The legends of Quone-Loc-Sie have been passed from father to son, mother
to daughter; since before time: as time is acknowledged or known. They speak
of many things; of princes and hero's; of a time before the waters rose
to inundate, and famine swept the lands, and strangest of all; of machines
The part of the legends that will follow, is of the prophesy; and have their
origin in a settlement called Boramulla. No more than four hundred souls
live in the district. Bounded on one side by a curve of the great Mulgrave
River: on another by the savannah plains; and on the third, the foothills
of the Blood Mountains. It begins at the end of the dry: in the nineteenth
year of the rule of the Lord Marshal, and far from his distant city: Quone-Loc-Sie.
The cluster of humanity that call themselves citizens of Boramulla dwell
in simple houses; with thick insulated walls; stout timber doors and heavy
shutters. All were needed when the heat became too fierce, or the cold unbearable.
In one of the outlying houses lived a youth turning into manhood by the
name of Nicholas Day.
Nicholas had lived in the provider's house all of his young life, that being
almost twenty-two winter seasons. With the exception of occasional trips
to neighboring towns on market days; or on the business of his father, he
had never left the district; encountered strangers: and from them, gossip
from far away. Or paid any serious attention to the troubles and tribulations
of the past; those of advancing age liked to share with anyone who would
listen. He was bright, cheerful, and intelligent; assuming intelligence
is gauged by ones capacity to manage life's challenges capably. In some
ways he was privileged, though privilege was an overstatement in terms of
luxury. But as his family were the communities provider (a provider being
those chosen to process, store and distribute the communal resources; and
the one who was responsible on behalf of the settlement to pay dues to the
Marshals local representative) it did give them some status, albeit little.
A provider was trusted; his word was his bond, and it was unnecessary to
ask for more. To those outside the settlement the provider spoke for all
those within; and to those within, he was a person who would do the best
he could in the community interest. In simple terms and in many ways Nicholas's
life was ideal.
On this morning, though he gave scant thought to it, his mother had mentioned
the ageing. She had said no more, but he was quick to recognize it as a
veiled reference to how he should seek a wife and prepare for the time he
in turn would become provider. The obligation to take over the family responsibility
he already accepted, but the choice of a bride was something he was keen
to avoid; and he had quickly steered her words to ask of her own visits
to the most populated town this side of the tablelands; Riverslee.
From past conversations he knew it was sited at a place where the Mulgrave
emerged from the chasm the great river had cut through the mountains.
The stories always motivated him, though like everyone he knew, in all probability
he would go there only occasionally in his lifetime.
In any case it was of no real consequence. His future: if he thought much
of it: was a continuation of the daily toil that was already the pattern
of his life. It was normal, even comforting to think that all that was to
be, was already set in place. It gave him no worry, it was all that he did,
and would do, as the time approached the end of the drying
Now that the heat was retreating the first mists had begun to form. In the
coming days they would slowly creep outwards, covering the land more and
more densely until the eventual cold froze the moisture into the soil. Before
that time, winter crops would be planted, and tended, ready to be harvested
after the frost retreated.
The group of buildings owned by the provider; Nicholas's father, were to
the edge of the settlement; closest to the reclaimed fields, and set off
a little from the road. While it was ultimately the community elders who
decided how each families needs were to be met, the provider needed a great
deal of diplomatic tact in apportioning which of the supplies were to be
given. It was no easy task, neither was avoiding the ravages of water and
damp, arid heat and scavenging creatures, including the odd human one, but
it was one that this particular provider and his two sons more than adequately
The storedomes; as the round buildings behind the dwelling were called:
were seven in number. Two being set up higher than the others; though both
were rarely in use at one time, and only after a succession of bountiful
seasons. Whichever of these storehouse's were in use; was filled with the
grains from a high gantry traversing between the two, and accessed from
the ground by a sturdy ramp. At the top, once tipped through a trap, the
grain would fall through to the sloping floor via a series of sluices where
it was batched in whatever way was needed. Of the other five buildings two
were for drying, one for treatment with herbs and spices and the others
where bags of produce were kept safe for distribution to the village in
less bountiful times.
It was the last day of the working week by their calendar. A fine crisp
morning: dawn had broken; the sky streaking a pale pink light, and the mists
had begun to fade.
Hope for a Shattered World
By john stevenson
This book is for Fiona Ngarie Claire
Table of Contents
Book One Hope for a Shattered World
Chapter 1 Nicholas
Chapter 2 Harriet
Chapter 3 Road and Forest
Chapter 4 Blood Mountain
Chapter 5 The Book of Stone
copyright in all media and in all forms remains the property
of caelin day pty ltd. Any reproduction in whole or part is conditional
on the written permission of John Stevenson
The aroma of freshly brewed coffee having sped his dressing, Nicholas opened
his sleeping room door to the welcoming sight of his mother, glancing up
from stirring a large bowl of thick porridge that hung over the open kitchen
fire. She smiled, looked at a serving dish at her side, and nodded towards
the large table.
Nicholas understood the familiar gesture and picked up the dish as he made
his way to his usual seat. He placed the dish between another laden with
freshly warmed meats, and a cutting board that had a barley loaf and a slab
of bright yellow butter on it.
"Morning", he said belatedly to his mother as he looked through
the window for his father "Is help needed with the milking?" His
father was always around when the morning meal was served.
A deep male voice answered. "No, but thanks for the concern."
His father entered the kitchen, and placed a pail of creamy liquid on the
bench. "Where is Philip?" He said, noticing with slight annoyance
the empty seat opposite Nicholas.
His mother said nothing and avoided the questioning looks in her direction
"Nicholas. Where is he?" His father muttered grouchily.
Nicholas tore off a huge chunk of bread and forced it into his mouth in
an attempt to avoid replying, he didn't want to start the day by placing
his elder brother into trouble, but the man stared at him patiently, until
he swallowed. The firm gaze didn't break, and he had no alternative but
to answer. "I believe he was with Becky Martin last night... maybe
his return home was a little
. late". 'Very late', he thought,
in fact he wasn't even sure Philip had come home.
"Philip." his father's voice boomed through the house carrying
a threatening tone.
"Frederrick." his wife chided him. "Let the boy be, breakfast
But already there was a feeble answer. "...Coming" The voice was
still coated in a mantle of sleep.
"Nicholas", said his father shaking his head. "Your brother
is a worry to your mother and me, but I sometimes despair of you. It is
time you, not just Philip, were courting; or better still, betrothed to
one of the village girls.
Nicholas had heard all this before and he answered passively. "Yes
"It's one of the village girls I want to hear a yes from, not you."
The words started to slip by without Nicholas listening. His father was
right, he knew that, but although he found the village girls enjoyable company,
none had tugged at his heart; as his mother liked to refer to falling in
love. He would find a girl someday; he had no doubt. He just hadn't found
the right one yet, though Philip seemed to find a different right one, every
His father was still talking."
is far too well known about
the village. Already several fathers have had words with me about his
"Be patient with the boy", interrupted his mother "Nicholas's
match has been made; the future is set for him; we will all have to wait
for the time it is to show".
His father shrugged and let the subject drop, but there was no doubt to
any that he felt both of his sons should be married; with children on the
way; as other boys already had.
A youth entered the room. "Morning Mother. Father. Nick... Sorry, I
did not hear you awaken." Nicholas looked at him, his eyes gesturing
over to their father; in something of a cautionary way. There was no acknowledgement,
but Philips voice effortlessly slipped into an apologetic tone.
Nicholas watched as his brother's words spun their charm on their father:
as had been done countless times before. There was no malice: there was
mischievousness, and Nicholas knew their father subconsciously knew he was
being manipulated. In a way Nicholas envied his brothers ways, and it was
easy to understand his popularity with the village girls. Handsome: tall
with brown eyes, and loose golden hair the colour of freshly baled straw;
indeed longer than some of the girls that he was constantly in the company
of. In reality it was only the colour and length of their hair that marked
any great difference between the two brothers. Nicholas's hair being black
as night, and only just brushing past his shoulders, though he always tied
it into a tail. Soon Philip was sat with them, helping himself to the offerings
"Your tardiness has only one benefit." muttered their father turning
to Nicholas with a wink of his eye. "Be quick to take your fill, for
I fear that one of our tribe may eat the bowl from which we serve".
His humour was back again to the embarrassment of Philip, who immediately
slowed the movement of ladle from plate to mouth.
It was the day before temple day; a day they would finish work well before
dark so that they could prepare and decorate the place of worship, ready
for the dawn service: bearing this in mind Nicholas spoke hesitantly. "I
would like to visit with Jonathon later, if that would cause you no trouble?"
he looked pleadingly at his father.
The man sighed, other than the never-ending maintenance there was no urgency
for his son's help. "I see no problem." he said looking at the
woman. "More reading I gather?" He referred to Nicholas teaching
the other boy all that he himself had learned of writing and reading from
"He is doing well at his learning. I think that I shall be able to
teach him little more." The comment was aimed mainly at his mother.
She was one of the few educated people in the village; most village folk
learning only what they needed for work, or household duties. His mother
would not speak of where she had learned this rare skill. At least only
vaguely, saying that she was lucky as a child to have known educated people.
Nick had never pressed for more information, though he was always curious
for more detail.
His father too was different from most men, who could barely read. He could
also write sufficient words, and understood more than the moderate math
required to carry out his providing work.
Nicholas appreciated this good fortune with both parents, but it was his
mother who had encouraged him as an infant, regaling him with tales of a
library at the house of the Alderman.
He had, had no real concept of what a library may mean, as few manuscripts
were available to village folk, and even less were needed to undertake their
daily lives. But those early formative years had created a thirst in Nicholas
for knowledge that few other boys had.
The stories of a library had proved true, and he had purposely set out to
make friends with the serving staff. With offers of help in their work around
the great house he had, had both access and opportunity the read books,
though without the Alderman knowing. Eventually he had been found out and
ordered from the house, along with a serving girl who by chance happened
to be caught with him. It was one of the few instances in his life that
he regretted: not so much for himself; that was a risk he had known and
accepted, but for getting the girl in trouble. He had begun to like her,
but that mattered little now that she had been sent away.
His mother's words as he stepped outside into the weak, but pleasant rays
from the still rising orb, warned him that they would be at the temple till
dark, and that they would eat late.
It was going to be a nice day, even though there was a chill in the morning
air; an occurrence that would slowly become more noticeable and severe as
they approached the season of ice. He muttered to himself. 'It is going
to be a wonderful day'. He had no idea how wrong he was about to be.
The workday passed in a pleasant and relaxed way. The fruits grown during
the dry had all been harvested, wrapped and stored in sand, so father and
sons worked together treating Hessian sacks with preservatives ready for
long term storage of the soon to be harvested grain. The only real work
they felt they had done was in stacking small bags of untreated seed on
the raised benches where the community could access them for the next crop
Nicholas was sad that it would be some time before he saw litchis, mangoes,
and papaw on the tree again. He loved the tropical fruits, and it was only
the thought that after planting the crops, there would be the budding apples,
and cherry blossom to lighten the foreboding winter
The midday meal came soon enough, and his mother after having spent the
morning washing, cleaning, and baking, brought loaves, cheese and pickles,
followed by fresh buttered scones. Philip still trying to get into good
favor with their father went to fetch a large pitcher of sweet well water
to wash it all down.
After the meal both boys tendered to some small repairs on the wagon so
that it would be in good order for the work ahead, but their enthusiasm
for labor had passed, and Nicholas was pleased when bidding them not delay
the evening meal for him, he left
Most of the fields behind the grain stores were now being ploughed and
though the smell of freshly turned earth was pleasant; and the furrows made
by the plough shear may have looked neat and tidy from afar, it was a different
thing again to walk them. The soft crumbling earth made for a heavy going;
by experience he found it easier if he stepped over the raised soil, and
into each rut. Vaguely wishing that the seeds had already been strewn, and
that the soil had been evened out so that the frost could break it down,
he eventually arrived at the path, and through to the edge of the woods.
As the walking became easier his mind wandered in thought. It was festival;
time to be at one with Mother Earth. Soon village folk would be gathering
at the tavern; but he had said he would be late, and arriving when everyone
else had supped their share made him uncomfortable. It wasn't he disapproved;
which he didn't: it was more embarrassment that he had to force smiles and
amusement to unamusing ale influenced humour. It was a relief when he decided
instead to return past his own private place of solitude.
Jonathan's house was of similar style to his own, but attached to a single
large building that was used to grind the grain. A small stream ran past
the rear: diverted from the great river; turning a large timber water wheel.
Nicholas could see it was still, indicating that the sluice was diverting
the water, and that the workday was finished.
A youth his own age; though a little stockier; and with almost white
hair came out to meet him. He smiled in welcome, but Nicholas spoke first.
"I have a need to be with nature today. May we talk together in the
"I will bring fishing rods, and we may try our luck in the river".
Nicholas knew it was a favorite pastime: almost an obsession of Jonathan's.
There would be no use talking further of fields. Nicholas accepted the rod
that appeared almost magically in good mood. Though he would have preferred
to continually walk the grassed lanes, the following hour was well spent.
It was to be believed that the fish were deaf, for the boys talked incessantly
about everything, and nothing. The periods of silence were few and far between,
as were the bites.
When as evening approached and they were packing their equipment, Jonathon
spoke more seriously than he had. "
..I had the vision again last
Nicholas looked doubtfully at him.
"It was the same, a great red bird, with wings too short to fly, yet
it did, at a great wall. Trying time and again to pass; and then at last
the wall fell. .....It is a premonition Nick, of that I am sure."
Nicholas didn't know what to say. Jonathon's grandmother was always saying
things that other people could not understand, and because of her Jonathon
too believed his dreams foretold the future. Nicholas would not say what
others did, that the old woman was unsound of mind. He wanted, whenever
his friend spoke this way, to discourage him, so that he would not be thought
of the same.
"I don't know what they mean, but dreams they are. You must be careful
not to make things out of that which does not exist." he said quickly,
but as soon as he had uttered the words Nicholas regretted them, for he
saw the hurt on the others face.
The boys walked in silence for a while, but soon the exchange was forgotten
and they were again talking, the invitation and prospect of Jonathan's mothers
cooking, dominating the conversation.
Though he tried to refuse sustenance it was early evening when Nick left
to return home; remembering almost too late that he had promised himself
a few moments of solitude. He cut across to the edge of the forest to a
thicket on top of a small rock outcrop
Nicholas sat and looked across to the mountains. Their rounded peaks lit
and emphasized in the last parting rays of daylight. He had no concept of
how high the mountains were for they were much farther than he had ever
ventured, but dry or winter, their tops were always covered in snow.
He sat in silence and watched as the relics of sunlight slipped over and
the peaks turned to pink: the reflected colour spreading across them as
if by accident some god had spilt wine, on a crisp table cover. He watched
enthralled; now the change had begun, it would deepen until the coming night
allowed no one to see more.
The pink had given way to a plum shade and the colour for some reason brought
back a memory. He smiled thinking of the time, when he had been only a boy.
He and Simeon had been caught taking the fruit from the Alderman's orchard.
The smile slowly passed, but the warm feeling of friendship remained. Simeon
was the only other person who knew, or had known of this place. It was him
who had needed to name the colours instead of just enjoying them.
It was still beyond Nicholas's understanding why Simeon had murdered his
own father and then fled to those distant mountains to be forever separated
from his loved ones.
That was two years ago, 'Simeon would have only been
..' Nicholas realized
he was on the verge of the same age.
The golden orb had long sunk behind the mountain, now too had almost all
of its rays. The peaks were now becoming the colour for which they were
known: a deep red; the colour of blood.
Somewhere amongst those mountains was Simeon. Nicholas wondered if he too
was sitting up on one of those hillsides, looking back towards the place
where he had once lived.
The feeling of warm that the memories brought ebbed into sadness. Nicholas
had not thought of his friend for some time, and it pained him to remember
the lost, but happy times of their childhood.
The red had deepened to purple and on to the blackness of night. Now the
mountains changed from background to foreground as the stars took that place.
The first moon had risen; he saw a flash from it and counted to ten. They
were common enough these flashes, and always to a count of ten, before a
second appeared. 'What wonders we do not understand, are but, normal to
His ears caught a noise. He froze, his heart pumping wildly. His mind had
been more at one with the dream than he had realized, for he had sensed,
rather than heard a movement over to his left. Visions of a bear, or worse,
a panther creeping up on him flashed through his mind. He wanted to run,
but deep down knew that he was lost if he moved. Barely breathing he slowly
turned towards the sound
The first moon was too small to light the woodland, and it was only the
snapping of another dried twig that took his gaze down into the trees below
What seemed like several minutes passed, but he could still discern no movement.
He was above; at least that was in his favor. Suddenly his eye snatched
a glimpse of a shadow silently approaching, and though this relieved him
of thoughts of a wild creature, it made them worse for an unknown demon.
Unexpectedly he was suddenly bathed in light as a cloud moved from in front
of the rising larger moon and lit the forest in its pale glow. Now he dared
not move a muscle, but at last he could see that the shapes were horses.
Four; five mounted men were almost directly below, but still they made no
sound as if they were indeed spirits. Though Nicholas knew this could not
be, it was something he did not want to test until the thought struck his
mind that he had fallen asleep and was watching himself dream. But if it
was a dream then he felt wide-awake, and he could feel a slight breeze on
his bare arm, that was not his usual dream pattern.
His mind now was keen; these were as mortal as he, but ones who did not
wish to be heard. Nicholas decided that he would not disappoint them, he
would watch, and wait his time to trounce these rascals, for whatever their
intention, to come in such a way they were surely up to no good.
They dismounted, and then he heard it, there was a sharp noise, it was faint
but he knew it was metal upon metal. Instinctively he knew a weapon made
the noise. It was the sound that a sword made as it came slightly out of
its sheath; then dropped back in again. Whoever they were, these men were
While his mind raced, they had tied their horses and melted into the sweet
smelling pines in the direction of the village.
The mists were starting to form again, it would be hard to follow, but the
challenge to catch them about their mischievous; or even criminal activity
was too great.
Hold back and then when they did not expect it he would spring a trap, alert
the village, and become a hero. He smiled; they would toast him for a week
at the tavern.
He waited a few moments, as much to increase the challenge as to ensure
he was not discovered. After all he carried no weapon of his own, and even
if he had, possibly five armed men were too much of a match; even though
he remembered smugly that he had been told a knife was placed in his hand
Nicholas started moving down and over to the tied animals: slowly but not
too secretively to startle them. As he approached he heard them shuffle
their feet as they caught his sent, now no longer blown away on the wind.
The animals were untroubled by him, and once they had glanced his way they
went back grazing on the long grass. He became bolder and stepped closer
seeing now the reason for their silent approach, the hooves had been wrapped
in cloth to deaden any sound. Another thought came to him as a shock. These
were not the horses of common men; dull work animals, with the sparkle taken
out of their eye through too many years with the sun in front, and a plough
behind. The thought troubled him, as it could mean these men were part of
the guard, but the nearest garrison was hours away and he could see that
their coats showed no sign of sweat and their breathing was easy. They had
not been ridden hard, or far
He became even more cautious as doubt plagued his mind. He was almost able
to touch the nearest and moved round to its side, careful not to frighten
the beasts. As if it knew his thought it stopped eating and lifted its head
towards him; looking not in fear, but curiosity.
The Large moon had by this time risen high enough so that he could see the
saddles, and that they had markings and ornaments hanging from them. Nicholas
and reached out to touch them as he whispered to the animal. "Easy
His words trailed away as he discovered that the shiny brass had been covered
with a thin coating of axle grease and soil. His interest growing he brushed
a little of the grime away.
The emblem fell from his fingers as if it burnt. He knew now that this was
none of his business. These were the saddles of men of the guard of Quone-Loc-Sie.
Whatever their mission, it was definitely none of his concern.
Backing away he saw one last thing
The horse was still staring at him; its eyes sharp and penetrating, as if
it was waiting for him to do something. Nicholas smiled and lifted his hand.
"Do not tell your master I was here." he whispered his fingers
touching its brow. As if in reply the horse flicked its ears and Nicholas
saw it displayed a perfect white star on the back of its right fore. By
some strange quirk of nature this animal carried the symbol of the sky,
and its mystery. "Shhhh
" he breathed. "I shall go as
I came." He backed away thinking how apt it was, black as night with
the brightest star, and the fire of the sun in his eyes. This was a prince
Nicholas made his way back to Boramulla by the longest route. He did
not wish to meet anyone more this evening; especially five of the guard.
The mists were now down, and as thick as they would be for the rest of the
night. He could see for perhaps twenty metres, and maybe another ten past
that as vague shadows.
Within his reduced world, his footsteps were all that could be heard, all
sounds from deeper out in the mist had been smothered as if one had placed
a thick blanket over them. But he had no real need for sight, this had been
a route taken many times, in daylight and dark since he had been a young
He guessed the time would be past nine when he approached his home. It was
the first building he would come to, as the village itself was further down
the road. Though at this time he would be unlikely to see anyone. All working
folk would be asleep, and any others would be in the tavern, even further
down towards the river.
As the shape of the building formed in the mist there was a flash of light
from the front of the house, as if someone had opened and shut the stout
His parents would be in bed, as he should too, likely it was Philip, but
it may be that there was a sickness. His pace quickened.
His feet crunched on the loose gravel path that led up from the gate, and
he pushed open the door.
A lantern was still lit at the far end of the room next to the kitchen.
But the room was empty. His mind relaxed, they were in bed but had left
a light for him. Nicholas walked to the lantern and glanced into the kitchen.
It was as if some great vacuum sucked the breath from his body. He stood
riveted to the spot and stared, unable to accept what he saw.
Face down; half sprawled on the table, lay both his mother and brother.
The great slab of thick timber worn smooth over generations in labour of
love was now stained with their blood
That they were dead; there could be no doubt. Long cooking knifes still
penetrated their bodies to the hilts.
Nicholas felt nausea well up in him and spun away; retching in the corner:
leaning against the wall lest his legs should give way and he crumple into
a heap of despair.
He needed help. Turning back toward the front door he now saw his father
laid face down on the floor, half hidden by the old couch.
His father seemed to be asleep, or drunk, though Nicholas had never known
him to take excess ale other than on special occasions. Anguish overwhelmed
him as he ran to the man and gently turned him over. In his bloodstained
chest close to his heart was Nicholas's own knife, a small but deadly weapon
that he used to throw at tree trunks for pleasure.
