave of contempt, rolling across the poisonous kingdom Brân had come to hate. As the obliterated stone of the tower continued to rain down over the hill, it was only Bronwyn who escaped with her life. Though she had no idea what to do now. It was over. The spell was broken. The Kingdom was finished.
In the tumultuous times that followed, the violence of that night was quickly forgotten. No one had known King Brân was there, and no one knew he was gone. As the tidal wave settled, all that the people could do was to build something new.
Edited by Kayla Sosa
Gruffudd Watts is a Welsh writer currently based in Guadalajara, Mexico. Introduced to storytelling through the oral culture and history of Welsh language speakers, he developed his passion for writing at a young age. Growing up in Swansea, Wales, the birthplace of Dylan Thomas, he became immersed in the vibrant punk scene of this multicultural port city. See our contributors page to read more about Gruffudd Watts’ experience and extensive travels.
Iryna Komashchuk is an artist based in Kyiv, Ukraine and graduate of the National Academy of Visual Arts and Architecture. Visit her portfolio for more info and commissions here