His father barely clung to life. Nicholas knelt and held him in his arms,
resting the dying man's head upon his shoulder. "Father." he wept.
The man's eyes opened a little at his voice. "Nicholas?" he groaned
painfully. "..Thank god your ali..." he coughed up blood. "Leave
..I... should have known .....I should have told..."
The knife moved with each the man's pained words.
With his left hand Nicholas carefully pulled the blade from his father's
chest. Fresh blood spurted out. Nicholas tried in vain to stem the wound
with his bare hand. His pouring tears mingling with the blood as it spread
over his own clothes. "I'll get help." He sobbed but he knew no
"Wait.." his father gasped urgently. "....... I must tell
"Be quiet. Be still father. Help is coming." But Nicholas knew
it was impossible to halt the flow. The wound was too deep; the cut too
wide. The blade had found its mark too well. "I will get help."
He wept. "All will be well. You will see." He lied; the words
choking him as they passed his lips. A feeling of hopelessness and dread
His father spoke again. "It is time.." He coughed again, more
blood trickling from between his lips. "You must seek the rebellion
......for already it may be too late?" He coughed again. "There
is so much .....we have waited too
long......." The man's words
trailed off as the first throes of death squeezed the life from his proud
heart. "Find Simeon..... The rebellion......" and with those words
his life drained from him.
Nicholas wept uncontrollably; he had no idea for how long. His body ached
with such deep sorrow that he paid no heed to the clamor around the open
door; or the group of village folk who stood there.
At last he gently laid his father on the floor, stood.
"See. He still holds the knife." called one sharply.
"Aye and his father's blood wet upon his hands." said another.
All Nicholas could do was stare at them.
The blacksmith, a burly man had pushed to the front.
"Give me the knife." he said softly. "Your deeds here are
finished, now it is time you must come with us."
Nicholas was about to walk over to them until his stunned mind recognized
accusation in the voice. "No. No. I did not ...." He said desperately,
his mind torn between grief, and growing disbelief. "Please help me
I..they.. I have but just walked through the door.... Please help me."
The tome was soft, yet accusing as the smithy spoke. "It is not up
to us. You must come and tell of how it happened to the Alderman."
"You waste time", said a voice from the back. There were now a
number of men jostling to get through the doorway, and into the room. The
smell of ale strong upon their breath. "See he holds the knife...."
The unseen man continued.
The blade in Nicholas's hand suddenly felt like a burning ember and he threw
it towards the open fireplace.
"What has happened here is as clear as the nose on your face .....
even if we had not evidence of the fight."
For the first time Nicholas caught sight of two soldiers. One a captain
in the guard of Quone-Loc-Sie. It was he who now spoke. "I bear witness
to that. And to this being the man, foul murder that he is. We need no more.
Take him and let justice be done." The mob lunged forward now that
Nicholas was unarmed.
Nicholas could not believe what was happening, but he realized that his
situation was grave, and would not improve in the hands of a drunken rabble.
He turned to the only escape within his reach, a low opening to a shaft
leading to the roof. Quickly he was through it and climbing two rungs at
a time up the ladder set against the wall. He had given no thought of where
he was going or why, he just ran in blind panic, followed closely by the
shouting and curses of the mob.
At the top of the shaft he twisted his head sideways thrusting his shoulder
up at the closed hatch without a pause, and snapping it back over against
Once out onto the partially flat roof he slammed the cover back over the
hole, jumping up onto it so that his weight would hold it shut. Nicholas
sat there too stunned to think. He could feel them hammering below, others
were running about outside the building looking for a way up. He had broken
out in a sweat of fear. Why was this happening; he was a victim too. He
hadn't done anything wrong. Why wouldn't they let him explain? He needed
time. Tomorrow the alcohol would be soaking into the grass, and the bloodlust
would be gone; then they would listen, but now he had to get away
The roof was surrounded by a low parapet. The nearest storehouse was across
a gap of some three metres. That was the store of preserving materials.
There was nothing else on the roof, or near the roof. He felt the hatch
beneath him lifting and heard the Smithy grunting and swearing. He couldn't
hold it down forever. There was no other way.
Nicholas jumped off, running back several metres he spun kicking himself
off the opposing wall and tore across the roof. The smithy was half out
of the opening as he ran by. The man reached out his fingers briefly tugging
on his coat, before the material ripped from his grasp.
The wall came up fast and for a moment Nick thought he had mistimed his
steps, but thrusting his foot out with all his strength, he leapt.
There was shouting as he sailed over the men below, and between the two
buildings. For a second neither he nor those wishing him to fall, thought
he would make it; but he did, crashing half over the parapet of the adjoining
roof. The breath was violently knocked from him as his chest impacted against
the solid crete. Ignoring the pain his fingers scrabbled for a hold. For
long seconds he hung half on, half off, recovering his breath. Then to the
dismay of the baying mob below Nicholas clambered over and dropped onto
The buildings were not very high, but to follow him over that distance was
enough of a risk to deter his pursuers, and those on the ground were now
running in all directions, completely confused by the myriad instructions
being shouted down to them from men now pouring onto the other roof.
Alongside where he stood ran the gangway. It climbed up to the top of the
bulk stores to allow the grain to be tipped down into the storedomes; it
was along this that Nicholas ran.
By the time he was at the end they had gained the second rooftop and at
last started up after him. He looked back. He could see those on the first
roof scrabbling to get back down the shaft. There were very few where he
could see now. He guessed the others would all be making for the ramp, or
in the store, or coming up the ladder. He was trapped. In seconds they would
be upon him, justified in their accusations by how he had attempted to flee.
He looked over the side. The smooth crete fell away from him; below was
quiet and deserted. As a boy he and a friend had for a dare slid down the
side of this very same storehouse. That time he had earned himself a broken
leg for his trouble, and punishment from his father when that had healed.
He stepped over the rail, holding it behind him he let himself down onto
his back. Holding his arms and legs stretched out to prevent rolling, and
his head up from the scraping of the crete. He let go. "By the powers
of mercy, don't let me break my leg again." he muttered as he felt
himself slide away.
The slight ridges became as large as rails, everyone banging against his
spine; the friction heated his clothes as the earth zoomed toward him and
the crete disappeared into a blur. He relaxed his legs hoping to cushion
With a heavy thump he stopped, his body was thrown up and he collapsed forwards
into a heap, and lay still on soft earth; in acceptable pain. In the dim
light he guessed, but mainly by the smell, that he had come to rest in the
house animal pen. At least here the ground had been soaked in water and
trodden into mud by the creatures.
High above he could hear voices. They seemed confused. The confidence replaced
by calls of questions. It would not take long for them to realize where
he had gone, so he lifted himself up onto his knees. He ached all over,
but there were no broken bones. Shouts were raised again, maybe his escape
had not gone unnoticed, or his pursuers had guessed quickly of the slide.
Nicholas was off again; he ran to the timber rail, once over the fence he
made for the forest. If he could reach there he may lose them in the mists,
or at least gain time to think.
He had age and sobriety on his side, and was soon into the first field.
This one not been tended since before the dry, and with the exception of
the occasional clump of high grass the ground under him was swift going.
The following three fields were different, these were the ones he had crossed
on the way to Jonathon's and had been freshly ploughed. He sank, stumbled,
and fell all the way across them, and at the far side felt considerably
But he was now into the edge of the forest, and had gained some distance.
Here it was lightly timbered, but with innumerable young trees. After falling
over two of these saplings Nicholas decided it would be safer to skirt around
the edge and follow the path until he could lose himself in the heavily
Dozens of times he ran off the trodden surface, and into the long grass.
It slowed him down but it was still preferable to more collisions with trees.
He was covered in grazes on his face and hands. It would have been worse
if it had not been for the cloak, but even that was by now half torn to
He fell again, this time his forehead hitting a glancing blow on a rock,
he lay there for some time his mind floated in the state between consciousness
and sleep; shaking his head he stumbled once more to his feet. He couldn't
see where he was anymore. Besides the mist, his sight was deteriorating
in one eye. Likely blood was running into it from the blow. But he forced
on knowing somewhere ahead was the forest and safety. He was tiring and
the cloak hung heavy; soaked from waist down through contact with the long
moist grass. His breath came in noisy gasps, and his head throbbed. A less
fit man than he would have succumbed to the desire for rest a long time
ago, but he pushed himself on. He had to escape. He would tell them all
what had happened, but not now, not to a rabble intent on swift justice.
There had to be time to think, to put the facts together; to try to make
sense out of a senseless act. Then he could convince them that it was not
of his doing. He was sure of that.
A sharp pain ran down his shoulder as he ran into another unseen tree. Then
the soft cold feel and smell of wet grass and ferns smothered his face as
the earth came up to meet him. Nicholas lay still.
He could hear them. They were still following. Though some distance off:
it was hard to know for sure as the mist softened the sounds. But there
was no mistaking the new sound to his ears. A baying; they had brought up
He was stricken with fear. Up to now there had been a chance that his pursuers
could be confused at which direction to follow. The mists were thick upon
the ground, and unless they had a similar knowledge of this part of the
woods as he did, they could go round in circles for hours without knowing.
But hounds you could not fool, they would seek as one who could see through
the mists, as indeed they could. Their senses would guide them as if they
were following a man with a lighted torch. Nicholas staggered up on his
feet yet again. 'If I can make it to the great river, it may be possible
to plunge in and swim some distance out', he thought. 'then the current
may carry me to safety?'
He fell heavily again, some creature had dug a home for itself and family,
and he had stumbled into it. His legs hurt; his heart felt as if it would
tear from his chest.
It was still some distance to the riverbank, but there was a chance, if
he could only remember which way it was.
The followers were now hot onto his trail, coming as straight as an arrow.
He knew that, but thankfully they still seemed some distance behind.
The clothes he wore had now become totally saturated from the wet grass.
The chill of the night air stung his burning throat as he gulped great gasps.
He took solace in the fact that his pursuers would be in a similar sorry
way. But without the overwhelming desire of escape to drive them on, they
may give up and come again on the morrow, on horseback properly organized.
It was a hope, but a little one. For now he must keep making for the river,
tomorrow he could make his way back to Jonathon's. It would go well for
him to offer himself to his friends. They would see that all was done to
speak his case. No sane person would believe that he could have murdered
his own parents, it was beyond belief. On the morrow all would be well.
His mind came back to an object in front of him. He realized in alarm that
it was a horse and on it a rider. The man was laughing, and calling to unseen
others. "See; here he comes, like a moth to the flame." and with
that he laughed out aloud. Others materialized out of the mist. Two: three,
four other riders. Nicholas stopped and stood; there was no point in going
on, they could easily run him down.
Behind he could hear the dogs and men coming onto the scene with shouts
and cheers, both baying at the end of their hunt.
He was too tired to move any more. All was lost; they would not believe
him now, now that he had run. That alone was proof of guilt, guilt of a
horrendous crime. He had played his last card, and lost.
Only one thing was on his mind now. It was the white star on the ear of
the horse before him. No longer ridden by a dark cloaked figure, now the
rider wore the blue uniform of the soldier, with the yellow sash of a captain
of the Quone-Loc-Sie guard.
They were all around him now as the captain moved beside him, and called
out to the mob. "This is the youth I saw arguing with the old man.
We were on the other side of the Holokai hedge." He continued.".....
at that distance we heard his shouted threats of violence against his own
peaceful family. I swear there is no doubt. This is the one."
"And no doubt." called another of the four excitedly. "As
you all witnessed he held the bloody weapon with which he took his own fathers
life." His voice raised. "Justice must be done." There were
shouts all around Nicholas as blood lust carried thought past reason.
He wanted to scream out that they were wrong. He had loved his parents and
brother. They couldn't be more wrong. But before he could speak the captain's
leather booted foot lashed out, catching Nicholas full in the face. He fell
onto his back, his eyes clouding over with a red mist; the blood from one
or more dislodged teeth tasting salty in his mouth.
He sensed rather than saw that the other soldiers were dismounting, as his
pursuers closed about him. He groaned as the steel cap of a military boot
dug deep into the side of his ribcage. Feebly he raised his arms in a pathetic
defense as it seemed every one of the mob began kicking him.
Once, maybe twice they stopped, and he was dragged to his unsteady feet
and held, while uncountable punches pummeled every part of his body. Then
they would let him collapse and began kicking again. It seemed it would
never end, and all that existed was excruciating pain. Then suddenly it
was over and the men backed off. He wasn't aware of the heavy wooden club
coming down. It was long after his body had become numb from the tough leather
toecaps and beating of clenched fists. It was almost a relief as he felt
the thin bone of his skull give way beneath the cudgel. Instantly there
Though at first the rider was no more than a speck; and almost hidden
against the dark forest background; he had been watched for some time. He
was at the gallop; but seemed to only slowly make his way out into the open
landscape of the valley; and longer still before he reached into the foothills
below the camp. It was soon after he began the climb that the sharpest eyed
had announced that he wore the colours of the Western Army, and shortly
after that, that he was an officer in the Blue wing: though those details
were of little real consequence. It was already assumed he came from the
battlefield; bringing the news that they desperately waited to hear.
Preter could feel the horse was tiring, and as he looked up he began to
worry that this last climb would be too much for it; as a thick, steamy
hot breath snorted out of its flared nostrils. But it clawed its way up
towards where the sun had begun to dip below the tops of Grag Mulla.
As it drew towards night, the approach to the isolated hilltop was a depressing
sight; with the encampment almost reeking of the weary and conquered. His
mood darkened; the news he brought would not be well received. For a moment
he faltered, and wished for the thousandth, thousandth time that the task
had been placed on another's shoulders. But there were no others, and there
would be no more.
He could begin to make out individuals now, coming from the circular group
of field tents. In the failing light their colours looked almost black,
instead of the dark brown of the plains beast hides, that they were made
There was almost pleasure as he saw there was no movement from the one larger
tent, placed in the middle of the circle. It was a fools dream, but he tried
for a while to pretend that there was no one there; that the flap would
not be thrown back to reveal his king. It was a false hope as driven into
the rocky soil before it was the pennant of the house of Loc-Sie. That his
lord, and leader was inside and waiting, there could be no doubt,
About forty people, man and woman grouped together as he rode up to the
outer circle, and on through to before the royal tent. He was not challenged,
but a single soldier reached up as he reigned back on his animal; the man
grabbing the halter strap and staring into his eyes. He said nothing, but
in an instant all that needed to be, had been exchanged, and the soldier
turned to the sweating horse,
An officer approached full of camaraderie and hope. "Welcome Captain
Preter. We are glad to see you," he said as the rider swung down from
"Look after him." he said back to the first soldier. "He
has done his king and country well." He fell in beside the officer,
and they stepped towards the tent as at last the flap was thrown back. King
Elgar stepped out.
"My lord." Preter said sadly; dipping his head.
"Preter." the Grey haired man said in recognition. "Your
arrival has been keenly waited on."
"Yes My lord." Then after an instant's hesitation, "But I
fear, not the news I carry."
"No...." the old man said sadly, his body seeming to sag at the
words. "But it is not unexpected."
A young woman came out behind him. Preter could not help glancing at how
the chill wind caught her long locks of pale hair, streaming it out. Her
skin was white, but her cheeks glowed pink. She was heavy with child.
"Tell of it." said the king.
"The armies fought well my Lord. We had high hopes of success. Twice
the Veldt attacked and were forced back to their defensive positions. The
second time we were on the edge of victory. Then." He stopped. "Then
the forces of Kaar-Khankck appeared out of nowhere and joined with the Veldt."
"But they were in the Southland's." said Elgar in surprise. "At
Gorn not seven days ago. We had a fast courier."
"My Lord I cannot explain how an army on foot can move across a mountainous
land as fast, if not faster that a single swift horse. But it was the army
of Kaar-Khankck, of that there is no doubt."
"I don't doubt your word Preter. But it seems that we fight both an
enemy, and what we cannot understand. Though there is little point in how;
when we talk of what was". He fell silent for a moment. "Then
tell me of it all."
"When his army came upon the scene they swept through the battlefield
like a storm. Men trodden before like grass in the wind. They had more soldiers
and more weapons than we could fight. Red wing took the brunt at the center;
men were falling so fast we could not count those who still stood. Purple
were on the flank and they too were decimated. The slaughter was enough.
Commander Natasoy called for a retreat to Isa, where we still have a strong
defense.." Now he hesitated. He would have preferred not to say, but
he knew the old man would ask. "Elic said he would stay with his troops
He saw in the girl's eyes, the dread that the mention of her brother's name
brought, but the king showed no reaction.
"...to give the armies time to regroup. Commander Natasoy bid me tell
you that he will hold them back at Isa as long as he can. He begs that you
and the household sail to Zeeland, as soon as you can".
The old man's voice seemed to have aged as he spoke. "And of Elic?"
"Commander Natasoy ordered me to you, with all haste, but my heart
was with my men. I could not just leave.
... Forgive me lord but I
hesitated on top of a small hill they called Tabar; and looked back. I saw
the blue sashes stream out as they charged to blunt the thrust that chased
the retreat. They went to the heart off the Veldt, and the creatures hesitated
and grouped at close quarters for the onslaught. Then at the very last moment
Elic swerved away cutting around onto their flank, finding a weak spot that
even I with the advantage of height could not see".
The old man smiled.
"... The blues swept into their ranks like scythe. Their momentum hardly
slowed as they cut off the point and worked back, cutting them down in a
rolling wave. The Veldt seemed lost and they broke apart running in all
The old mans smile faltered as Preter hesitated.
"It was then.." he continued. "As the Veldt faltered that
the Kaar-Khankck came forward again. There was little more that Elic could
"Did you see.?"
"When Elic saw them coming towards his own flank he pulled back from
chasing the Veldt and regrouped to meet them face on. There was no hope.
They were pitiful few: to so many. His men were driven to a standstill.
The fleeing Veldt seeing this returned. I saw of the blue only diminishing
patches of colour, in a sea of brown and black; until one by one they faded
away". He hesitated there was no retreat from words either. "I
saw Elic's banner proud almost to the last. Then I could, and desired to
see no more"
"Father, come inside. The evening is chill". The girl looked up
at the officer, smiling then back at Preter. "I do not doubt that you
have need of food and drink before you talk further".
Elgar looked at him, "The child corrects her king. Times change beyond
what I have become accustomed to during my life. A new mood sweeps over
the lands, as well as a new regime."
Preter followed them through into the tent.
It was three weeks later that Tanalee bore her child and a week after
that the armies of the Veldt and Kaar-Khankck marched onto the beaches before
the gates of Tanyil.
Tanalee had, had no news from her father since he had marched; the morning
following the news of the army's defeat; to join with what few soldiers
remained at Isa."
Now faced with the fact that enemy forces, secure behind the hastily erected
wooden palisade walls, controlled entry to and exit from the fortress, she
knew that she probably never would hear from him again.
The small island on which the fortress stood was connected at low tide
by a long narrow spit of sand. At the landward end of this, the Veldt built
a small-fortified camp. Another was built on the headland above, provocatively
looking towards the high walls: this, the defenders surmised was where Kaar-Khankck
Once established the attackers did nothing. There was no rush. Across the
land only pockets of resistance now survived against their combined might.
It galled the garrison that the enemy force was so confident that speed
was of no consequence, and as if they were deliberately trying to intimidate
them for several days they just consolidated and ignored the fortress.
At first there had been panic and fear, but the Kaar-Khankck issued a decree
that there be no attempt to harass the workers, trades people or civilians,
going to or from the fortress. Life was to continue as normal and to prove
that, they made no attempt to siege, other than restrictions on the military
The Veldt had a terrible reputation, but seeing them subdued as they were,
many people fled the fortress while they could.
Of course the concession did not apply to officers, or armed men who gave
allegiance to the king of Loc-Sie.
Eight days after his arrival the Kaar-Khankck sent a message to the commander
of the guard.
"My lady it has arrived". He stood, still proud, but a defeated
man before her.
"And his term's Kalain. What are his demands?"
"His emissary orders that if the gates of Tanyil are opened at dawn,
three days from today; and that the garrison surrenders. The Kaar-Khankck
personally will enter the fortress at the head of his army, and that it
will suffer no retribution or loss of life."
"And if the demands are not met?"
"Then he will withdraw and leave the fortress; and all that it contains
to the people of the Veldt."
A cold chill ran down Tanalee's spine. They were to be given to the Veldt.
She knew that it was not something that Kaar-Khankck would have chosen,
but since he and her father had become bitter enemies, they both had taken
up with friends who they never would have in peaceful times. But it was
a powerful threat. The Veldt were a brutal and violent people. They would
kill and destroy until nothing but a pile of smoldering ruins bore witness
to their passing.
"What are his conditions?"
"That any person wishing to leave at that time, swear allegiance to
him; if they do then free passage through the armies will be given. All
members of the guard must offer no resistance, and surrender unconditionally.
They will then be given the offer of swearing allegiance to the Kaar-Khankck.
If they will not, they will be considered having committed the war crime
of opposing the army of protection".
"They are his full terms?"
"As far as the fortress and garrison. They were short, without concession,
or room to bargain. There is one last note. He specifies that you have his
personal guarantee of passage and safety my Lady; on condition that you
give total subservience to his will, and acknowledge him as the rightful
heir to the throne of Loc-Sie".
Tanalee did not speak so Kalain carried on
"The emissary brought this, to be delivered into your hand." He
offered her a scroll of parchment sealed with the wax seal of the Kaar himself.
"Thank you Kalain. I want no more death. Let it be known to your fellow
officers that princess Tanalee of the Royal house of Loc-Sie sends command
that of two days hence, the armies of Loc-Sie will disband, and that she
gives each man the freedom and liberty to choose his own fate," her
voice began to fail, "Tell them
.. Tell them
Tanalee was stood on the battlements long before dawn. She watched as
the first fingers of light clawed into the blackness.
Over on the beaches innumerable fires burnt where the Veldt had been camped
these last days and had celebrated all night long.
Down within the fortress people milled about waiting nervously, not wanting
to go, not wanting to stay.
She saw Kalain; the colours of his uniform standing out against the plain
clothes of the remaining civilians. He was embracing a young woman: she
carried an infant in her arm. Tanalee could not see her face, but she knew
the girl's heart was broken. She turned away. She could not look anymore
at what all this had come to. Grief, pain, hurt, they had wanted none, but
had more than they could bear.
She stared out to the shoreline; over the hills, across the lands she loved
and had lost. "Why have you done this to us," she wept. "Why
did you turn your love away?" She would never know, not unless she
was prepared to submit to his will; but she could not do that, too much
of her fathers blood flowed in her veins. Too long had the lands of Loc-Sie
rang with freedom to be chained; as now they would be.
The great gates of the city were swinging open. She saw the orderly surge
of people as they left the safety of the walls to uncertain and unknown
futures; but they would live.
She caught sight of the young girl; bundle in her arms, her head bowed,
nestled against an older man, his right arm around her shoulder, his left
held the hand of a young boy.
Tanalee looked back down into the courtyard. Kalain stood with the others
of the guard. She wished she had commanded that he go, rather than given
him, and the others release from their oaths. They were free to leave the
fortress as civilians, but to a man, had refused.
A tear came to the corner of her eye as she remembered what Kalain had said.
"My Lady a soldier knows that one day he may be separated from the
ones that he comes to love; and though you have released me from my oath
and given me leave to be with them, I have another, almost greater love;
Loc-Sie. Its soil is ingrained into each crease of my flesh, it has nurtured
each mouthful I have eaten, and has been swallowed in every sip of water
I have taken from its rivers. Its trees have shaded me from the sun and
kept me warm in cold winters. I became a man on its soft grass, and its
flowers decked the alter of my wedding
.." His voice had faded
momentarily. "If I now walk away from the one, what then is the other
worth; other than I shall end my days a shadow of the man my love betrothed.
I cannot do that to her, my son, or myself. I beg your forgiveness my Lady,
but no one person, not even a princess can release me from the love that
I feel for them, or the love I have for Loc-Sie."
Down bellow he was putting on his light battle armour. Armour used for hand-to-hand
combat. There were about seventy men with him, all proudly wore their finest
equipment. They looked more as if they were about to go on parade than wage
war. They were joking and laughing between themselves, but she knew enough
about men to know it was mostly bravado. Outside there were several hundred
Veldt: probably far more. Tanalee knew, as they themselves did, that they
had no chance at all.
She hoped she could meet her last moments in the spirit they faced theirs.
For an instant she regretted that she was not a man like Kalain. He would
pass from this world to the next with his sword in his hand, with men he
bonded with about him. She was a Royal born daughter and for that she would
be alone. But she had done something none of those brave men could do; she
had already sown the seed of resurrection. It was gone. It was safe. The
royal house of Loc-Sie would be like the swamp lily. It would disappear
under the dark water, deep into the mud and slime that would sweep over
the lands, but one day when a new sun shone. When a new summer sprang from
the winter that now closed upon them, that seed would break out and thrust
its head high. The bud would bloom. The flower would open. The sweet smell
of freedom would spread over the land. One day; a day that she would never
see, but her... . Her mind came back to the scene below. There was shouting
in the courtyard. She looked down. The guard were rowdily toasting each
other's courage and friendship. The time was close.
She looked out again towards the spit. The last of the bedraggled citizens
of Tanyil were passing the forming ranks of Veldt where the Kaar-Khankck's
men were hurrying them past into the darkness of the tree line.
There amongst them was the young girl: Kalain's bride. She was stood next
to her father and the boy looking back. In her arms was the baby. "The
future is now yours", whispered Tanalee. "Guard my secret. Nurture;
teach; love for me
.". For a moment she thought their eyes caught,
but it was too far to be sure; then the girl was gone.
All was quiet now. The civilians were clear of the beach and in the forest.
Kaar-Khankck had kept his word, though his conditions had not been entirely
met. The gates to the fortress were still open, and would remain open, but
it would not be surrendered.
Now the Veldt became restless on the beach, it was becoming clear to them
that no more would come out, and they began to reluctantly form into a battle
line. There was confusion; due to the width of the spit, the ranks were
restricted, and it appeared there was some considerable argument over who
should occupy these; the most exposed and dangerous positions. Their officers
ran about shouting, and using the short whips they carried. With threats
and coercion they began to come forward
They were quiet at first, but by midway they had raised some enthusiasm,
though that fell away at the front as they approached the gates and were
reduced down to eight abreast. But by then the sheer weight of men behind
pushed the leaders reluctantly forward.
The soldiers of Loc-Sie had started up a chant. They were banging their
shields with the handles of their swords and calling out in unison. "Loc-Sie.
The threatening mantra reached the ears of the Veldt and there was ripple
of hesitation before they came through the gateway in a rush. Screaming
and shouting: their short stabbing swords waving in the air.
The guard remained almost unconcerned; almost at ease, until their enemy
entered the courtyard. Within moments they were at each other. Though it
was clear from the start that the Veldt had little stomach for the fight.
Immediately the first row fell; then the second. The guard were slashing
their way into the third, climbing over the fallen bodies. The Veldt were
fighting back wildly now; it was either that or death.
Within minutes the tide had turned; and by sheer number the guard was driven
back into the courtyard. It was bloody and violent. Tanalee felt sick at
the carnage. Not only for her own men; but also for the Veldt. There would
be mothers, daughters, and wives who would grieve and mourn tonight. It
was all such a waste. But she was still a princess of Loc-Sie, and no matter
how sickened she felt; these men were dying because of her. She would be
with them until the end.
The end was not long in coming. Within ten minutes of the assault on the
gate, the final pockets of resistance had collected around the steps up
to the battlements. There the final guard, one by one fell.
Tanalee took up the ornate box and opened it. From the felt cushion she
took up the dagger. It had always been a fond possession: its handle bejeweled
and cast in precious white metal. Many times she had taken it out before
and wondered at the ancient craftsman who had sculptured such a beautiful
thing. Never before had she realized it would be with this...... They were
well up the stair now. The Veldt could see her, but they would never take
Kalain was at the top of the steps. He called out to her in a fatigued breath.
"My Lady. I can hold them little longer."
"I am ready. Thank you Kalain. I could have asked for none better to
see me through these last days."
"It has been an honor to serve." He called back, his voice becoming
more strained as his sword flashed forward into the shoulder of a Veldt.
Then as he withdrew the blade from the man's body. "And it will be
a privilege to die."
Tanalee put down the box and climbed onto the parapet. She looked out across
the water towards the rainforest covered lands. "I still love you,"
she wept. "After all you have done, there would have been no other;
but the price of Loc-Sie is not mine to give." She looked down at the
blade in her hand. It glinted in the rays of the rising sun, as she clasped
it in her left fist. She lifted the point to her breast, above her heart,
and put her right palm over her other hand. Out of the corner of her eye
she saw Kalain stumble to his knee. Several Veldt had got past him, and
were running to her. "For the past, and for the future; for there is
no present." She cried out as she drew the sharp point into her chest.
Immediately she felt it penetrate to her heart. The muscle convulsed and
collapsed as her lifeblood spurted out of the wound in a growing stain over
the front of her silk dress. She felt her world grow quickly dark; her legs
gave way, and she stumbled forward.
Grubby fingers grasped at the flowing white gown as it streamed out behind
Tanalee as she plunged down. Many eyes saw her fall into the crashing surf,
at the base of the fortress walls. Then she was gone. The reign of the Protector
Ellk was no larger: nor smaller than the eighty or so other villages, that
dotted the valleys of the Western tablelands. Indeed it was quite unremarkable
in almost any way, other than this is where Lipst had brought his family;
or what remained of it after the purges.
There had been hardship; it was the way of life, but the passing years had
still been kind to them, and they had prospered due to how the old man turned
his passed down skills in weapon making, to creating kitchen utensils.
He learned, as many had before him, that one adapts, and as a proclamation
restricting weapons was strictly enforced, he could not teach his grandson
the arts of warrior's swordplay, but the boy had developed a remarkably
well-practiced arm with a pointed stick.
The years had passed and Illian was nineteen now, and an imitation wooden
sword had long paled into insignificance against the girls of the village.
'So be it', the old man would sigh, and think that if only the boy was more
like Harriet, his two years younger sibling.
The female child had always been different, and seemed to have little in
common with other girls of her age; who thought her bossy and unladylike.
It was only partly true what they said; bossy could also be seen as strong
willed, and her idea of a woman's position was far from the submissive norm.
In fact in many ways she was more like a boy; but boys too rejected her;
after all no youths wanted a girl to fence in their mock battles, especially
one who could beat them in a fair contest. Feeling belittled some resorted
to brute strength with slashing blows that made fencing skill irrelevant.
It hurt Lipst to see her harmed. He didn't particularly want her playing
boy's games, but determined to prove herself she wouldn't stop. Reluctantly
he settled on the idea of making her a longbow: bar a sheath knife it was
the only weapon a commoner could own, and then it was restricted to hunting.
He had wandered to the edge of the forest thinking only of the selfish reason
of pacifying the child, but once he began searching for a sapling that would
suffice, generations of skill seemed to flow back into his fingers. If he
was going to do a job then he should do it as it should be done. Searching
his memory he had wandered deeper into the thickest undergrowth. Every bow
in the village was made from arc wood, so called for its suppleness; eventually
he found a superb piece. But instead of being satisfied at his find, he
went deeper still until he found the ideal piece of bean, and yet deeper
to secure one of bloodwood. Timbers that his distant memory demanded he
When he returned he had been gone almost a day and he spent the next two
paring down and laminating. Arc as the core: Bean on one face, bloodwood
to the other. It was a conspicuous and potent mix, the deep red of the bloodwood,
the white of the arc and the almost black of the bean. It gave the bow a
unique look and together they combined suppleness, strength and spring.
From the first day she had found the heart of the target, and before she
turned thirteen she had become a valued member of the small hunting parties
that supplemented the produce of the home fields. Though to the annoyance
of her fellow hunters she adamantly refused to kill any other creature once
the communal larder was restocked.
It was on one these trips she had come to know Tabot, son of the smithy.
It pleased Lipst that one day their two shops could become one. He paused
for a moment to look out of the open front of his workshop. They: brother
and sister were walking down to the village green; it was the custom in
the evening for all the young folk to gather there. He went back to his
It was long before dawn when there was a soft but firm banging at the
shuttered window. It partly roused Harriet from her slumber, and in the
half-world between waking and sleep she could hear the outside door opening,
then muffled voices. She drifted off again until she heard the voices once
more, this time closer by: in Illian's room. She could hear the boy arguing
with their father. Quickly she got out of bed and pulled a wrap around her.
Grandfather, their mother and Pillers: Tabot's father, were stood just inside
Illian's bedroom. "What's happening mother?", she said sleepily.
"Go back to bed child." The woman said in distress, her eyes full
"What's happening?" Harriet insisted.
"Illian is going away," said the woman, her voice on the verge
"All the boys are going."
Shock cut through Harriet's drowsiness. "All of them?".
"All the boy's. Tabot, is he going?"
Her grandfather put his arm around her shoulder. "Come Harriet, Tabot
is outside with the others." He led her away through the kitchen
"Grandfather what is happening. Why are the boys going away?"
She said in fear and bewilderment.
"Word has come that the Veldt are searching the villages. They are
seeking a young man. It will be wise for Illian and Tabot to wait in the
hills until they have gone."
"Why, what have they done?"
"That doesn't make sense."
"The Veldt do not know who they are looking for. So they spread a wide
net and take all the boys. They believe the one they seek will be among
Her voice was wavering, and she had begun to cry. "That's stupid."
"It is." agreed the old man sadly. "But we must do what is
necessary to protect the them. Come you have a little time to say goodbye
to Tabot. Then come walk with me. I want to see the sun rise over the deserts."
"I want to stay here with them." She sobbed.
"Will you deny an old man his request?" He looked into her eyes,
and saw the firmness dissolve. "Quickly now: go see Tabot."
The young girl went outside passing her mother as she began to rekindle
the fire that smoldered in the kitchen grate. There would be no more sleep
The boy's left with Pillers. Hurriedly walking off into the darkness.
Harriet wanted to stay and comfort her mother, but her grandfather insisted
that they leave the house. "There are too many tears here child".
He said. "No one can comfort your mother. We must meet the sun's rising
and pray for their safe return".
Harriet could not leave the tears behind. Her brother and her future husband
seemed to be walking out of her life too.
It was still dark, but the path to Tiennea hill was well known by them both.
Normally the stroll would have been an opportunity for constant chatter,
but this morning they were silent all of the way. Harriet didn't want to
talk and her grandfather refused to elaborate when she had tried, saying
only. "I will tell you when the time is right".
The pathway wound gently around the hill, rather than straight up, as many
of the old folk came to its summit for solace. So it was that they mounted
the crest by way of the rear. As the came over the top they turned away
from blackness of night, and faced towards its melting. Before them, dotted
randomly in the semi darkness were tiny flickering glows.
"What are they Grandpa? Are they bonfires? Are they some signal?"
"I don't know child". He lied.
They were rugged against it, but it seemed that it got colder as dawn broke
into day, but still he refused to go, insisting the time was not right.
In the first true rays of light, Harriet at last made the connection. The
glow of fire was not random over the landscape. Each glow marked the position
of one or another village and as it grew lighter her fears proved right.
The glow dimmed, but clouds of thick black, or brown smoke billowed from
village after village.
"Please grandpa. We must go back", she sobbed, begging him to
return to Ellk. But still he refused, and when she said she would go alone,
he grabbed her wrist holding her more tightly than he had ever before. "You're
hurting me Grandpa", she wept, more in frustration than in pain. He
said nothing, but tears flowed over his cheeks.
It was shortly after dawn that smoke sprang up from Ellk. Harriet watched
in horror as it spread through the buildings. In fifteen minutes it was
over and a band of mounted Veldt could be seen streaming out in the direction
of the adjacent hamlet. Silit was quietly awaking from the night, and awaiting
Only then did the old man allow her to drag him back. She left him at the
outskirts, running alone deep into the almost deserted village.
When he finally arrived at their dwelling; or the smoking ruin that remained
of it. Harriet was inside sadly searching through the rooms.
He could see her shoes smoking from the heat, though she seemed not to notice.
He stood watching her, his own heart broken; unable to move or speak.
A woman came up behind him. "Lipst." she said softly. "They
have been taken to the temple". They made their way to the only building
that still seemed intact.
Most of the village people had congregated here. Some to pray, some to help,
either way many were moving dejectedly in and out. Inside stretchers had
been improvised by bridging the gaps between the pews with timber planks,
and boards torn from damaged houses.
In the first group, towards the door, people congregated tending to the
wounds or needs of the injured. Deeper inside the building, close to the
altar other stretchers bore the shapes of people. None were being tendered
to, other than by the priest.
Harriet desperately went from one bloody or burnt victim another until she
had seen all in the first group. Then she looked down the temple: then at
her grandfather. He went to her and put his hand on her shoulder pulling
her close. But she tore away and almost ran down the aisle to the second
group. After looking at three prone figures, she fell to the ground alongside
the fourth. Lipst did not want to see what she had found.
Harriet mourned for only a brief time. Then she rose, saying nothing to
Lipst before she threw herself in aiding the injured.
It was dark again when two other village women brought her back to his
side. One of the women Dora, Lipst's lifelong friend sat with her, her arms
circling the girl.
Harriet had not rested or ate since the evening mean the night before. She
sat silently, her head bowed. "You knew". She said, quietly and
firmly, but without looking up.
Dora looked despondently at Lipst. He looked back expressionless.
"I'm sorry", his voice choked on the words.
"Sorry.. Is that it?" She snapped.
The words hurt him more than he could ever have believed. He wanted to say
that, that was not just your mother lying there; it was my child, my daughter.
He wanted to say that his loss was as great as hers, but he did not. She
had to purge her mind of the feeling of helplessness that she felt. She
needed to hate somebody, and if she was to hate anyone, then it should be
one who loved her enough to forgive and understand.
Now she raised her head. "You knew. Didn't you?" She said again,
a little louder and more accusingly.
"I did not know that this..."
"I could have helped. I should have been here; when I was needed
She broke down sobbing, and Dora held the shaking child closer to her breast
and looked pitifully at him.
Lipst sat there, until Harriet's weeping eased and she composed herself.
She stood, breaking abruptly away from the woman and walked back to the
temple, saying not a word.
Dora made room for Lipst, while Harriet stayed with another woman in
the days after, and as they prepared for the burials.
Lipst needed the child with him, but she had cut him from her life. He looked
upon these as his darkest days, especially when some of the boys returned,
but not Illian and Tabot. There were rumours of more purges, and both had
gone into the mountains to join the rebels.
Stood at the graveside as they scattered earth together, at last the girl's
grief broke and she fell at Lipst's feet. He quickly knelt beside her, and
together on the soft grass they wept at what they had lost, and for what
they had regained.
They left Ellk. Nothing remained here for them except bad memories. Harriet
wanted to seek out Illian and Tabot, but had no idea where they had gone,
so they set out for a new land and a new life.
Nicholas was floating through mist. He could see and understand nothing
other than soft rainbow lights surrounded him. His mind wandered: his thoughts
unconnected; just random feelings or images.
At times he felt warm, but the overriding feeling was the knowledge that
his body felt no pain: he couldn't understand that; he should hurt. Of course
it went without saying that he knew that he was dead, and in death one was
relieved of mortal pain.
He couldn't remember why he should hurt, his mind had blocked out great
sections of what he had known. But he knew in the most detached sort of
way that he had been beaten. He remembered that it was severe: but mostly
he knew that he was dead.
Nicholas recounted finding his family. There was no grief, and he went over
the dreadful scene as if a stranger watching a tragic drama, recalled especially
for him. Something was wrong with what had happened: not just because it
had, but something else; something he did not understand; something he had
missed. He went over the scene again and again, his mind refusing to accept
the horror of the event, only the methodical step-by-step search of facts.
He was tired; try as he may the puzzle remained, and eventually the blackness
returned. Later, or it could have even been before; there were other dreams.
He was laid upon a table, and again that warm feeling. An old man with bushy
eyebrows, dressed in loose red garments held his arm behind Nicholas's shoulders
to support him; the other hand holding a small vessel containing a thick
yellow liquid. 'No questions, just drink' he had said. Nicholas did as he
was bid. While he drank his eyes wandered about him.
The room was small, and brightly lit from a source he could not locate.
Strange articles of furniture stood against one wall; upon these paintings
and scripts that appeared to change at the old man's word: and at one time
a voice answered seemingly out of the air itself.
Once again Nicholas drifted to sleep. This time it was deep, with no dreams.
When Nicholas woke it was not gradually. There was a breeze across his face.
His mind was instantly awake, his body lay prone but his eyes opened. Above
him the stars shone, and under him he could feel the soft cushion of grass
and fern. Moving his eyes he could see that he was at the base of a rock
face, and a few metres away was the entrance to a small cave.
A fire had been lit off to his left, the wisp of smoke being drawn skyward
in the light wind that was clearing the remnants of the dispersing mist.
Neither moon was visible, but judging by the pattern of stars that he could
see, it would be just before daybreak. As if in answer to his thought, he
caught sight of the first pale streaks of dawn, breaking into the blackness.
Nicholas moved expecting pain, but felt none. Limb by limb he tested his
body. He felt good, very good; in fact he had seldom felt better. He cautiously
raised his arms, and looked at his hands for the cuts and slashes of the
chase, but there were none. He felt at his head for the bruises, and lumps,
but again these had gone.
The tunic, and cloak bore none of the rips and tears from his running through
the forest. They felt crisp and clean, as if but at that moment they had
been taken from his mothers washing basket.
He suddenly remembered the scene at the house. "Oh God let it all have
been some terrible nightmare." he cried out loud.
"I am truly sorry
.." The solemn voice came from his side,
and he turned towards it. "A nightmare it was not. You have only cold
reality to comfort you now."
A man was sitting quietly just inside the mouth of the cave.
Nicholas rose up onto his elbow and looked at him. "Where am I?"
"You are at what I believe you call Henderson's draw."
"If I am there, it is beyond the forest."
"It is, and you are."
"How did I get here? I remember
The man rose up. "Whatever you remember is probably what happened."
"Then I should be dead." said Nicholas coldly "
I wish that it was that way, for what I remember is to be burdened with
such grief that I cannot bear."
The man came closer to him. "You have made a journey that few men return
from. You have been through deaths door, and yet you can still look out
of that past to the future. Think on that."
"Journey. Future. What future. If you are my savior, then I am not
sure I feel gratitude."
The man seemed unperturbed by the harsh reply, and reached down close to
Nicholas to pick up a small beaker. "Anguish and grief, I cannot help
you with. That is a burden you must carry alone, but you must not let it
cloud your judgment. Here drink this; you are still far from mended".
Nicholas took the cup and put it to his lips. The liquid though cold felt
warm and sweet as it slid down his throat. "The wounds I had: my clothes.
This is the work of Gods and spirits, or that of the devil?"
"Believe as you wish." The man replied. "But I assure you,
I am none of those; though I have known some who would argue the latter."
his face broke into a grin that Nicholas found hard not to respond with.
"The truth is only that I possess knowledge that your people have yet
to learn." He held up his hand to stop any reply. "I will answer
some of your questions. For others, you yourself must seek the answer. Firstly
I know who you are. Where you are from, and what you have done; or rather
what you have not done. You must accept for the time being that I help you
because I too have a part to play in your life. I can tell you no more than
that, other than you can call me Reigel. Where I am from?" He opened
his hands in a questioning gesture. "That is hard to explain ... suffice
it to say that my ancestors were from a village in ways similar to yours,
though a very long way, away from here."
"But you will tell me why am I here...."
"Here; Henderson's draw?"
"No; like this: alive. In all truth I should be dead."
"You question such a gift?"
"There are things that are more good fortune for any man to ask for.
Resurrection is one."
"It is. But to be resurrected one must be dead first, and that I cannot
Nicholas could not just accept such a statement. "Sir,...Reigel...
forgive my protest, but if I am to believe all that you say; then I truly
owe you a great debt. But you ask me to accept that you come from far away
to this place, to pay me; a stranger to you such credit".
"You doubt that someone can aid another out of humanity?"
"This is hardly giving a nights shelter, or filling an empty belly.
I have had an experience that I do not wish to endure again. I have passed
my last breath between my lips".
"Cessation of breathing is not death."
"The question still begs, why this wondrous service of reincarnation;
or not: for what reason?"
"As I already said: is not being able to a good enough reason?"
"No. I am an ordinary man of simple ways, yet I have a service the
Lord Marshal does not have. At least I do not think he has."
Nicholas saw reaction flash in Reigel's eyes as he spoke, but there was
none in his answer. "Through history men have sought to gain the benefit
of knowing their purpose in life. I do not know what yours is, but a purpose
you do have."
For a moment anger surged through Nicholas. "True, I have a purpose
like never before."
Reigel ignored the bitterness of his words. "If you think your reincarnation
is solely to enable your revenge, you are wrong."
"What better use has it?"
"I was once told by someone far wiser than I, that if you take revenge
hot, it will burn your fingers. Take revenge cold and each piece can be
relished. If hate blinds you then strike back, go find whoever killed your
family, and kill them. It is simple enough?"
Nicholas was ready to answer but he couldn't, where should he start, what
should he do, where should he go? "It is not so simple, all I know
is that they were soldiers of Quone."
"If it is what you want, I can give you their names, and even where
to find them."
Nicholas was astounded. "You know them?"
"I know who they were; but before you rush off, consider this. These
men are professional soldiers; they handle weapons with the highest expertise;
so it will take more than a farm boy to stir fear in their veins."
"You think I am a coward?" Nicholas almost snapped.
Reigel was calm. "I only recommend something less directly combative."
"But you imply it. Maybe they have skills in the martial arts, but
I will find a way to face them."
"I am sure you will, but do it in a blind rage and you will be dead
long before your revenge is sated; and even if by some miraculous chance
you are not killed, all you will have become is the same as them."
Nicholas was angry at the slight. "No. I could never be like them."
"Few of us would be, but sometimes it is easier to hate than to forgive.
Then; when we give in to our dark side it does not allow us to see or act
"Compassion, surely you are not suggesting that I forgive murders who
have taken all that I love from me."
"I'm just pointing out that we all have it within us to be the person
Nicholas's words were hard. "They must pay, and I will do all that
is within my power to see they do."
"Then it is your life and your choice".
"You said you know them?"
"I said I know who they are."
"And where they are?"
It was more demand than request. "Then you will tell me."
"So you can take revenge?"
"There can be no other reason."
"Yes there is; and though it may be hard for you to accept at this
moment, the captain is not to blame. I do not mean that he does what he
is bidden unwillingly; but kill him and you will have done no more than
pluck a leaf from a strangling vine. The creeper still lives, and beyond
that the roots still suck their life from the soil. Come next spring the
flowers will bloom again and nothing will have changed. The captain is no
more than a tool to achieve a purpose. If you want revenge then you have
to go much deeper to find who controls him; and deeper still before you
will understand that there is no single person's death that your revenge
can be sated upon."
"These are mere words; someone, somewhere carries the responsibility
for my family's blood, and I need seek no further than the hand that held
"Let me suppose a situation. You are a soldier in an army. Before you
are the enemy, one, or some of them fired your home and committed unspeakable
atrocities against your family, so you are prepared to do battle. You lunge
forward and cut down the first man you meet and rejoice in your revenge."
He looked at Nicholas questioningly. "But revenge against whom? Was
this the man who did the act; was he no more than yourself; a man seeking
revenge of his own? Would you kill every single enemy before you knew your
revenge was complete? When we kill in hate there are questions we refuse
to ask, and images that we never see. A young woman who gives birth to an
innocent child who she must tell that someone, somewhere carries the blood
of its father on their hands. What should that child do?"
Nicholas was silent for a moment. "It is not the same. This is a different
situation, I know who I seek and that imaginary child would be a better
person without a murderer for a father." He said sulkily.
"Nicholas denial, grief, revenge amount to the same thing. They are
reactions to a circumstance. For you they are not a purpose to live."
"You would not say such empty words if you had, had to witness what
I have", he snapped.
"What you have had to endure is at this moment unbearable. I may not
know your grief, but I understand your feelings. I know too that you are
not the first, and you will not be the last to step into such an abyss."
"I don't doubt your sincerity, but that does little to ease the pain".
"And neither should it, pain is the force that drives us, and you will
need that pain to sustain you through what is to come".
"To come, I see nothing to come, only revenge. I have lost my family,
and at this moment my friends, my home, my inheritance. What is left?"
"Nicholas nobody is ever who they seem, you are old enough to realize
that. Sometimes we can be a stranger even to ourselves. So how can you say
who you are; what your destiny may be, or that you will share it with no
"I know who I am, and what I must do." Nicholas said firmly. "I
must take my revenge; then return to Boramulla so that I can put my family's
business in order and protest my case to the Alderman. Then I swear I will
see justice done and that whoever else is involved in this despicable crime
"If that is your wish then do what you will.
Nicholas looked at Reigel. He had a burning desire for revenge, but the
old man was right, lashing out would not guarantee success. It was not something
he wanted. "You suggest that I should put the death of my family, and
my wrongful guilt behind me?"
"I ask that you consider what is the right path to follow. One will
lead to your downfall, the other to your purpose. At this moment you may
walk either way. You cannot bring back the ones you loved; but you could
ruin the life they would want you to have; and as for clearing your name."
Reigel looked up towards the sky. "We all carry stigma of one kind
As Nicholas listened he realized that despite the fact that he referred
to the stranger as old, it was in reality hard to tell his age. True he
stooped, and seemed weary, but there was something
. "This is
more than stigma", he said a lot more calmly. "If I was to do
all you say, the fact remains that in the eyes of almost all the people
I know, I am a murderer. I am a hunted man and will be until I clear my
name. If I am not to remain under a cloud of guilt, what should I do?"
"More what you should not do, and you cannot return to your home. You
were accused, found to be guilty, and executed; albeit by summary justice.
To all in your village you are dead."
"Neither can I just walk away", protested Nicholas. "I have
done no wrong. The guilty must be brought to justice. I must clear my name
for my family to rest in peace".
"To the people who accused you, the truth doesn't matter anymore."
"Of course it does." Snapped Nicholas, he clenched his fists and
raised his arms in anger and frustration. "I am not guilty. I could
"I know that, but consider the facts. You were caught with the knife
in your hands. You ran from the house. Witness's heard your threats."
"That was a cruel untruth," he said bitterly. "I know not
for what reason anyone should claim that."
"They claimed it to create a situation that would rescue their plan."
"Plan?" Nicholas was mystified. "There was a pla... No, no
that can't be."
"The plan went as wrong as any plan could go. They expected you to
be there and you were not."
Nicholas stared at him stunned, had no words that could convey his utter
"Nicholas you must believe me that you will not be given a fair hearing,
or even the chance to plead your case. No, your proof of innocence lies
not here, but in Quone. I know I confuse you more, but the future will become
clearer as time passes." Reigel sat alongside Nicholas; speaking slowly
as he stared into the embers. "The events of last month..." He
saw Nicholas's eye's question him. "It was five weeks ago
they found you; the captain had known where you were as surely as if you
had told him. And actually, you did. He followed your flight with a scent
stronger than that followed by the hounds,.."
"How can you know this?"
"I have been told by someone who saw much that happened."
"Someone was there?" He gasped.
Reigel hesitated. "You were observed as you arrived at the house."
"No, no one was there. I would have known."
. observer is very good at seeing, without being seen."
Nicholas's mood rose. "Then they must bear witness that I arrived after
Good, all comes into order." He stood. "You must tell them, we
must make haste to the house of the Alderman."
Reigel sat still. "It's not that easy," he said softly.
"Not easy?" snapped Nicholas. "What kind of man is it that
would stand by and condone such a miscarriage of justice."
"It was not a man, it was a machine."
you don't make sense."
"The levels of technology I used to mend your body are capable of creating
a machine that can observe and remember. To present a machine as evidence
to the Alderman would do you little good. I'm sorry."
Nicholas slowly sat back down dejectedly as Reigel continued.
"I do not know the actual minutiae, but from what I do know of their
plans I believe I have enough to reconstruct the rest. That is if you are
ready to hear?" Reigel placed another log on the fire, letting Nicholas
think of what he had said. The youth said nothing so he continued. "The
fact is that you are the one they wanted to kill; and you should have been
home with your family. As I say, I don't know the details, but the intention
would have been something on the lines that thieves killed everyone during
a robbery. But as I said the plan went wrong when they found you were not
at home. They could not let your family live as witnesses. I imagine that
forced the improvisation, that you be implicated as the murderer. If theft
was to have been the motive then laying the blame on you removed the need
for a story that some thief was in the district. There would be no mystery
or doubt. I imagine the captain felt his plan had exceeded expectation,
but perfect plans often are not. His planning would never have allowed for
you to see them."
"In the forest?"
"Yes; the five riders? All officers of the guard. It was they who made
their way to your house, once at your door it would have been a simple task
gaining access under the Marshals name. Otherwise I doubt your father would
have opened it to five strangers in the dark."
"Wait... Hold there. I can accept some of what you say, but if I am
to believe that all you guess is true, then how do you know of what really
happened to me. I would have known of your presence when I saw them, at
least at some time I would have suspected it."
"You told me while you slept." Briefly a wry smile flashed in
Reigel's eyes, then his expression changed and he continued. "The murders
would have caused them little concern; they are not strangers to acts of
barbarism. If it is of any consolation, I suspect your family would have
had little suspicion of what was about to occur, and I doubt they would
have known any pain. Be thankful that these men are skilled at their work."
Nicholas had a sick feeling in his stomach, but there was no gratitude.
"Another thing is I doubt they planned to delay their escape, but again
it worked to their advantage. They waited, and when you returned the alarm
was raised. Then all they had to do was to stir bloodlust in a drunken mob."
"That almost disturbs me most of all,, said Nicholas softly. "..These
were people I had know all my life, yet they so quickly assumed such a thing
of me. How could my friends.... It was like they all relished
"Don't be too hard on the villagers. I won't make any excuse for them,
but they were as manipulated as you. For the captain's purpose it was a
good solution that you be killed quickly by the angry mob, so they were
led to believe that you had lost your mind, and killed their friends."
Nicholas sat quietly listening, his thoughts slipping from disgust to horror,
and back again. He had questions flying to his mind, only to be replaced
by others before he could ask them.
"When you arrived at the scene, and took your knife from your fathers
chest, a powder; unseen, and unfelt was transferred to your hand. The captain
has technology that enabled him to detect this substance; to know where
you were, and what direction you were going."
Nicholas's was almost numb. "They knew?"
Reigel nodded his head. "You never had any chance of escape, but that
was when things began to work in your favour."
He saw the youth look questioningly at him.
"The most dangerous time in a battle, is at the moment of victory.
It is then we let our guard down, and our mind is swept away from caution.
And that is when the captain made his mistake. He felt so confident that
all was running to plan, that his men could melt away quickly, and leave
you to the mob. After all the secrecy, to have members of the guard visibly
associated with your public death, was a change that would not please his
Both men now became silent. Reigel sat waiting, watching Nicholas, staring
into the now dying fire. It seemed they were both entranced by the imagined
pictures created by embers on the cooling logs. There was a splutter of
flame as some small pocket of gas or resin caught alight, that brought them
both back out of their thoughts. Reigel put out his booted foot and pushed
an unburned piece of timber back into the flames.
"That act of confidence was your salvation. If they had not have left
when they did, you may have been too far-gone for any hope. As it was the
rabble took fright easily at my arrival, though at first I was greatly concerned
that I had arrived too late. Another blow; and it well may have been."
He looked into Nicholas's eyes. "So here is it that I am what you see
as a God. The cuts and broken bones were in essence mended as would have
been done by the physician in your village, though with the help of medicines
and practices far beyond his capability. More serious was what damage had
been done to your internal organs, but if I am to simplify their functions,
they are again no more than muscle and can be repaired as such. So you see
no God in attendance to cure you there. But your head was a different matter".
Reigel's glance flickered up to the crown of Nicholas's scull. He lifted
his hand. "May I?"
Nicholas held still as Reigel's fingers brushed from above his nose to behind
his left ear. Nicholas felt a shiver run down his spine as the stranger's
hands gently ran through his hair.
"Does that feel
. Feel normal."
"In what way do you mean?" said Nicholas hesitantly.
"Actually I'm not sure what it should feel like," said Reigel
equally inquiringly. "But I suppose the fact that it means nothing
to you can only be positive."
"Is that where
"Whichever one of your assailants struck that blow, he meant to kill
Nicholas felt a chill in his body that he had never felt before. He could
accept the mobs behavior. He had seen inklings of such, rage; panic and
fear; they were all one in the same, and could spread with lightening speed
through a group. Especially a group tanked up on ale, but he had never considered
anyone in the village could find such hate to do what they had.
Reigel broke into his thoughts. "You must not blame them."
"Someone meant to kill me."
"On that night at least five people did, the others were just pawns
in their game."
"But it wasn't a game. Someone I knew, spoke to, and maybe even was
friends with, tried to end my life as violently as they could."
"And their reasoning was likely based on little more than a grudge,
but it is the nature of man to put wild animals to shame."
Realization flashed in Nicholas's mind. "You know who it was, don't
Reigel stared solemnly at him. "You do not want to know."
"And what will you do. Confront him; kill him. You don't have many
courses of action in such a circumstance."
"A man should know his enemies."
"He is not your enemy, he is a man wracked with guilt at what he did;
like most of the people of your village. They were wrong, and now sober
they know it; nothing can change that, other than maybe your forgiveness."
Nicholas could not resist the urge to laugh
Reigel smiled with him. "One day you may think on my words in a different
way, but we digress. I am supposed to be proving that nothing supernatural
helped you, though I must say at this point that be it your deity, or luck;
something was by your side in those last moments. The blow to your head
caused major damage to your skull; protective membrane, and the lower region
of your brain. In those miniscule seconds you verged on total incapacitation,
or death. Your life was draining away and I had to halt the slide to oblivion
by; shall I say putting you into a sleep so deep that your bodily functions
"So to stop my body from stopping, you stopped it." Nicholas shook
his head. "I thought you were to explain that you are not a God".
The exchange seemed to have relaxed both men, and Nicholas felt a great
deal more comfortable as the still grinning Reigel continued.
"There are many things that may puzzle you, but to know everything
at once would be too much. I have taken measures to ensure that you will
at least have an understanding of things you will need to know; in fact
that was why I asked how you feel; but later. First your injury: as I said
you were on the verge of death. I halted that process, giving me time to
take you to
. To a place where the fragments of your skull could be
removed from your brain without further damage."
"My brain. You are talking about my brain being
Nicholas felt very queasy.
"I have said several times that it was an incredibly severe blow."
I know. It just it feels
. I am all right?"
"The tissue regenerated very well, well what tissue was going to, though
there was a lot of bone fragments and splinters to be removed." Reigel
saw that Nicholas had subconsciously or not begun to stroke his own head.
"There is another thing you probably should know".
Nicholas looked expectantly at him, almost past being surprised anymore
"There was a part of your brain that was beyond recovery, and because
of this you will find you're,
.. actions, and thoughts may be slightly
different to before." He paused again noting that Nick's eyes had lowered
a little in anticipation of what was to follow. "In other circumstances
I probably should have discussed it with you, but I had to make a decision,
so during the reconstruction of that organ I also took the liberty of planting
a device...with some ideas and information within it. It will all be
"Stop there," interrupted Nicholas. "You are telling me that
you filled my mind with your ideas
"No... No that's too simplistic; and far from true. I did not place
any of my personal ideas and beliefs. Such an act would be very wrong."
"Then what did you do?"
"As I reconstructed your skull, I attached a small machine to the inside
to compensate for the damage your brain sustained."
Nicholas stared at Reigel. "One of us is out of our mind, and maybe
it is I. You say my brain was damaged, yet I have seen people with damaged
minds and I know that I am not one. You say you have rebuilt my brain and
skull yet even our most experienced physicians say such things are not possible.
You tell me you have put a machine inside my head which will give me memories,
which I do not have, and will enhance the senses I have known from birth.
I have no idea of what you are telling me. All I know is that I should laugh
at what you say; or run, because it is not I who has lost reality it is
Reigel looked at the disbelieving youth trying to think of some way he could
make the unbelievable, believable. "I understand this is confusing,
and that much of what I am telling you is hard to understand or even accept
as possible, and often we hear only what our brain thinks we can understand."
Reigel hesitated for only a second. "Think of the strumming of a guitar.
Our brain hears it as a single musical sound, but our ears hear it as several
individual resonances. Each string makes its own sound; that together create
the strum. Blends 0f sound are all about us: listen to the night, the silence
is often full of sound. The crackling of the fire; the wind, in the trees,
none of these are one single sound but many together."
The youth was quiet.
"This wealth of new sounds may be bewildering; even disturbing at first
but in time you will be able to suppress them."
Still Nicholas said nothing.
"The information stored is of things you will need to know. At this
moment you will be unaware of that information, but over time it will be
released, or as events and recollections prompt the flow. It will be like
a forgotten memory; but even then it will be only the most basic details.
The rest you must learn for yourself." Reigel stopped; he looked uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry that this was necessary. It is an invasion of your deepest
privacy, and if you really demand it of me I will remove it: though considering
what you intend with your second life it would not be in your best interests."
Nicholas stared in disbelief at him. What was he to say? Surely Reigel had
gone too far, yet he knew he had been severely beaten. If whatever this
machine was; was removed, what would his life be like with his brain damaged.
Five weeks ago, if that were as he had been told, he would have thought
of Reigel as a madman, but now he was part of that madness? Before he could
speak Reigel was talking again.
"You now know that I am not a God. I am a man like you, a piece in
the jigsaw that fate creates for each time. But men, not fate decided what
has passed these last weeks. I have played my part, and now the order is
back to where it was; and you must begin once again on your life, though
from this crossroad it becomes part of the lives of others as well
I will tell you where to start, but from then on your life is once more
your own: to use or waste as you choose. Beyond that I offer you one piece
of advice Nicholas Day, and that is do not play the hero, for death stalks
you, and it will come again. Next time I cannot help. At that time it will
be fate's choice for you. But if fate speeds your way, then maybe a succession
of events will have begun that will ultimately bring freedom to your World.
I wish I could do, or say all that I want to say, but I have broken many
laws to have come this far, and there can be no more. That I can't help
beyond what I have saddens me, for I fear that you are ill prepared. Life's
journey at the best of times can be a lonely one, and it will be an especially
lonely one for you."
Nicholas felt disheartened at Reigel's words. Loneliness flooded over him
as the grief of what he had lost swept again into his mind.
Reigel must have seen it on his face but he spoke on. "You must return
to your home to collect two things. The house is still sealed as no beneficiary
has yet been found. It is your custom that un-bequeathed property will be
shared around the community. That, that has not already happened is because
your Alderman is still hesitating over the distribution to try and secure
the best for his subordinate's; but the period of mourning ends in two days,
so it will happen then. The house and business has already been forfeited
to the Marshal, and bears his great seal; he will confirm a tenant provider
at the end of mourning. Nonetheless you must break the seal and enter; go
to your mother's room, there you will find a small box. It contains a ring
of yellow metal with a piece of stone set in it. You must take this ring.
Secondly you must collect the throwing knife; the one that betrayed you."
He ignored the expression of distaste on Nicholas's face. "
but do not touch its handle. That is vitally important. Wrap it in cloth,
and keep it so until such time as you can lay it in the rays of the orb.
Place it on either side for the time it takes to walk a thousand paces back
and forth. Is that clear?"
"Yes. I think so." Nicholas sounded sad. "Must I lose everything?"
"Where you are going you will have no need of what you once considered
"Then where must I go?"
"To the Blood Mountains to seek out Simeon as bid by your father."
He saw the confusion the youth's eyes but again he kept on. "Our lives
are jigsaws. We can make no sense of only the one piece we see. But without
your piece the picture cannot be finished. My part is to give you that chance.
Your father knew what was required, but he can no longer play his part.
Trust me, trust him; and take one step at a time."
Nicholas nodded; he had no other choice.
Reigel stood. "My work here is done. I will leave you now, but maybe
we shall meet at other times when our separate paths again cross."
With that he walked into the cave without looking back.
Nicholas stood, looking at him as he disappeared through the entrance, his
mind still reeling.
"Wait. I must know more. With every word you speak, I know less."
he shouted after him.
"In time," a voice echoed from within the depths of the cavern.
Nicholas quickly followed into the cave, then stopped. It was a dead end.
The cave went no further than about twenty paces. Footprints led from the
back wall to the front, and then returned, there was no exit only solid
It was now past dawn, the mists had gone, and it bore as a good day for
work, as he would have thought a few
.. a long time ago. No food had
passed his lips; at least that he could remember, since his quick afternoon
meal at the mill of Andrew Tabbetdan, Jonathon's father. Memories of piping
hot dumplings in a rich broth came to his mind; even that thought did not
make him particularly hungry. But he knew that, that would not last forever.
For the moment there was nothing to do other than make plans for the return
to his home. Dusk would be good, at the time of the evening meal when few
were about the village. By then he would likely be hungry too, and could
take supplies from the storeroom to last for a while, or at least all that
he could carry.
He crossed the fields keeping within the shadow of the great Holokai hedges,
until he came to a small copse overlooking the village. He would wait here
until toward nightfall.
He lay back to rest, but he didn't feel tired, instead he sat up and looked
down on what had been home all these years; trying to memorize every detail.
On his left the great river wound through the plains; somewhere far over
the horizon he was told it ran into an ocean. It must be far away for all
he could see was the dark green of distant irrigated land that followed
on either side. Scattered along the waterway could be seen the red triangular
sails of the barges as they plied their goods up and down the rivers length.
Below he could see his house, it looked deserted. Most of the village people
were in the fields, going about their work as they had done for generations.
The sight made him feel very lonely.
He forced his gaze back to the river and past the village to the tavern
down by the timber dock. He had spent many afternoons fishing from there
with Jonathon guessing when the bites were few at what cargo the ships were
carrying, where they had been, or where they were going. His eyes followed
the river upstream to where it disappeared on entering the forest. Running
on unseen beneath the trees it wound its way to the distant chasm it had
cleaved through the mountains in ages past, and on from there, to the gates
He gazed towards that horizon. Somehow, there in that place known to him
only by name, were the answers he sought.
He had never imagined going to the city, but now what else was there. His
life in an instant had changed. All he had left now were questions, and
he had to go where they could be answered
Chapter 3 - Road and Forest
When the daylight began to fail, Nicholas rose and made his way down to
the road. Once sure it was clear, he stepped from the trees and walked toward
the village, trying as much as he could to look like a worker returning
from the fields. He pulled the hood of the cloak up around his face, as
the onset of night had brought a chill, and for that reason it would not
arouse suspicion. It seemed Reigel was right, time had passed; the season
of ice was closing in on the land.
Within a short time he was approaching the gate to his home, or what had
been his home. Even dark and full of sorrow the sight of the building raised
his pulse. He stood still for a moment, his hand on the gate not wanting
to enter. It contained too much heartache, but it was also the last and
now only contact he had with the memories of happier times. It suddenly
occurred to him that standing where he was he was making himself too obvious.
He quickly glanced around; he could see no one and was hopeful that no one
had seen him. Quickly he walked over the gravel straight up to the door
as if he was a traveler asking for directions.
But now he stopped again facing the door. As Reigel had warned him, two
pieces of timber barred his entry, and where they crossed was nailed the
great seal of Quone-Loc-Sie. He reached for the planking closet to the handle,
and tried to move it enough to pass, but without showing to the road that
it had been disturbed.
"What is your business?" a voice boomed in his ear, and a hand
was clamped firmly upon his shoulder.
Nicholas went rigid with shock. He turned, as much as the grip allowed to
see one of the guard stood close behind him.
He had not expected this. His mind raced. Of course this was the house of
the provider, and the grain storage for the village. One half of all the
grain and the lands were now the Marshal's. He had miscalculated; of course
there would be a guard.
It was a disastrous start and he silently cursed himself for being so careless.
There was only one consolation; this soldier would be looking for a thief,
and not a dead man.
"I asked you, what is your business touching the great seal?"
"Forgive me. I am but a poor man, with an ailing wife, and a hungry
child. I seek only to let them live for another day." The lie seemed
to roll off his tongue like butter from a hot knife.
The guard took his hand from him, and stood back. His other hand held the
handle of his half-drawn sword. The soldier looked at him pleased that his
watch should produce a scavenger. He was not much, barely more than a boy,
but extra pay was extra pay no matter the wretch who provided it. Then his
look changed. "For one who is so poor that his family starves, your
clothes are fine enough."
"Officer it is the least my wife can do. All she can earn is from what
cleaning in the village she can find; but her trade; her greatest quality
is in her mending, as you may well see." The lie seemed so easy to
"Aye I do, and if she is that good a seamstress how come she does not
work as such?"
"If only she could officer; but those who would want her work can pay
"That may be so, times are hard for all." He seemed satisfied
at the excuse, and convinced that he had caught a thief. "The matter
still is that you were about to break the great seal; that you will explain
to the Alderman."
The guard stepped forward to take hold of him again; as he did Nicholas
clenched left fist sank into his stomach. Any cry the man would have made
was driven out of his lungs with all the air they contained. He bent forward
gasping only to meet Nick's right fist coming up under his jaw. There was
a sharp crack, and the guard fell backwards onto the stones of the path.
Nicholas stared at the man stunned at his own actions. Only once before
had he hit anyone; and that was defending his brother. He couldn't believe
what he had done. Still shocked he looked around; there was no one to be
seen, and hopefully in the closing mist no one had witnessed his assault
from a window. He turned back to the door and tore off the seal. It was
too late for caution now. Once the door was open he pulled the guard inside,
and closed it shut.
There was always a lantern by the rack, which held outside clothing. He
found and lit it before kneeling beside the guard. Nicholas couldn't see
him breathing, and didn't dare check if he was.
He looked around. The room had not been touched, other than the timber floor
had been washed, and only a dim outline marked where his father's blood
had stained the boards.
Forcing his anguish aside he went straight to his mother's room. He opened
the door, but could not enter the room. A great sadness came over him knowing
that he would never hear her soft voice, or see her smiling face again.
The room had always seemed so full and busy, but now every piece of the
simple furniture took on a cold and hard look.
Everything seemed so strange, yet so familiar. It was cold and lifeless,
not how he remembered the laughter and noise. Again he had to force his
thoughts back to what he had to do, but it was some time before he could
step over and open her private cupboards.
There were few places to hide any object, even one as small as a ring. Each
shelf, each drawer held the crisp clean clothes that he knew. His fingers
felt like lead as he pushed the materials aside. Now he did feel like a
thief. A cedar chest stood at the bottom of the bed. Halfway down he found
an elaborate gown. He remembered her once saying that she had married in
a wedding dress fit for a princess, and that one day; if she chose, his
bride could wear it to take his hand. Tears ran over his cheeks, and dropped
onto the lacework turning tiny pieces of it damp. Then thankfully his fingers
found a small ornately carved box tucked inside the gowns bodice.
Opening it he realized why there was no memory of his mother wearing the
trinket. By its design it was not a woman's but a man's ring. Of its beauty
there was no doubt: simple in design, but even he could see that the craftsmanship
was superb. He had never seen such an object, and to think of this as his
mothers. Why had she not told of it before?
There was a noise outside. He quickly slipped the ring into the flap of
his cloak, doused the light, and crept to the heavy curtain over the window.
Pulling it slightly aside he stared out. It was dark outside and he watched
intently until he saw a shadow moving; then he heard a snort, and the sound
of a hoof scraping the ground. A horse was in the animal enclosure. He relaxed.
It would be the guards. It was becoming restless, that could mean it had
been there some time, and that could also mean that a change of guard was
He had to work quickly now. In his own room he packed a few mementos into
a woven pack. It had thick leather shoulder straps, and had been a gift
to him from his mother.
Without looking at the table in the kitchen he went to the pantry, filling
his pack with, flour, salt, dried meat, fruit, and other items he thought
he would need.
He went back to the door. The guard lay still. The man was barely taller
than him, but considerably broader; still it would have to do. He stripped
the man of his uniform and put it on. The straps of the leather boots had
become wet from the grass outside, and were difficult to untie, so Nicholas
sat heavily back on the floor, holding the boots close to the lamp. From
this position he could see under the plate dresser. Something was laid against
the back wall. It was the knife. He had almost forgotten it.
Once the boots were on his feet, he took a kitchen cloth and pulled the
knife out. It still bore the dried blood of his father. For a second it
all came vividly back.
Nicholas walked back to the kitchen, and drew some water into a bowl from
a cask; placing the blade into it. Taking care not to touch the handle he
cleaned it, turning the water pink. More tears ran down his cheeks, as the
blood stained water dripped from his fingers. He dried his hands; wrapped
the knife; picked up his pack and left the building without another look
The horse raised its head as he came out, but made no movement. He saw it
was hobbled, as he walked up to it. The guard's uniform was of a cavalry
man, so he surmised the animal would be one of the stable horses, used by
any that had cause. Hopefully it would accept him as just another burden.
He was reassured to see the guard had little knowledge or care for the animal,
and had not bothered removing the saddle, of that he was thankful, for now
all he wanted to do was leave as quickly as he could.
Taking the harness, he led the horse to the gate and opened it. Nicholas
patted the animal talking softly as he pulled himself up on its back. It
moved a little from him but no more than any animal would shy from a new
rider. It let him mount, and pulling gently on the reins he rode out of
the yard. Now his concern went to how long it would be before the relief
found the guard. The man himself seemed unlikely to arise and give the alarm.
He didn't really want to think about it, but the crack he had heard from
the man's neck had sounded a little too final.
The innkeeper had grumbled much in the past at how he was insufficiently
paid when he had been required to house and feed soldiers. So it was possible
that any relief for the man could be lodged at the tavern. To be safe he
gave the building a wide pass and rode off at a trot.
The horse responded well once it was given rein to move as it wanted, so
it was only a short time later that he passed through the next village,
a place called Manubra Rise; due to the great house on the hill above that
village. It was some nineteen marks from Boramulla.
The next place he passed through was Pillbugh at a distance of thirty-five
marks. He had seen no one, and estimated that he had been riding some three
and a half hours. Allow fifteen minutes in the house, it was probably less
but seemed twice that time; that was a total around four hours. It was almost
certain that the relief would have found his companion. The alarm would
He still knew this road; not well, especially in the dark, but well enough
to continue for a good while without losing his way. Though in reality he
had no real idea where he was going; other than if he kept on, come the
daylight he would see the mountains and could correct any misdirection.
He pushed the thoughts from his mind; now was not the time to have doubts
As the first signs of daybreak began he found a copse, set back off the
road. It was quite dense and was away from any tendered land; though there
were several wild mango trees. In season there would be much fruit to be
There was a small dam on the other side, formed where some farmer had blocked
the natural course of a spring between two small hillocks. The horse walked
slowly over towards the water, cracked the thin layer of ice with a hoof
and had begun to drink before Nicholas had dismounted. It seemed happy here,
so he took the hobble from the saddlebag, and tapped the horse's shanks
with it. It snorted its disapproval, but let him lift each leg.
He looked at the saddle. He didn't want to remove it in case he had to leave
quickly, but he could see there was a thick layer of sweat between it and
the animal's hide. He needed the animal well, so reluctantly he unbuckled
the saddle and hid it in amongst the thickest of the trees. The horse seemed
happier and began to graze.
Nicholas stepped up to the waters edge to fill his containers; the surface
was half-covered in waterlillies. He looked at their massive green leaves
shading the shallow bed as the perfume from the bright red flowers wafted
past his nose. Carefully he placed the knife where it would be bathed in
He was feeling better than he had for some time as he leaned back against
the saddle, and took a piece of salted meat from the pack. The mood was
brief, as it seemed only minutes later that a coach bearing the livery of
the Alderman, raced by in the same direction he would be traveling. Behind
was a rider-less black horse. He had an uneasy feeling for some time after
Some hours later a troop of six guards raced towards the direction of Boramulla;
and later still, back again. He also saw one of the great silver birds that
often hovered above, but it was very high in the sky and moving fast.
If not for the events of the previous night on his mind, the day would have
passed peacefully; almost blissfully. Lying in the long soft grass listening
to the birds and watching the clouds, he slipped off into restless sleep.
He woke feeling chilled, the day was failing, and he pulled on his cloak
for warmth. After eating some more dried meat and apples, he was on the
road once more.
Nicholas had been traveling for some time; the mist steadily creeping across
the road when he became conscious of the trees becoming thicker to his sides.
He would be entering woodlands. If he was then he had done well, it could
only be the forest at the foothills of the Blood Mountains, but the tales
of spirits carrying travelers off deep into the woods at night, subconsciously
caused him to quicken his pace.
It was because of the mist, and a little too much haste that Nicholas ran
into his next problem. Suddenly in front of him loomed a gate, crossing
over and totally blocking the road. It was not unusual to bar the carriageway;
especially at night; and often it was done by the Veldt, as it was this
The creatures were a lower class of the guard, and were entrusted with the
more distasteful, and menial tasks. They were generally short; usually well
under a meter and a half. But what they lacked in height they made up in
breadth; emphasized with broad powerful shoulders. Being stockily built,
and contained inside a thick leather singlet: one had the impression that
they were as wide as they were tall. Fingerless black gloves covered their
disproportionately large hands; but nothing could hide the cruel grin that
their faces almost always bore. It was said of them that these things were
once normal men, but that the soil of their homeland seeped an unseen poison.
That nature had played a cruel curse upon them was beyond doubt.
Nicholas had no choice but to brazen out his deception. He pulled open the
cloak to show his uniform as he approached the gate.
One stepped forward and spoke. "A good evening it is I wish to you
officer. May we be of assistance in your errand?"
"You may let me pass," Nick replied, trying as hard as he could
to mimic the arrogant, guttural voice, common among the mid ranks of the
military. "I am on the Marshals work."
"Of course you are sir," the Veldt he sneered, "Out late
as it is
.and as we are too.....but have you not a moment to drink
ale, smoke baccy and sample our meager hospitality?"
"I said I have work to do and places to be."
"Aye and most keen you are to be about it officer: if it not be too
forward for me to say," he grunted, glancing briefly across to at least
one other in the shadow of the trees. Nicholas was certain he saw a crossbow.
"T'is a wild and dangerous place to be, alone in the forest when the
hours of darkness be upon us."
"I have no fear, and need no company." which was not entirely
"No. No. I'm sure you need none........ or
have none." He
sneered again. "But there is good reason to take advice of someone
who knows where danger is to be found. I insist as a duty to our Lord Marshal
that we share that knowledge with a comrade."
'I must take care', thought Nicholas, for here was the greatest danger.
Many were the tales of illegal barricades set up at night for the unwary,
and of these creatures appetite for thievery; and their taste for village
women. But would they risk a guard? "If you have knowledge that can
benefit me I will sup but one ale with you," he said dismounting, and
tying the horse to the gate.
"Aye officer. Aye. As you please. Across here, to the heat of the fire."
They walked into the shadow of the trees. A fire blazed brightly against
a rock face; crystals within the stones throwing the light back in a myriad
of colours as if they were sparks themselves. These rocks hid the glow well
from travelers passing; it was well sited.
Nicholas made sure that from where he sat he could see his horse, and his
"Now sir you did not speak of your business, and where it takes you?"
Another appeared, making three. They offered a flagon and Nicholas drank
straight from it as they did; though he would have much preferred not to
have touched his lips to the bottle.
"No I did not, and neither do I intend to, for my errand is not for
the ears of the likes of you." Even though it was common knowledge
the guard treated the Veldt with contempt he tried not to provoke.
"No of course not officer; just polite conversation."
There was a curious taunt in the man's attitude. They suspected something,
he was sure of that.
"Take meat from the fire if you will."
There were enough tales of human flesh being part of their diet for him
to have cause to refuse the offer. "I have no need of food at this
time." Which was true enough, but he did not add 'or the stomach' to
"You carry a strange pack officer?"
Of course that was it, Nicholas suddenly realized. Messengers carried a
leather pannier on their saddle when acting as couriers; his had none.
"That I claimed when no other would suffice, for time was short and
my journey an urgent one." It was the best he could do.
"We see that your tunic is a little large for you officer.". One
of the others said with a laugh.
Ugly they may have been, but stupid they were not, it had taken little time
for them to see through his pretence. Two of the Veldt stood; the leader
remained seated and spoke on. "After our hospitality, surely a good
officer like yourself would not mind showing, or better still, sharing the
contents of what you carry with a few poor souls."
With that the leader stood and they moved about Nick, two to the front,
and one to the rear. They slowly drew their short stabbing swords. All were
laughing now, showing their broken yellow teeth by the firelight. It was
going to be a good game, cutting this charlatan apart and sharing the booty.
Slowly Nicholas came to his feet. He looked towards the rock face needing
it at his back; but they knew that too. He could feel the fear make his
skin tighten and his heart race. "What is the meaning of this?"
he demanded though he was sure his voice broke as he spat out the words.
They were all laughing now. "Just a little sport officer", said
the leader. A little fencing practice to while away the hours before the
captain returns from hunting a quarry
.. he seeks."
They knew and all pretense was gone.
Nicholas drew the guard's sword. It felt heavy and cumbersome. It was not
a fencing weapon, but then again the Veldt around him were unlikely to be
using theirs with any finesse. He tried to lift himself up onto the balls
of his feet, so that he could turn quickly, but the ill-fitting boots prevented
that. He wanted to throw off the cloak but his mother's ring was still in
the flap, and he would never surrender that.
Reigel had warned him; but he had not expected to be facing death a second
time so soon. He expected panic to well up from within. But no such thing
happened; his mind remained clear and sharp. It was not fear made his skin
tingle but anticipation. He knew his body was primed and ready. He could
barely understand it as he twisted the sword warming, and preparing the
muscles in his wrist and arm
They had taken the fighting stance. A low crouch, that poised them ready
to spring forward at any opportunity of striking a cut. Their eyes darted
back and forth as they passed their weapons from one hand to the other hand
with a heavy slapping sound. They made little provoking jabs, testing his
Nicholas took it all in, still unperturbed by their actions. He was scared,
he knew that by how his heart was beating, and he felt a tingling on the
back of his hands and arms where his flesh felt as if it was crawling with
insects, but it baffled him how and why he could find the whole situation
slightly amusing. Although his body was showing alarm, his mind was calm.
He knew they were trying to frighten him into making a lunge, or a desperate
run; but he felt the need for neither. He knew he just had to keep his ground
and make them come to him.
The leaders face had lost its grin as Nicholas continued to defy them. He
snarled as the jabs became more and more threatening,
Nicholas responded to each thrust, with a simple defensive checking movement.
It was as if it all was happening in slow motion. He could see that each
time one intended to make a move his eyes flashed a look at his companions
to ensure a clear thrust. Nicholas knew where they would strike even as
they themselves did; all he had to do was watch their eyes. Even the one
behind him signaled his intention through the eyes of the others.
"Too frightened to fight for your life, are you soldier boy."
snarled the leader stepping slightly to the side, signaling a lunge from
Nicholas turned a little, and parried the slash to the ground, before he
turned back to face the leader. Still he said nothing.
They were obviously enraged by his lack of response, and tried moving closer
together leaving a deliberate hole in their ranks where he could run. But
again Nicholas knew this was a mistake, and stood his ground
Seconds turned into a minute, their attacks becoming more savage as they
became frustrated at their inability to make him react.
Nicholas knew that sooner or later he would miss a signal, or they would
be lucky. Instead of just defending himself he must take the advantage.
As the thought was going through his mind, the one who appeared to be the
leader lunged forward with a reckless thrust.
Nicholas parried his blow away; then with a rapid twist of his wrist, slid
his own blade down the other until it hit the hilt. In a single swift movement
he caught on the grip and flicked the weapon out of his assailant's hand,
throwing it to land at the foot of one of his companions. Continuing the
twist of the double-sided blade he cleaved the creatures hand in two to
"Aiiiieeeee." The scream was pitiful; a mixture of agony and disbelief.
The Veldt grabbed at the bloody paw and clung it to his chest. The others
ran to him in as if in comfort. All three started making the cry, shrieking
Looking at them cowering together with terrified eyes, it was clear that
all thought of continuing the fight was gone. For a moment Nicholas felt
pity. They had, had no feelings of mercy towards him a few moments before,
but now they were at his, he had no stomach for killing, and sheathed his
They responded immediately; turning and fleeing into the forest. Their dreadful
cries lingering in his ears, long after they had been swallowed by the mist
Nick looked about their campsite. He was not a scavenger by nature, but
then he had not been an outlaw either until a few days, or rather weeks
ago, and something may be of use.
There were some tolerable blankets, and as he had brought none from the
house he tied them to the saddle. There were flints, which he put into the
pocket of the tunic. Some items of food; which he would not touch, and the
crossbow. A small weapon for him, but deadly at short distances all the
same. He remembered the Veldt as they gave displays on the occasion of the
village fair: shooting at targets. It had all looked very easy; although
he was sure it was not, and a quiver full of arrows. The only other thing
of interest was a small-unopened flagon of ale, and a small lantern for
He hung the bow and quiver on the saddle horn, and put the ale in his pack.
Traveling during the day was too dangerous and now this. Travel on the road
was becoming too much of a risk at any time. He had to seek a safer way
to the mountains, and when all was said and done it did not matter where
he entered upon them, for he still had no idea where to go.
He would watch for the next way that showed promise, but for tonight he
had best be off, in case those creatures regained their courage, or had
chance to warn others.
The way Nicholas rode generally followed the course of the river, but
constricted by the lower foothills jutting into its course, the waterway
meandered a great deal.
Ancient trees began to close in, so that the road Nicholas followed was
at some times through forest, growing denser on both sides, and later, with
the bank of the river on his left and open land.
It was only then that Nicholas could catch tantalizing glimpses of the moonlit
snow high on the mountain. Soon with the coming ice, far more than its uppermost
reaches would be capped in white.
The road by and large had only a slight gradient and he surmised that as
it avoided the now more numerous hills that began to encroach its way, it
had been built with carts and carriages in mind.
Though it lengthened the journey, it was easier on the horse. Something
he was concerned about when he noticed that the animal's breath was becoming
much more noticeable in the chill air.
There was nothing he could do as they were already down to a slow trot,
so that at the first noise or sign of movement from either direction he
could turn into the forest for cover; which indeed he had done on a couple
of occasions. One had turned out to be merchants going the opposite way
to him, but the other a group of mounted Veldt, led by a soldier. He did
not know if their purpose was to seek him, but it was his first thought.
He was now further than he had ever traveled from home. It was a totally
strange land, and the few workers he had suddenly come upon at the roadside
had spoken with an accent he had not heard before.
Night was giving way to day, as coming around a bend, still in a forested
section; he heard the distant whinny of a horse. He pulled on the reins
and slowly crept forward. In the distance he could see a bridge, and beyond
that he could just make out a group of horses tied together. He quickly
retreated back around the bend. Taking his horse a little way into the trees
he dismounted, wrapped the reins around a sapling and moved closer for a
There had been a number of fords, draining runoff from the mountains over
the road, but this made only the third bridge, and from the look of it,
the largest. The other two had crossed waters both fast flowing, and deep.
If this was a larger waterway, and it seemed to be, then the chances of
crossing above or below it did not look good.
On the other bank he could clearly see several horses, maybe as many as
ten. To the side of them, a whiff of white smoke; lit from the hidden but
glowing fire beneath, curled into the sky. Sniffing into the wind Nicholas
could just smell the cooking of pork, or that may have been his imagination,
for he realized that the last that he had eaten, had been while hiding at
the copse. He felt the faint pangs of hunger, and needed a fire so that
he could bake the flour and salt to make loaves; soft on the inside, and
hard of crust that he had a craving for. The desire made it seem less of
a dangerous act than he had considered a short while ago. Later he would
eat, and eat well, but not around here.
As he continued looking, it came to his notice that a small track ran off
on the right of the road just before the bridge.
This was likely one of the tracks cut to the foothills by those seeking
the exotic timbers that grew there. How he knew that he could not remember,
but know it he did. Such wood was much prized for the building of furniture
in the great houses of the rich.
There was no way to pass over the bridge without being seen, but somewhere
up the creek there had to be a crossing.
Leading the horse on foot he went back from where they had come and crossed
He looked up trying to get bearings on the stars so that he could cut a
direction to intersect the path and not wander off into the depths of the
forest, but the clouds drawn to the peaks made it difficult. His frustration
was short lived for as soon as the trees closed about them the sky disappeared,
and the darkness became intense. Suddenly it didn't seem such a good idea,
but he trusted to his own senses to guide him.
Nicholas was sure he had walked several times the distance he had estimated,
when he began to catch glimpses of a pale gray sky though gaps in the canopy
where a tree had fallen or been removed.
As if by signal there was a shrill chirping as cicadas began their early
morning mating rituals, this in turn seemed to wake the birds, as near and
far they too began calling each other. But down at ground level it remained
night, and the air remained cool and moist.
He kept on, and though he could see more and more sky, the pale light could
not penetrate the thick canopy to ground level.
Looking around all his sense of direction blended into one. He knew he must
keep going straight ahead, and that he would find the track soon, but a
nagging fear began to tell him he had become lost. Being lost in the forest
when night closed in again was not something he relished experiencing. But
his fears were unfounded, and pushing through a thicket of dense tree ferns
he stumbled out onto the track, at least he thought it was the same one.
Nicholas stood in the middle of two shallow ruts. Either way the track wound
into the cover of the trees, and he made a conscious effort to turn right.
To the left led back to the road, or was it the right? He wanted to keep
going but the horse needed a rest, so at the first clearing of edible grass
he came across, he stopped.
The horse would have stayed there, but Nicholas wanted to go on and as a
compromise he decided to walk. The animal seemed to agree to the bargain
and sauntered after him snorting loudly whenever it saw another suitable
grazing patch, or trickling stream that offered a drink.
After a few hours the orb briefly appeared and he tried to judge the time
in the way of field workers. Point the hand to the sun, and observe the
shadow cast by a raised finger, but under the canopy the orbs already weak
rays were too poor to use, so Nicholas roughly gauged time by guessing how
high in the sky it was.
The forest was unnervingly quiet in the darker patches. At other times the
chirping of the cicadas was deafening when he passed close by whatever tree
the insects had chosen. Mostly he saw no animals or birds, though the trees
were alive with them, for whistles and screams came from every direction.
He had crossed innumerable small creeks, but then he came to a stream several
metres across. It had bothered Nicholas that he had not seen the main watercourse,
or heard the sound of the fast running water, but now he saw not far away
that this stream fell out of sight. He wandered closer, and looking down
he saw the river. Quickly he understood that hidden in its deep channel
he had possibly been following it for some time. But he wasn't certain now
that this was the one he had to cross, or if it was just another that ran
Above, the canopy was open, and he felt what would be the heat of the day;
coupled with the clear water below, it occurred to Nicholas that the last
bath he had, had was around six weeks ago. He raised his arm, and tried
to sniff; there was no noxious odor, but once the thought crossed his mind
he felt unclean.
Pressing on, the track now generally followed the stream; its banks becoming
steeper all the time.
He passed several small rock outcrops, where the rushing water tumbled over,
crashing into deep pools below; and more in number of stretches where the
rushing water foamed white over hidden rapids.
It was late in the afternoon that Nicholas came upon an extension of the
creek bed, made up of round tumbled gravel. Between it and the forest was
a soil bank with ample sweet grass for the horse.
Facing him a short distance away was a double waterfall. The water made
a curtain on its highest fall. Below this was another more confused drop
into the pool lapping at his feet.
On a piece of ground between the grass and bare rock had been built a small
hearth, inside were the remains of a campfire. More intriguing still was
that alongside this, a rough shelter had been built against the rain. Obviously
this was a regularly used campsite. This wasn't at all the place where Nicholas
wanted to be, but he was at what amounted to a dead end. There were several
others tracks leading off in different directions, but these were no more
than slashing's through the undergrowth, and would not readily allow the
passage of a horse. Besides all of them struck up, or away from the direction
he had felt he had to go. Undecided what to do next he stared about until
the horse without bidding walked across and leaned down to eat the grass.
"It seems you have fewer problems making a decision than I," he
muttered, as he began to remove the saddle. Nicholas continued to talk to
the uninterested animal. "What do you think? Are they still-hunting
us? You seem not to miss your master. That could be a good thing, for the
more I think on it, the more I dislike the sound that his neck made. No
you have no care do you. You'll probably still be eating grass when they
snap my neck too."
Dropping the saddle besides him, he led the horse to the waters edge. It
ambled in until the water covered its fetlocks; it glanced back at him and
bent down for a drink. "Take your fill, and I will too." He glanced
around the clearing and saw a stack of cut timber. "Then we should
be off; this place is too well set up for us to risk being here too long."
He collected some kindling, and the driest timber from the base of the pile,
placed them in the fireplace and stuck a flint. He fell silent, watching
the fire take hold as his mind took stock of his situation. The episode
with the Veldt troubled him. It was beyond doubt that they would inform
other guard of the fight. They had chance to see and talk to him; add that
to the guard in Boramulla, and then there had been some unavoidable meetings
with the workers on the road; if they too were reported? What other conclusion
was there. It wasn't just paranoia to assume the description would tally
with his true self; dead or not? Then the barrier across the bridge. There
had been none on the other bridges. That likely meant two things. That at
this point the road was the only way through the forest; that wasn't a welcome
thought. To continue through the dense undergrowth for any distance with
no bushman's knowledge of the direction to travel, would be foolhardy. His
experience already showed how easily it would be for a person to walk in
circles for days without knowing it; or fall victim to anything which lurked
in the shadows of the trees at night.
The other thing the soldiers at the bridge could mean was that they could
not, or did not arrange other checkpoints, closer to the village in time.
They had come a long way out to draw the trap for a killer of a low level
soldier; would they normally do that. They would want vengeance; that was
for sure, but groups of men this far from the scene of the crime seemed
too extreme a reaction. So did they suspect it was him... But they had seen
him dead, or as good as. There could be no way they would know about Reigel...
But he had seen the fast riders that first day; they would not be certain
of having him behind. They could have drawn the net far and tight, and now
having closed off the obvious ways of escape they would be combing the land
between for witnesses. Why were they so desperate? He was certain now that
it wasn't paranoia; they were seeking him, and he was trapped; sooner or
later the noose would tighten completely.
Nicholas grabbed at the jacket with such ferocity that the horse stopped
drinking and stared back at him. "Well..", he stated almost as
if he expected the horse to answer, "If they are looking for a guard,
that I can change." Nicholas stripped off the uniform, suddenly realizing
how glad he was to be rid of it. He went through the flaps making sure he
had left nothing of value; rolled it into a rough bundle, and purposefully
dropped the clothes into the fire. He stood back in satisfaction and watched
them begin to smolder.
Looking around the clearing he caught sight of a rope bridge, he hadn't
noticed it at first, as its aged materials almost blended into the foliage.
It was roughly constructed; comprising of three ropes, with occasional tie
pieces. It looked too flimsy to use, and it made him think of crossing the
waterway. Other than that, he would have to wade or swim, but it was well
into the afternoon, with no time to dry wet clothing. Suddenly the uniform
had a purpose but as he looked down he saw it was already burning. The only
other option was to go back, but the likelihood of finding another almost
idyllic spot like this wasn't worth thinking about.
"G'day friend", said a voice behind him.
Nicholas froze; then slowly turned around.
"I hope I do not intrude?" A man stood at the end of the track.
He was dressed in simple clothes, with a short cape over his shoulders.
Across his back were an axe; a bow, and a cruel looking curved blade on
a long handle. Each of these had a rope crossing, from his right shoulder
to his left waist. Hanging from the other shoulder was a large pack made
from some animal skin. Nicholas knew immediately that this was a woodcutter;
his step was sure and had been silent. "I hope I find you well, even
if at a little disadvantage." He said with a friendly smile.
Nicholas was not certain if this referred to the fact that his weapons were
some metres away across the clearing, or the fact that he was as good as
The man seemed unperturbed by Nicholas, or his silence, and walked across
to the campfire, laying his things about it.
I did not think I was imposing on another's property."
"And you are not. The woodlands are free to roam by the generosity
of our Lord Marshal, so you are welcome share and use as you will."
Nervously Nicholas walked to his pack, and took out his own clothes; his
fingers touching the throwing knife.
The woodcutter spoke again. "I am not a man who hides his questions,
so mine to you is this, are you the one they at the bridge seek."
"What manner of person is it that?" He replied, his fingers closing
around the handle.
The woodcutter spoke as he went about casually adding timber to the fire.
"O come friend. Do me the kindness in replying in truth for you surely
know that they seek a foul murderer of ten or more people, including his
own family. And then would you believe posing as a respected member of the
Marshals own guard no less."
Nicholas saw that the man had not moved the uniform, and that the flames
had almost consumed the outer layers. "And what if you had found the
one they seek?" said Nicholas. He was dressed now; the knife held comfortably
close to his hand, but hidden from the woodcutter.
"But as I have just made clear to say, the man they seek wears the
uniform of the guard." The woodcutter said as he deliberately prodded
the bundle towards the center of the flames. "And I can see for myself
that you do not. But if by happen you were, then I would ask if that uniform
had been taken from one of your ten victims. Yes: that would be my question."
The voice held no fear, and even a trace of humour.
Nicholas sat opposite the woodcutter. "Then If I was that person I
would reply that it was from my only victim; and an action not taken lightly."
"Then let us suppose: if you were that person that you would deny guilt
for the others; and say it is a fabrication?"
"I would, and I would also say that others have died because of me,
but not ten. My honored and admired father; my dear mother and my adored
younger brother, all three lay beneath the earth we as a family labored
and loved, and where also but by the intervention of fate, I should be too."
"Then by the death of this guard, is revenge taken?"
"No; it was an accident. Though sometimes I wish my vengeance had been
sated, as the blame truly lies with those above him. It is possible, nay
likely that I shall join my family before retribution is finally paid."
"Then my wishes of a long life are yours."
Nicholas shrugged. "I have had a wonderful life, but I feel dead inside;
so death itself holds no fear for me. If that is my future I only ask that
before that time, I can repay the wrong against my family."
"I truly offer my sympathy and friendship, for I have no love of the
guard; they and their minions treat the people of my village bitterly."
The tone of his voice had changed. "Come, sit. To slay on such a scale
as is claimed you have done would make any man tired and hungry."
Nicholas relaxed a little, but still slipped the knife into his waistband
under his shirt. It felt good to be wearing his own clothes again.
The woodcutter had opened his pack, and taken some fruit from it. "I
am not a rich man, but I have sufficient food to share, and I ask you to
share it with me."
"Thank you but I do not need all charity. In my pack I have flour to
bake, and a flagon of ale."
"Then I envy the life of a fugitive, for together we shall have a feast
fit for a prince of the old royal houses." He was laughing now, and
Nicholas could not help himself but to join him. "Mark; of the family
Gamboll: of Athernway," he introduced himself. "At your service."
"Nicholas of the family Day: lately from distant Boramulla; although
now I am the last of that line, at yours."
"It is said that something shared is something halved, so share your
sorry tale with me if you will; if the pain of telling not be too great."
Nicholas told Mark of all that had happened while the bread baked, and they
drank the ale. He said nothing of his capture by the mob, or of the terrible
wounds, which he received at their hands; or of Reigel, and his healing
powers. This part of his tale was too strange, still even to him. At the
end he felt as if a small part of his sorrow had gone.
"It is a sad story, but not one that I am unaccustomed to hearing."
Mark said softly. "I have met many travelers while about my work, and
tales of false accusations and treachery many do tell. Times past I did
not believe, and thought these men with a grudge against the guard, and
all they protect." He became quiet, as one who remembers a time of
heartbreak will often do. Then he spoke again. "Two seasons ago, my
village was accused of supplying the rebels when they came down from the
mountain. Rather betrayed, I should say, for the accusation was true. The
guard came in with the Veldt at their side, and when none would step forward
to answer for this so called crime they made a ballot of families from the
village; and from that they picked ten, and killed them all: man, woman
and child: young and old. And when their creatures complained that the women
were killed with their husbands, brothers and son's instead of taken as
booty for them, the guards picked five others for their pleasure. My young
wife was one. I have not seen her since, and am now but a shell."
Nicholas had lost his appetite as he listened to the man's recollections.
Mark looked up at Nick. "What a melancholy tale I tell." He smiled
a sad smile. "Truth is there are no more tears left, but if some day
I may help the hand that strikes where I could not, then I would rest in
my grave with pleasure."
Nicholas wanted to say something comforting, but there were no words that
expressed the empathy he felt for Mark. "You speak of rebels".
He said: anxious to change the subject, as much as to have information.
"Do you know more?"
"Not a great deal: they never asked again for assistance, though if
they had I for one would have given it freely. But I hear they are still
above the snow line."
"You said two years ago. Did you see any of these rebels?" He
thought of Simeon.
"No. I regret that at that time I had no care to be a part of any rebellion.
I already had all that a man could have needed. But if you seek sanctuary
with them, and I suspect that is your intention. I know of one thing that
I have told no other. The track behind..." He looked to the side of
Nick. "Across the river it leads into the mountain. That way was not
cut by me, or by anyone I know; though to those without that knowledge it
appears it has. Follow that where it leads, and you may find the answer
to your question."
The conversation trailed off as both men retreated to their own dreams and
Suddenly Nicholas stood. "Mark time passes, it will be dark soon and
I did promise myself to bathe this day, and even though you; as a good host
may not have spoken of it, I believe I have an odor greater than the horse
I have ridden."
Mark smiled. "I was loath to mention such, but now you have brought
it to the conversation."
Nick was laughing to himself as he walked over to the falls. He stripped
again, and stepped under the chill water. It was as if a thousand icy needles
punctured his skin. His body shook in shock but he called out loudly. "Aye.
I needed this."
Mark replied with a smile. The sun had set below the trees and though darkness
was encroaching the clearing rapidly, the campfire lit up his face clearly;
and all that happened from that moment.
The horse heard, or sensed it first, its head rearing upwards in an uneasy
way. Mark apparently second, as he halted his rolling out his bedroll. Finally
the noise penetrated the roar of the waterfall. It was a low whining sound
that rapidly grew stronger.
Nicholas stood still, his mind trying to make sense of the sound when the
fire reflected off something shiny as a mirror in the sky, just above the
treetops. Suddenly the campsite was illuminated in a brilliant light. Mark
stood; his arms and hand over his eyes against the brilliance. Without warning
a thin line of red light shone from the sky to him. He screamed in agony,
and fell to the ground.
The scene remained lit for a few moments more; then all was still again.
Except for one small light as like a window, through it an image of a man
walking away hung in the sky for a moment longer; and the noise faded away.
Nicholas stood looking at the campfire; torrential water still pouring over
him, but he had lost all recollection or feeling of it.
He was hurriedly refilling the pack again, this time he would take it
and Marks. The extra clothes and food would be well used up in the mountains.
He left the bow preferring the one from the Veldt, but he took the long
handled blade, and axe.
He had found no wounds on Mark; other than the inside of his mouth was burnt
and charred. His body had felt hot as if it contained a fire within.
Nicholas turned away from the campsite and looked at the rope bridge. Close
up it looked even more flimsy than he had thought. There were actually two
ropes underfoot with a narrow woven matting to step on. Two other unconnected
ropes ran head high to either side. He decided to make two trips with all
that he intended to take
It not only looked a little frightening, it was very unstable and he swung
and swayed violently, though on the return he found the quicker he moved
the less the bridge did.
As he stepped onto solid ground he faced the camp. It seemed logical that
the smoke; or the glow from the fire had led his pursuers to this spot.
On seeing Mark and the horse it would be assumed to be him.
The thing in the sky had not frightened, only puzzled him. He was used to
seeing the great silver birds at a distance and assumed that was what one
was like close up. It didn't even seem to surprise him that what he had
always believed were birds, carried men.
He wanted to bury Mark, but thought that the pretence it was he, would last
longer if he did not. The thought filled him with guilt that this innocent
man had died because of him. "May your god be with you friend? I pray
that your spirit, now released, finds the one that you love. Now rest in
peace at her side for as your life's work is done, mine has renewed purpose."
He turned away walked back to the rope for the second crossing. Once over
Nicholas took a last look at the scene. "I do not know what I can do,"
he said determinedly. "But I give my oath that if I can do anything;
that my arm will be strengthened by your despair. My hand will now take
the task of retribution for you and your lost love." He cut the ropes
off the bridge; chopped some small saplings and placed them at the start
of the track, trying to cover it as best he could. Even in the dark it would
not stand close scrutiny to a woodsman, but it may give extra time from
those who would no doubt come to check on his death.
He turned and looked up. In the gathering darkness towered Blood Mountain.
Chapter 4 - Blood Mountain
Initially the track wound among the tree roots, and was in places extremely
difficult to find; even with the light from the lantern. At those times
Nick wondered if he should wait for light. At other times he found it clearly
defined and pressed on. How it was packed down told him that the passage
of many feet or paw, rather than the blow of a mattock had formed it.
To start with it was fairly level and easy going, but the further he went
on the steeper it became. As it became fully dark he stumbled often, sometimes
quite hard, causing grazes and cuts to his hands and knees. So much so did
the surface degrade, that what had been the occasional sharp rock had now
become the normal surface. Nicholas' light footwear protected him from only
the bluntest of rocks and he cursed his lack of foresight in abandoning
the guard's stout boots.
A while later there was a thin covering of snow and he knew he was close
to the edge of the tree line. It looked fresh and crisp but not new as he
had begun to think that the clouds could be clearing, and fancied he might
have seen a star. Certainly the forest was not as dense as it had once been;
and it was also definitely colder. He began now to think that he should
have kept the extra layer of clothing that the uniform supplied, but truthfully
he was glad to be rid of it.
He came to an outcrop of rocks larger than those that had gone before. It
was a struggle with the packs he carried, but he reached the top and saw
the face was bathed in moonlight. He looked up; he was above the forest
Both moons hung before a background of twinkling stars. He had never been
so high before, and marveled at the sight. Below him the mist stretched
like a blanket of homespun wool over the valley floor; silvery Gray in the
light of both moons. Small hills broke the surface of this dream sea, as
if islands floated in the clouds. He could see no lights from village or
town making it seem as if he alone existed in the world
But reality was close at hand, where he could touch the face of the mountain.
It soared above out of sight. Hard as rock, cold as ice, and white with
snow; on the other side an unforgiving scree slope, if he stepped out past
No matter how the raw stark beauty of the mountain inspired him, he knew
he was cold, tired, but most of all he was hungry. He needed a safe place
to stop, so he went on.
The track became well defined now, the mountain sharply thrusting up above
him on his right, and falling away rapidly on his left. Within minutes the
track became a ledge, barely two metres wide.
By the time he had climbed another hundred metres an opening appeared up
in front, which proved to be a small, protected crevice. Its location was
ideal. He could see quite a long way back down the track from inside.
Nick slumped to the floor and sat, propped up against the wall. He hungrily
ate the last of the half cooked bread, while his mind once more wandered
over the past events.
Marks talk of rebels and resistance made him think of his own experiences.
Was Boramulla different from the places Mark had spoken of, or had he been
too naive to see what was going on around him. He took a blanket from Marks
pack and wrapped it about himself to keep out the cold. Of course people
complained amongst themselves, about the taxes, and duties of grain paid
up to the Marshal or Alderman; and on occasion of the bullying acts of the
guard, or even thinly veiled accusations of corruption against the Alderman
himself. Many things in life seemed unjust, but mostly that was just people
grumbling; or so he had believed. He dug his hands deep into the blanket
and held his head low. Surely his mother would have known; she was well
versed in village affairs, aye and intrigue, but she molly-coddled him:
his father always accused her of that. He smiled and the thoughts faded
from his mind as sleep took him.
Nicholas was conscious of a strange tingling sensation in his toes. He
was too tired to be concerned, but it would not stop. He fought the need
to wake as people do, but eventually; reluctantly opened his eyes. His drowsy
mind was greeted with what seemed to be the floor moving.
He blinked several times, casting off sleep; then his eyes focused, and
his mind began to function. Realization brought a strange sight. In the
pale moonlight he saw cockroaches, dozens if not hundreds of them, some
as big as his fist, chewing on the soft leather of his shoes; his pack,
In shock and horror he jumped to his feet, throwing the blanket across the
floor, as he violently began shaking his arms legs in a disjointed dance.
The creatures were everywhere, running over the blanket, his packs. Then
in a moment, they were gone. It was as if it were a dream, except for the
one that he had stood on when getting up.
Nicholas stood shivering in disgust; and it was some time before he was
over his revulsion. He took his things back out onto the ledge and found
a place bathed in moonlight. There he tipped out his packs to make sure
none lurked inside, muttering. 'I should not have slept so deeply. It was
foolish'. As indeed it was, for when he looked down to where the path came
up out of the mist he could see the dim flickering glow of torches through
the canopy. They had been quicker than he had feared. He knew he must quickly
Once out of the cave he quickened his steps, as much to distance himself
from the crawling creatures, as to avoid capture. But he had to temper his
increased pace, patches of ice glinted; and the ill wisdom of carrying so
much began to show, as the packs and weapons began to bump against his legs,
and make his back ache. He found he was continually stopping to reposition
He was half decided to discard something, and once more kneeling on the
floor repositioning the burden, when a shout rang in his ear. The obscene
gruff voice told him there was a Veldt not far away.
They had sent a fast runner in front, and with another shout the creature
ran forward. Nicholas had left the crossbow primed, but for safety's sake
with no arrow placed in its bolthole. He quickly placed one in the slot,
lifted the weapon, and fired.
By now the creature was only paces away, and the force of the metal tipped
arrow took the shaft straight through his body. The man stopped in his tracks,
and looked down at the hole through his lower chest. Slowly he looked up
and back at Nicholas. His face held a puzzled expression. Then he stumbled
backwards and over the edge. The Veldts shadow was visible in the moonlight
falling and tumbling silently down face of the cliff, until the mist swallowed
They were unlikely to have sent just one fast runner, no doubt there were
others close after him. Futility enveloped him: he had nowhere to go up;
he was trapped on the mountaintop.
He quickly re-primed the crossbow, and tied it, the long handled blade,
and sword to Marks pack. He placed his own knife through his waistband,
and was off upward again. He now almost ran in some places.
Every moment he imagined the feeling that had shot through him as the guard
gripped his shoulder outside his home. The thought stirred him on.
'More haste, less speed', his father had admonished him when he rushed the
tedious preserving tasks. 'With haste comes a lack of caution', he would
add; and as Nicholas scrabbled around a sharp bend his foot landed on a
patch of gravel looser than that beside it; that was hidden beneath the
snow. Immediately it gave way under his foot. He stumbled and fell onto
his side, the momentum carrying him in a roll to the edge. Without slowing
his feet went over the precipice. His head turning and banging on the ground
Nicholas felt the solid earth beneath his legs disappear. His hands desperately
grabbed at the moving soil for anything firm to hold or grip; there was
nothing. Everything slipped between his fingers, or tore away from his grasp.
As his chest slid over the edge, his right hand came heavily against a small
angular rock projecting above the rest; his fingers locked on it. His arm
was tensed against the sudden shock of holding his weight, as he felt the
jarring snap in his elbow and shoulder. His fingers seemed to stretch, but
he hung on almost digging his fingernails into the rocks hard surface. His
mind reeling, he had come to a stop.
Nicholas hung by his one arm gasping sharp short breaths. His left hand
reached up and he scrabbled in the gravel, desperate but unable to find
another firm hold. He couldn't get enough breath; his throat wouldn't pass
air. Fear surged until he saw the jolt had slipped the pack off his shoulder,
and it now hung out behind him: the leather thong tightly across his throat.
Breath came in forced gasps; any normal breathing was cut off by the pressure
of the strap. Even twisting his head he could hardly breathe, let alone
climb back up.
Already he felt hazy, soon he would pass out; he had no option and he reached
his free hand for the knot holding the pack and pulled it undone. Immediately
there was a burning pain as the departing thong whipped over the front of
his throat. Then the weight was gone, along with Marks pack and the valuable
food, clothing and weapons. He had lost almost everything.
Nicholas hung from the edge, his arm slowly going numb, as he tried to control
his breathing and build his strength. But long before that he could trust
his fingers no more, and was forced to gradually worm his free hand under
the other, and carefully curl fresh fingers around the rock. He could feel
nothing with his freed hand and ignored it as he tensed the muscles in his
shoulder and pulled. His body felt the weight of ten, but he began to move
high enough that he could get his chest in a position where he could pivot
on his useless arm. Calling on reserves of strength he had never used before,
he pulled until his hips teetered over the edge.
His eyes were full of sweat and dirt, and he had to squint at the black
object just in front of his face. It was further onto the path; that he
could see, and he quickly released the rock and grabbed desperately for
it. A cold sweat passed over him as he felt coarse rubber. He squinted harder,
and made out the dirty military boot of a Veldt.
"Want fly?" roared a taunting voice in his ears. "See if
can?" The creature laughed as it placed its other foot gently on his
forehead. "Bye Bye," it said slowly but firmly pushing him backwards.
In desperation Nicholas threw out his bad arm hooking it around the creature's
The Veldt crouched down, "No. No. No." he said in a chastising
way. ":You go fly on own, Bye, bye." The rough hands felt like
clamps of steel as they gripped his fingers. One by one Nicholas felt them
pulled away with ease. His desperately twisted trying to hold his grip as
the Veldt held his wrists. Once it released them he would be gone.
But instead dangling him over the precipice the pressure on his wrists was
suddenly released. Urgently Nicholas grabbed back for the man's boots, and
this time the Veldt made no attempt to stop him, instead he seemed to be
leaning further over him.
Nicholas looked up expecting the terrible grin, instead he saw an arrow
pinned the Veldt's muscled arm to the side of his chest.
A hand clamped about his wrist again, a reassuring voice spoke. "Let
go." He didn't want to and almost immediately the voice said again.
"Let go dammit, or you're over the edge with him."
The Veldt was almost on top of Nicholas: rolling forwards, and to the side.
Now Nicholas let go, his free hand clutching at the new hand holding his
as the Veldt's boot caught a glancing blow against his nose, and was gone.
Nicholas was almost blind, his eyes full of grit and moisture, but he could
feel enough to know that this time the hand was pulling and not pushing.
Whoever it was pulled him onto the ledge, and dragged him over to the rock
"Here. Use this." Nicolas felt a cloth stuffed into his palm.
As he cleaned his eyes a soft gravelly voice said. "You look like someone
who is in need of assistance?"
Nicholas looked up at a man a good head taller than he was, with skin the
colour of ebony. "Aye that I do and that's no lie, but I warn you,
to help me is to court danger, for many other of his kind follow."
"Of that I can see; on both counts, but danger is something I am not
unaccustomed to these times. Come safety is within reach." He helped
Nicholas to his feet. "Can you walk?"
as long as it's not on my hands you want me to."
The man laughed showing a great row of white teeth. Then he turned and strode
up the track. Without looking back he called over his shoulder. "I
go by the name Antony".
"I am Nicholas of the family Day."
"Yes. I guessed as much."
Nicholas was too tired to ask the obvious question.
They did not speak again; Nicholas was thankful, as he needed what energy
he still had to keep going fast-forward and up, as the snow became deeper.
In some places as they turned in and out the wind had pilled it up, and
if it had not been for Antony's deep foot marks leading before them, Nicholas
would have believed the drifts were part of the slope of the mountain itself.
Even so soon there were shouts from behind. Moments later an arrow hissed
by and thudded into the rock above, bouncing off and dropping harmlessly
into the void. Nicholas was sure he could hear panting and footfalls close
behind. But Antony ignored their pursuers, instead urging him on. "Come
along Nicholas, keep close to the wall where we may make poor targets, and
hurry yourself. I assure you, you do not want to be taken."
As feeling had begun to return to his arm, Nicholas's feet were beyond feeling,
the soles of his shoes had gone, and the useless uppers flapped about his
They reached a change in levels where the path fell, for the height of a
man into a fissure with a flat bottom. Antony pulled him down.
Here were the ancient structures he had heard tales of. Built by their ancestors
long before the cleansing wars. Many of these structures, he had been told,
served purposes that were impossible to fathom. Like this one: a caged windmill,
twice the height of a man, placed at the end of a narrow gap where there
was no possibility of the wind turning it; yet turn it slowly did. He had
little time to wonder, as Antony pulled him between the smooth crete walls
on either side to the furthest face. Besides the windmill they passed through
a small doorway, and once through they slowed, Antony spun him around pressing
his body close to his, holding him hard up against the wall as three men
moved by them and outside. Nicholas looked back through the door as the
men casually loaded crossbows with seemingly little concern.
"We have no fear ..." grinned Antony, his great white teeth occupying
almost all Nicholas's view. "... this entrance cannot be taken by your
pursuers. But they will try sending the least useful to attack." As
he said this a Veldt came over the lip of the drop, half sliding, and stumbling
to the bottom into a crouch. As he stood he died. He was followed by another
creature who joined him in death, even before reaching the bottom.
Leaving the uneven fight Antony led Nicholas deeper into the cavern. They
descended into a sloping tunnel barely high enough for tall man to stand.
"Do you still feel well enough to walk, or must I carry you?"
Antony called back.
"I can walk," said Nicholas quickly, though not entirely sure
that he could, but at least his breathing was now under control.
They passed another tunnel running horizontally, and Nicholas saw directional
signs. "There are more caverns like this?". He said curiously.
"Many." Antony called back. "They were built in ancient times."
"The light is ancient also?"
Antony didn't stop to look up at the glowing opaque panels, spaced along
the tunnels roof. "The light you see comes from outside. In places
there are sheets of material called solars. They collect orb light during
the day, and moonlight at night. Don't ask me more than that, but somehow
it is brought here."
"I remember the Alderman had a machine that could capture orblight.
He would bring it to our celebrations, so that they could continue into
the night. One of his estate workers told me of an invisible power called
electricity. Somehow it forces the orblight through thin strips of metal."
"Then that metal would have to pass through solid rock." Antony
said disbelievingly. "It seems there is much our ancestors knew, that
we have forgotten."
They came to another windmill, even deeper in the cavern, it too turned.
Nicholas was compelled to ask. "What is its purpose?"
"These places are called ventilation shafts. Air is drawn up from inside
It made no sense to Nicholas. "I have much to learn. I never knew there
was air inside the mountain."
Antony gave a grunt of amusement. "There are many strange things, but
rest assured air is not from inside the mountain. Other shafts draw air
in, yet more like this take it back out again. This one is named 'VN7, it
is the seventh in from the North side of the mountain. Between them they
refresh all the tunnels."
Thinking on it Nicholas was sure he could feel a gentle flow of air moving
up past them.
At last, long past when he had begun to think that they were actually below
the outside ground level, they reached another windmill. Antony stepped
through the door to its side onto a metal mesh balcony; high above a huge
cavern that stretched into the distance both to their left and to their
right. Nicholas saw that here too the entire distance either way was lit
from points of light spaced regularly above them.
Antony saw him looking in amazement and nodded in satisfaction. "This
way", he said as he began down the first flight of a metal stairway.
He stopped when he saw Nicholas wasn't following. "You have a fear
"No". Even though he didn't the stairway looked too flimsy to
trust, and the bolts anchoring it against the smooth cavern wall seemed
far too few.
"Come it is quite safe." Antony said looking back up, and smiling,
apparently amused at Nicholas's lack of enthusiasm to follow.
Nicholas looked through the open mesh below him. For a second he was even
more scared than he had been on the insubstantial rope bridge. Though this
structure was far stronger the view through the steps did nothing to hide
that fact they were high in the air. He tried to look confident and forced
himself to begin the decent.
Nicholas tried to take his mind off the stairs, and by the time they were
at the bottom, he had worked out that this was not a natural cavern. The
conclusion left the obvious option that it was man made. If that was so,
then it was a gargantuan feat; and for what purpose? The flat floor was
wide enough that five or more carriages could be ridden through it side
by side, but for that it seemed far more work than was warranted.
A short way away a group of unsaddled horses were penned in a large corral.
Antony selected one for himself and one for Nicholas. He gripped the rein
and leapt up onto its bare back. "We have some way to go". He
said and with Nicholas in following he cantered off down toward the heart
of the mountain.
They passed many fenced animal yards; containing hens, goats, and cows of
a type unknown to him; besides many other horses. All the animals looked
in good condition; remarkably so, he thought for creatures who could not
bask in the rays of the orb. Antony guessed his question as if he had explained
many times. "Men for many reasons have lived in this place, before
and since the time of the death. It was they who first brought animals here,
and these are the product of that line. They have never seen or smelled
fresh meadow grass; or the wind over their nostrils. But if destiny is ours,
then these shall be the first of their kind to savor those pleasures."
"Be it so Antony, then it bothers me more that I have betrayed you
by leading the guard to the entrance."
"If that is your only fear then fear not. Our bowmen will go down the
path and take the others, then hide their tracks. Anyway I doubt that the
entrance is not already known to the soldiers; as is also that an army could
not take it when defended by just a few loyal men."
All the while they had rode Nicholas was in awe at the skill of the ancient
builders. To have cut through the mountain in such a manner amazed him.
Even at a brisk canter it took quite some time before they reached end of
their journey. Antony slowed as they came to; and rode by a row of fully
laden wagons. They were stood on one side only awaiting horses. "For
when it is time for the rebellion," Antony said looking over to them.
They dismounted; led the animals into the horse pen, and walked a short
distance to a smaller side tunnel. Nicholas had already observed these were
frequent all along the tunnel, roughly every thousand paces.
Yet another wall bared their way, but this time of timber, with a door set
to one side. Once inside he saw that the room contained saddles, horse blankets,
and the like. The following room had racks for bows and swords, though few
hung upon them.
They passed through four or five such rooms before they came to living quarters,
and by their number it indicated to him that a substantial number lived,
or had lived under the mountain. He was now in the presence of twenty or
more of them. Almost all turned in their direction as the pair entered.
With the exception of two, all were unknown to him. One of those was Reigel:
who strangely he showed no surprise at seeing Nicholas. The other was Simeon.
Simeon strode to him, and they clasped their arms around each other. "By
all that has ever lived it is good to see you again Nicholas." He said
"And you too Simeon." Nicholas replied. Simeon seemed taller and
much more powerfully built than Nicholas remembered. "You look well,
though I doubted the day would come that we would meet again this side of
"And from what I hear you were as good as waiting there for me."
Simeon turned, his arm still gripped Nicholas's shoulder, and he pulled
him around to face the others. "Friends," he announced, "This
is Nicholas of the family Day. He and I have been friends from the time
of our first steps."
It was some time before Nicholas was not involved with one or another
in conversation. Reigel offered nothing to the exchanges, or even joined
in them; instead preferring to sit in a corner by the small cooking fire.
Mostly he stared at the embers, though occasionally looking at the dwindling
group around the table. He looked neither interested nor bored.
"I could hardly believe my ears when Reigel here said that you were
coming with all haste." Simeon's said, a tinge of sadness replacing
his previous, joyous tone. "He has told us of what has passed
. I thought of the family Day as my own.... I am truly sorry."
"A great deal has happened, and my life has changed beyond any comprehension
that I would have had a few short weeks ago. I am still troubled to talk
of it, so let it be said that I accept your sympathy, but naught can change
what is past now. I have to accept that it is over and begin once again."
Nicholas gripped Simeon's arm. "But this time our futures are once
"They are." replied Simeon earnestly. "Though the road be
a different one than either of us could ever have imagined."
"So tell me", said Nicholas. "If I must be one of the life
of an outlaw, what am I to expect."
They talked long into the night; one by one the others in the room taking
It was only when all but Antony and Simeon had gone that Nicholas realized
that Reigel too was not there. It seemed to be a signal for them all, for
soon after they showed him where he was to sleep.
He awoke refreshed and in high spirits, to the smell of cooking; something
he had not had the pleasure to experience for some time, but it appeared
as he entered the room that he was also last to get up as everyone else
had finished eating
"Nicholas", called Simeon standing up from the table. "Sit
here", he walked casually over to the griddle, and began to fill a
Nicholas stared in pleasure as a plate of pork and eggs was laid in front
of him, along with a whole loaf of barley bread. He began to eat as Simeon
sat beside him. "It gave me great pleasure to talk of old times last
night," Simeon said genuinely.
"As it did to me Simeon, and though I doubt it will be as interesting
as your life has been there is much more. You remember Rebecca daughter
of Tim Wilkins. I wager you do as she had an eye for you; well she
Simeon slapped him on the shoulder. "Now my memory is that those looks
were more in your direction than mine; but these are things are not breakfast
fare, so keep them for another time." Simeon looked at the faces around
the room and smiled. "..and away from over eager ears."
"Nicholas grinned. "I will, and I hope I am welcome to stay as
there will be much time spent on such trivia."
"You are one of us now and you can stay as long as you wish, but that
time may have to be cut short as you arrive at a crucial time. We are ready
to free our lands from oppression."
Nicholas looked at Simeon and then around the room. "You are ready?"
"Yes Nicholas, we are. Last night I told you of our cause and how we
will take freedom back."
"You did." Nicholas was almost speechless. "And I believed
you spoke of a time yet to arrive. I did not realize you were seriou
Spoke of this present time?"
"Well I did, and it is that time." Simeon didn't wait for any
response. "Nicholas. I will come straight to the point. You are the
kind of man that we need in our fight. Join us. Free the lands from the
yoke of tyranny that is strangling it."
Nicholas looked at his friend, but his eyes fell away from the inspired
Simeon was surprised. "I must say that, that is not the answer I expected
from you Nicholas." He drew back a little. "You have heard that
all is not well amongst the people, and that the tide of feeling runs against
the Marshal and his supporters. In truth it is far worse than you could
"I don't doubt your word,", he replied self-consciously. "It
is not that."
Simeon leaned towards him. "Nicholas what is happening is only the
beginning. There are others, more sinister, who support the Marshal but
remain hidden in his shadow. These evil men would take all from the people
and make us slaves. Daily their grip tightens, and any who dare speak out
"Simeon forgive me; but in Boramulla I have heard none of this. True
our lives are ordered; controlled if you like. But the Alderman is not totally
"And I do not doubt your word either. But whether you have seen it
or not, their web still grows, creeping into every house and family, until
we will be afraid to utter a complaint even to our own loved ones."
Nicholas wasn't sure if he could trace a tinge of bitterness in Simeon's
"Fortunate are you that you have been spared what is happening throughout
the lands." He stopped suddenly, realizing what he had said. "That
is until now. Especially you, must see that things have come to a head.
Your mother, father, brother are dead, and you meant to be, surely that
is proof to you?"
"I wish I could, but I cannot. Yes they are dead. My family and I too
in my heart have paid the ultimate price. But a captain of the guard had
it in mind. It is him and his assassins who I seek."
"And you believe that they, and them alone had some grudge worth three
or four lives?"
"I do not know." snapped Nicholas as he briefly glanced at Reigel.
"All I do know is that I cannot lay blame directly against the Marshal,
or his rule."
Simeon's reply was sharp. "Even after what you have seen and been told?"
"What Reigel and you have told me is that things are not well in our
land. Simeon ask me to join you as an outlaw, and by manner of my circumstance
I grasp at the opportunity. But ask me to throw my all into open rebellion...
I am not sure I can be the man you ask."
"You are exactly the man I ask for." Simeon leaned away staring
into Nicholas's eyes. "Always the even-handed; always the just. If
I could let my mind rule instead of my heart then maybe I too would sit
back and let fate work for me." He sighed. "I will not forcefully
put a sword in your hand even if I could Nicholas, no matter how disappointed
I am that you will not embrace our cause."
"I am sorry. I will continue on my way
"No. No." Simeon interrupted. "Our plans are made and will
go ahead with or without you, so you are still welcome to stay as long as
you may wish."
"I would like to; if I can, to reminisce with you again. It would please
me greatly, but I will not stay if I cannot at least be of use. Find me
work or things to do."
"If things go awry, and you are associated with us in any way; the
guard will believe you a rebel whatever you may protest?"
"I know that, and at that time I will declare that I was proud to know
Simeon stared at him with a slight smile. "Yes
Yes I believe
you would, anyway I will not deny that even having you near pleases me.
As for work I have already counted you into our plans, though now it will
be in a far different capacity. As you will imagine there is plenty of work
that committed or not, needs doing; but whatever you may decide or choose
I ask you this, do not judge our cause until you understand what it is."
"I will watch and I will listen. In the meantime we can still talk
of times old, and the future, for I am ignorant of much that happens. The
Marshal for instance, I never questioned that another was more powerful
Simeon seemed a little less enthusiastic as he spoke. "Yes
has been lately a new one, who I have heard little of as a person, but there
was a man named Tarrant before the drying. He was hard; as they all are,
but tempered with a mite of fairness. With him controlling we parlayed,
and had some belief we could argue for some of our basic rights, but then
a man named KarrLec came to the keep. He is a bitter one, and soon after
his arrival Tarrant was seen no more. Since then the grip of tyranny has
tightened; with more disappearing, and the issuing of new decrees meant
to crush the very spirit from our people. Reigel knows even more, of ones
that control even KarrLec, and who grow impatient to take all for themselves."
"There is so much that I am ignorant of, and when I do understand some
things are too much to take in, but I know times are hard, and our taxes
for the city and its rulers increase upon increase. But as I have said,
in the village we saw little of this injustice of which you speak. Yet by
way of my travel to this place, I have seen and heard more than I would
"And you will hear and see much more, and how you come to terms with
those experiences will test your resolve: I know, I have been down the path
you are about to embark on so forgive me if I seem blinded to reason. For
in my defense I have seen more than any man should."
Nicholas tried to speak but Simeon cut him off
..We have all had to compromise our principles. It does not
rest easy sometimes to go against what we have believed to be right, and
then to appease our conscience in the dark, early hours of the morning;
as I have with mine. So I for one understand how you feel and would not
have you join us in any other way than be it of your own free will. I will
not speak on this subject again, and the choice remains yours." He
grabbed Nicholas around the shoulder, shaking him slightly. "Even so
you have come to us at an opportune moment Nicholas", he said excitedly.
"The time draws nigh. The aging day approaches.".
"Yes, so it does". So much had happened to him he had forgotten
the day of aging would be here soon. It was the day during which every citizen
became a year older; of course not actually. Within the family groups all
had their individual days of birth, and these were celebrated within the
community. But for the purposes of the census; after all the crops had been
sown and as the winter fruit ripened, was the communal aging day. It was
an occasion of much celebration. For days before all the folk that could
journeyed to the nearest census town or city, for celebrations and festivities
which became more and more frenzied toward the actual day.
Simeon was speaking again. "..On that day we enter the city to strike
against the Marshal. Throughout the district of Loc-Sie, men and women
"You're what..." Said Nicholas thinking he had misheard.
"Many hundreds Nicholas, thousands; they lay in wait for the weapons
we shall distribute, and the signal I personally shall give on that day.
They wait for my signal, whoever would have thought."
Nicholas sounded incredulous. "You have an army?"
"Did you expect me personally to take on the Marshal?"
"No. No I just thought
" His words tailed away.
"That we here are the only ones?"
"Well kind of. I wasn't thinking in terms of an army.".
"Well it isn't in the way you imply. They are not professional soldiers,
but an army of common men and women."
The thought disturbed Nicholas even more than the thought of two armed forces.
" Simeon. We talk of farmers, tradesmen, laborers; these people are
not soldiers. They will die."
"Yes they will Nicholas." Simeon's voice was solemn. "And
if I face the reality I too; probably. To throw off the shackles for our
children, to become free; to give my brothers or sisters in arms that chance,
then it is a price I gladly pay. Come don't throw a wet blanket upon my
"Simeon why are you telling me this if I will not join you?"
"Why? You are my friend."
"I was; two seasons ago. Time passes. I could have sympathy that lies
"You Nicholas: no, not Nicholas Day, you would not do anything that
was not just and right."
"Maybe I believe the lord Marshal to be just and right?"
"That I doubt: you hesitate to say it, but deep down you know you agree
with what I have said."
"But I have said I will not join the rebellion, and help in the downfall
of the Marshal."
"You already are, and you always were; only you don't know it."
"It seems my choices become less; my past dimmer, and my future murkier
each time I awake." Nicholas smiled at last. "I will keep your
secret, and not because of an ideal, rather out of friendship, wherever
it may take me."
"It will take you where you seek to go, to the gates of Quone."
"Then if that be so, my conscience will trouble me a little less."
"That may or not be." said Simeon with a smile. "For before
our army can strike we must distribute the weapons we have. You will do
Nick went to speak but Simeon put up his hand.
"Wait. Did you not say you wanted work? And you said you want to go
to Quone. Then I offer you work, as a teamster. I remember you handled a
horse and cart with exceptional skill. A simple task of driving a wagon
from here to where the captain you seek has his lair, surely is an undemanding
Nicholas sighed deeply. "Yes. Alright, I will take a wagon as you wish."
"There that was not so hard." Once more he grabbed Nick around
the shoulder and together they walked out towards the main tunnel. "It
is not so dangerous. During the celebration there will be far too many people
making for the city, so the guard will take little notice of one more wagon
on the road, and be less likely check it."
"Wagon's maybe. But it will draw attention if this great force of men
move against the city, and leave other ageing towns empty."
"You underestimate our plan Nicholas, that is not how it will be. Most
will stay in close to their own villages to tie down the local troops, and
prevent their reinforcing the city. With surprise on our side we can storm
the keep without a great army."
"I take it Reigel is aware of all of this?"
Simeon hesitated. "I have been to him for advice many times."
"Then I will not question your plan, for I know that you and Reigel
would take care in every detail, but in my bones I feel a dread, its reason
I do not know, but feel it I do". Nicholas tried to force the doubt
from his mind. "I will say no more for fear that you will chide me
again for being your wet blanket."
"In truth you cannot be Nicholas, for we are certain of success."
"Then I shall be there in Quone to celebrate it with you.
"Yes you will, and at that time my only regret will be that you are
not by my side to take credit."
"Maybe not, but I shall be leading those that pay homage to your victory."
Nicholas was finishing breakfast when Simeon came to him with a purposeful
look in his eyes. "Time has come friend for us to part once again.
I want you to leave on your task in the morning.".
Nicholas nodded. "I am ready to do as is needed, but it rests heavy
on my heart knowing that after being reunited; that if things do not go
well, we may not meet again."
Simeon slapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "Must you always doubt
Nick? Have faith, we cannot loose. The maker and right are on our side."
"I cannot help how I feel, but I have trust in you."
"Do not worry. We will strike before they suspect anything. Have no
fear we will meet again in Quone. Now come, leave what you are doing and
take note. At dawn tomorrow you will take one of the wagons and go to the
township of Riverslee."
From general conversation Nicholas had suspected he would be asked to go
to the township, and he remembered again how little he actually knew of
the place; other than it was sited bottom of the portage through the chasm.
It was an important town because of the fact that most of the goods transported
throughout the district were taken from place to place by sailing barge.
But that was impossible from this point on as the river was barred to vessels
by white water and falls. At Riverslee the cargoes were unloaded and transferred
to wagons: or packhorse, to be taken up through the chasm. At the top of
the mountain, on the edge of the tableland was another town, where barges
were once again loaded to cross the inland sea to Quone. At least that's
what he had been told.
"You will go with Colen," continued Simeon, "and deliver
your wagonload to the address I shall give you. You will part company there
and meet with Harry who will have horses; together you will make your way
to up to Lakesend. Rooms have already been taken for you close to the quayside
there. You will await the aging, and until our people have secured the town.
Then you both will come to Quone for the celebrations." He looked at
"I can do that." Nicholas shrugged confidently.
"Of course you can. Harry has complete knowledge of our plans. Also
at Riverslee there is a man called by the name Vicktor; he too is trustworthy,
so I do not foresee any problems. Colen knows all that is needed, but before
you leave I will give you addresses and directions. You must hold them to
"Nicholas these contacts are our most important resource and are vulnerable.
They are members of their societies and cannot melt into the shadows at
a moments notice. A passed message or careless word could reveal them, and
our organization would unravel. Share this information with no one."
"Simeon you give me too much credit. There are others you have known
longer than I that you should give this information to."
"Yes there are, and there are those who seek that information, but
these last days you have sought none. I even began to believe that you have
no care to our success or failure."
Nicholas interrupted instantly. "Simeon those are hard words. Yes,
maybe the situation you rebel against does not trouble me in the same way,
but your wellbeing is at the pinnacle of my concerns. I would not see you
in harm's way and would plead with you to leave with me and return to what
life we could, rather than mourn for you. I know this is a lost hope, but
I do not hope, or even expect your failure."
Simeon smiled. "I know you Nicholas day, even more than our friend
Reigel who claims to have read your mind."
The absurd claim amused Simeon, but made Nicholas wonder just how much Reigel
did actually know.
"I have never doubted you Nicholas; even now you reject trust or information,
when you could be wheedling out scraps of our plan. There are many here
who I know and have fought alongside, but none have I known as long as you,
and before you tell me again..". He added quickly."
time has passed, but Nicholas of Boramulla, I will still trust you with
That evening Nicholas sought Colen out. He had seen him often, but they
had never been in a situation where conversation had developed past general
greetings. A small man in his late forty seasons; thin, slightly balding,
quiet, but pleasant enough once stimulated into speech.
This time talk they did. It appeared that Colen knew Riverslee well, and
had friends there. No he did not know Harry, as he himself had only joined
the cause late on, but he knew that someone of that name played an important
part in the organization, and that this person had been away on a mission
of some secrecy. Although on Nicholas's part he tried to make conversation,
it seemed they had little in common, so after a short while Nicholas excused
himself and went to bed.
The following morning Nicholas was up early and eager to be about. There
were to be three wagons leave at the same time, one other the same way as
Nicholas and Colen, and the third by a distant route through to the other
side of the mountain.
Nicholas clasped hands with Antony, Simeon, and the others. "Fare well",
called Antony. "But beware, not all are in sympathy with our cause."
Nicholas had not seen Reigel since that first evening, but now he appeared
out of a side room. He came over and Nicholas grasped his hand tightly.
"I have been looking for you Reigel," he said.
"I have had cause to be elsewhere, but I wanted to wish you well on
your journey." Suddenly his voice dropped to barely above a whisper.
"Take courage, you are more than you know." Reigel hesitated a
moment, still gripping Nicholas's hand. "I have looked where others
do not, and have seen what they cannot: or refuse to. People will follow
you Nicholas, and when it is needed they will offer their lives for you,
you must accept their sacrifice."
Nicholas was dumfounded at Reigel's strange outburst.
The man seemed to want to say more but said only. "You will understand
when the time comes." He released his grip stepped back away from the
Nicholas was still running Reigel's words through his mind as Colen took
the reins. "Aboard," he snapped sharply. "Or you'll be running
after us." Nicholas jumped onto the running board as the wagon started
down the tunnel.
The clip clop of the horse's hooves and the rumble of the wagon echoing
in the tunnel had accompanied them for so long that it had become familiar
when they reached the entrance. There were piles of rubble both inside and
out, the lack of snow on the external ones indicating that the entrance
had only recently been unsealed.
Once out he could see that many years ago the road had continued on as below
the trees traces of a solid dark tar still remained, though mostly the thick
vegetation had ruined the smooth surface with matted roots. As if to emphasize
that the undergrowth had been cut only during the preceding day Nicholas
could smell the fresh sap.
"It is too late now for a hidden entrance," said Colen guessing
his thoughts. "No wagon or person save us and the cutters have stepped
on this ground in time past remembering. Let them see it now, for now is
the time to strike, and that is our taskmaster Nicholas: onwards to Riverslee."
They crashed and jolted their way through the slashed and crushed grass,
and over the stump's of trees to the nearest road. Once there they became
just another wagon on their way to the aging.
As Simeon had predicted the road became full; almost choked with traffic
towards the town, and once there, Riverslee was far busier than Nicholas
had imagined. Whether this was due to the approaching aging, or if this
was usual for a market day, he could only guess.
Calling out to pedestrians for directions they slowly made their way into
town's center, amidst a stream of carts, wagons, and townspeople. Dogs and
children spilled onto the road from the narrow footpaths, and on several
occasions they almost hit one or the other racing across the road, and oblivious
to their passing. "It's good to be back in town again," observed
Nicholas smiled although with the noise and crush he was not sure he agreed.
It had been an uneventful journey. The local militia had stopped them twice;
to their relief the inspection of the wagon had been cursory, the soldiers
having little interest in fully carrying out their duties with such a number
of travelers on the road.
It was after the time of the mid day meal that they finally turned into
a small lane containing a number of two story buildings. The uppermost floors
of these cantilevered out over the flagstones. Close enough that a fit man
could clear the gap between the houses on either side. The whole experience
was beginning to give Nicholas a feeling of claustrophobia.
Most of the buildings in the lane had a large timber gateway at street level,
and it was in front of one of these that they stopped. Colen stepped down
and walked to the entrance, his heavy boots clumping on the smoothed stone
surface as if they were still inside the cavern. He thumped several times
with his clenched fist, then stood back looking up to the windows above.
Moment's later one gate slowly swung back, and an old man stepped from behind.
He looked at them with an impassive face, and disappeared back behind the
stout timber. Then the second half slowly swung back. Neither he nor Colen
acknowledged one the other.
Colen climbed back onto the wagon, let the horses forward then pulled them
sharply round. The man walked to the lead horse and grasped its reigns.
The animal protested a little but then began to step backwards. Between
him and Colen they reversed the wagon into a stable just large enough that
the horses stopped with their snouts almost still in the lane.
On their right was an area for storing hay and saddlery; on their left four
individual pens; two already containing horses, and a door.
They unhitched the horses as the man closed the double gate, and still the
owner: if that was who he was, did not speak. In silence he turned and went
through the door on their left.
Nicholas turned to Colen as he began to wipe down the horses. "Talkative
friends you have in these town folk."
Colen grinned as he refreshed to manger with a feed of oats. "Not my
friend, but a friend to the cause all the same, for he is one of us. Rumour
has it that he is Harry's father."
"Then I hope our meeting with the child is more encouraging than his
"Do not be too harsh Nicholas, for there is more to it than you see.
I'm told his name is Vicktor, and he does not speak because he has no tongue".
Nicholas wished he had held his.
Taking off their dusty boots they placed them with their cloaks on a rack
beside the door, and followed the way Vicktor had gone. Beyond was a set
of narrow timber stairs running immediately to the right, and at the top
of them another door opened into a small hallway, placed over the stable.
Vicktor had heard their approach, and came from a room at the end. He opened
a door and pointed inside. It was the kitchen. Nicholas was surprised, as
it was as tidy and clean as his own mothers had been. He immediately felt
guilty, judging the man without good cause by presuming that this house
would be less than his own had been. Their host pointed to chairs pushed
under the table, they sat and were served two large plates of dumplings
and gravy, one of Nick's favorite meals. The two men tucked in and gratefully
took a second helping when that was offered. Vicktor refused their offer
of help with the washing of dishes, and led them to another room with comfortable
old chairs; they understood from his gestures that they should wait. Neither
wanted to talk.
Colen took out some baccy and started to smoke, but Nicholas noticed that
on shelf next to the window were several books. He was immediately drawn
to them. His still forming estimation of Harry improved. He had always felt
an affinity with other readers, and glancing at the titles, knew that he
would like the man, if indeed these were his books. There were a number
of texts on various subjects, a couple with political sounding themes, and
a book of fiction; a romance. Nicholas smiled at the variety of tastes.
The door opened and he casually turned, his breath catching in his throat,
for there in front of them was the most beautiful woman; or rather girl,
he had ever seen, and she was talking to him. "I said which of you
is Colen?" she repeated.
Nicholas couldn't speak but Colen did. "I'm Colen miss."
She turned away from Nick. "You leave tonight. Arrangements have been
made and an itinerary prepared."
She turned to Nick. "Then you must be Nicholas?"
He thought her voice so sweet that she sang his name. "Yes," he
nodded, but too quickly.
"You have both had a meal?"
He didn't trust his voice so he nodded again.
"Then rest, for the journey will need a clear head and a quick mind."
Nick couldn't take his eyes off her. She wore a simple dress, and her jet-black
hair was cropped short. 'This must be Harry's sister, the romance would
be hers', he thought.
"If you will excuse me I have ridden a long way, and feel the need
of bathing. Gra... Vicktor will show you where you can rest. We will meet
and talk later."
"Thank you," blurted out Nicholas, "But we must wait for
She looked at him curiously. "My brother; then your wait will be a
long one, for he is no longer with us."
"Then there must be some mistake. We are to meet Harry here."
She looked at him impassively, making him feel so self-conscious that he
had to explain. "I ... I am assuming that you are Harry's sister?"
"Harry's sister?" There was the trace of a smile on her face.
"Then you are mistaken. My name is Harriet; some call me Harry in its
shortening. It is I that you have come to meet. . She turned and left the
room without waiting for a response.
Vicktor hammered on the door later that evening, and by gestures indicated
that another meal was waiting for them.
Nicholas had lain on the cot since his meeting with Harriet, staring at
the roof. There was only one thought on his mind, and that was of her. He
almost raced downstairs in the hope that she was there, but she was not.
He couldn't sit, and restlessly paced the room wondering where she was.
"The last time I saw anything as obviously smitten was when I sold
off my wolfhound bitch." Colen was stood at the door.
Nicholas had not heard him enter; he stopped pacing, and said nothing in
"The male wore a track in his pen and dam near died of heart break."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Nicholas said guiltily.
"I'm jesting with you," Grinned Colen. "It's not your fault.
Many a country boy is swept of his feet on his first experience of city
girls. I'll take you to a tavern later if you like, and you can sow your
oats with as many as you like." He leered.
Nicholas smiled sheepishly and sat down. Maybe Colen was right, he was a
country boy, and all the girls he knew were unsophisticated country girls.
Were city girls different? At that moment the door from the kitchen opened
and in walked Harriet carrying two serving dishes. Nicholas stood too quickly
to help, and knocked his chair back across the room.
She looked at him, then at Colen with an exasperated look. "Please,
I would feel safer carrying these hot dishes if you sat down."
Nicholas saw what was probably a smirk on Colen's face. He felt totally
deflated. It always happened. His father had encouraged him: almost demanded
that he meet girls; talk to girls; be friends with girls. That was all well
and good, but 'Why.... Why, when he actually liked one, did he have to act
the fool? Why was it that when he was trying so hard to do the right thing,
he always did the wrong thing? It would be best to try to remain quiet and
still, at least until he could control his actions. He pulled back the chair
and sat down. Nicholas wasn't sure if it was usual with her or not, but
while Colen helped himself she reached over for Nicholas's plate, and ladled
out some of the broth for him. It was an act that earlier would have pleased
him, but now he felt belittled.
Vicktor joined them for the meal, and with the exception of the old man
they spoke briefly of the plans for the next few days, then the conversation
became more general. Nicholas steering it round to talk of Harriet herself,
for that was all be wanted to hear.
She seemed reluctant to talk on the subject. "I have had sympathy with
the movement for a long time, since
" Her words trailed away
as if she could not speak the name, "... died."
"Was there an accident?" enquired Colen untactfully.
"It was no accident." She said firmly.
Nicholas could see the hurt. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort
Suddenly she stood, "If you will excuse me. I am tired. We will need
to be away early in the morn."
Nicholas caught glimpse of moisture in the corner of her eye.
Apparently Vicktor saw the same for he left his mean unfinished and followed
Colen looked at him, and whispered. "Rumour has it that her mother
was tortured to death for information she would not give." He seemed
unconcerned and pulled out his baccy, lit it and exhaled a large cloud of
blue smoke into the air.
But a haze of a different hue had already covered Nicholas's eyes, one of
anger. He wanted to ask the seemingly indifferent man how, if he had, had
such a suspicion; then how he could be so tactless as ask about an accident.
But he stopped himself, instead thinking that they had a job to do, and
conflict would not smooth its progress.
But besides that he felt angry at himself, if Colen was right and Harriet's
family had died a cruel death, what did that make of his even handed judgments.
Were Simeon, Mark and all the others wrong; or could it be that he had been
so blind, so ignorant these years to all that had gone on around him. It
seemed now that everywhere he looked, everyone he spoke to had, had their
lives altered forever by the regime or its servants; the same rule that
he had looked upon as benign.
Had his mother really protected him from the world so much, or had he just
refused to see. He wanted to race out and avenge the injustice, to pay and
make up for the years of his inaction.
Someone was shaking his shoulder. He had lain awake thinking of Harriet
until late, her face melted in his mind to become that of Vicktor's. He
was gesturing that Nicholas should go downstairs.
"Thank you, I'm coming." He said sleepily as he swung his legs
off the bed, stood, stretched then pulled his garments on.
Harriet was filling a pack with food when he walked into the kitchen. She
was dressed in neat, but well-worn riding clothes and looked more beautiful
than he remembered from yesterday.
"I'm sorry; you should have woke me earlier."
"There was nothing for you to do, but we must leave soon."
Nicholas felt he should help, but Harriet refused all his offers, emphasizing
that everything was done. He took his own few things down to the stables.
The two horses that had been waiting the previous day were saddled and ready
to leave, he tied his pack to the back of one. The door opened and Harriet
came through. "Yours is the other animal," she said sharply.
He took the pack off, feeling he was incapable of doing anything right.
"Where is Colen?" He asked.
"He left before dawn," was the abrupt reply.
Things were not going well. Nicholas wanted them to be friends, but Harriet
was even less than indifferent to him. He didn't try to bridge the apparent
gap, for he knew he would make a fool of himself again, so he said nothing.
Vicktor came down with the last pannier. He tied it to her horse; then turned
to her. He reached out putting a hand on each of her shoulders, and looked
at her face.
"I know. I will," she said softly in reply to his unspoken words.
Nicholas was sure he saw the wetness in her eye again, just before the man
pulled her to him and held her tight. He turned away feeling an intruder
and pretended to adjust his horses bridle. It struck him that Vicktor looked
older this morn. Their ages seemed far apart.
When he could hear Harriet mounting her horse, he went over to thank the
old man for his hospitality, shook his hand and then climbed onto his own
Vicktor opened one of the doors and they trotted out into the lane. Harriet
did not look back as they entered the main thoroughfare.
If anything there were more people on the streets this morning, so it took
them a good while to work their way to the outskirts of the town.
Harriet had said nothing since leaving, but now she spoke. "It is just
possible to reach Lakesend within a long day, but it is hard riding for
the horses. It is neither wise or necessary, so we will stop at a tavern
some way into the mountain and seek overnight lodgings."
He nodded accepting her role as leader on their journey.
"On the road we will travel as brother and sister." This disappointed
him a little, though it seemed reasonable in the circumstance.
By now the houses were becoming fewer, the road steeper, and the land to
their right became more and more of a sheer fall.
As they entered the gorge the road was clearly defined by the cliff one
side, and a low Crete wall marking the edge, but it was wide enough for
a wagon to pass either way.
The sights they passed fascinated Nicholas. He had never seen so much rushing
water, as that which poured over the falls they passed during the morning.
Or the torrents of boiling white foam that crashed and sprayed with a thunderous
sound over and around massive rocks, worn round and smooth through ages.
Nicholas tried to draw Harriet into talking several times, and eventually
succeeded. His spirits lifted as they fell into talking of the mundane.
They continued up without a break, stopping only to water or rest the horses.
He realized around midday that Harriet had thrown off her sadness; or annoyance,
and seemed at ease with him now.
There was still daylight left when they approached the tavern. It was a
large three level building set back into the hillside, in a small gully.
The noise of music and shouting growing louder as they approached.
Although elsewhere the day still had time to run, here in the chasm it was
already failing, and lights inside the hostelry were being lit when they
entered the building.
There were no women in the room, only a mixture of men of different ages,
colour, and origin. Most were drinking at the long timber bar that occupied
the whole of one end of the ground floor room.
But these seemed unassuming in comparison to a group of young militiamen,
in both rowdiness and consumption of ale. The five sat at a choice table
near the massive open fireplace; where the other patrons seemed to avoid
Nearer the door a small group of musicians played.
Nicholas was ignored, but as Harriet entered behind him the level of the
murmur fell, and a number of the men including all of the five turned to
look at her. Their faces could not be seen; only just as silhouettes in
the light from the blazing fire, but Nicholas knew the expressions that
The bar tenderer directed them to a small door at far the end of the room.
They knocked, and out came a surly, stocky man.
"Are you the lodgings keeper?" Nicholas enquired.
He stared at Nicholas, then Harriet; before disappearing back behind the
door, saying nothing. Moments later he reappeared carrying a thick ledger.
He as good as threw it down on the very end of the bar slab.
"Two rooms, one for myself and one for my sister, if you please."
"Two; maybe we have something," he muttered. "
I have two, but not together. It is a busy time. The ageing comes as you
well know." He looked over their shoulders into the room behind them,
and smiled. "One over the stables, and my best room is available."
"We have no need of such comfort. Have you not two ordinary rooms?"
He shook his head slowly. "It is not cheap, but the bed is large and
soft, and it is furthest from the noise." He smiled at Harriet; then
looked at Nicholas. "Surely sir you want your sister to spend the night
in such comfort?"
Nicholas felt the room had gone quieter, but it was only the group that
"It will soon be dark," said the man in a warning tone. "The
road is not a safe place for travelers at night especially young ladies,
if you get my drift." He grinned.
"We need only normal rooms, but one with two beds would suffice."
Nicholas found himself saying defensively. He didn't like the man and felt
he was being manipulated."
Again the man looked over his shoulder. "It is my only rooms that I
offer you, best you take them as it stands; but I will tell you what I will
do as I know I would not want it on my conscience if anything happened to
my sister in such circumstances. It is late; there will be no more along
this night so you can have the room for what I charge for the others. I
can do no better than that."
Nicholas felt uneasy but the man was probably right. He knew he had little
coin and looked at Harriet, she nodded. "We will need to stable our
The man gave another grin and beckoned past Nicholas. "Peter will show
you where to put your animals, and where you will sleep."
Nicholas turned to see a surly youth look up from the five. He seemed reluctant
until the one next to him; wearing the coat of a low rank officer, pushed
him forward. Peter noisily pushed his chair back before he came over to
"Show the gentleman the stables Peter." The keeper said, though
Peter didn't seem at all anxious to. "Come on look lively." He
taunted him. "The boys will wait your return before they get into the
Peter made towards the door as the keeper spoke again. "You go with
Peter, and I'll show the young lady up to her room." He immediately
lost interest in Nicholas as he turned to Harriet. "If you would come
this way miss."
The others of the group were throwing back their drinks as Nicholas followed
Peter to the door, but he thought nothing of it. They led the animals into
an adjacent building. It was dirty and stank. Nicholas found the single
cleanest stable he could. The horses would have to share for the night.
Peter stood watching him as he began to unbuckle the saddle on his mount.
He heard another enter behind him and speak softly to Peter. They seemed
to be talking to each other about the weather, and he paid little notice.
Harriet's horse was nuzzling a pannier upon his own mount that contained
chaff. Both horses seemed restless and he pulled out the food to settle
them down. He slung the bag over the horse's neck; it shook its head. Its
eyes wide and staring in his direction; "Easy boy. Easy," he said
comfortingly as he went to remove the saddle. Without warning he felt a
sharp pain in his kidneys. His back arched in reflex and his legs went weak.
Before they had buckled under him, a second vicious blow sank deep into
him. His head began to spin and he drifted into a half-conscious state,
barely comprehending as he was roughly gripped by the shoulder and spun
around to face two grinning men. One of them said something, and there was
laughter, but all that evaporated as a fist crushed up under his rib cage,
driving every drop of air out of his lungs. As he curled up in agony, a
hand hooked around the back of his neck, pulling his head forward and down,
as a knee smashed up into his face.
Nicholas stumbled back, crashing into the rear wall of the stable, in front
of the horses. He fell between their legs, his fall cushioned by a pile
of rotten hay and manure.
His horse shied and almost brought its hoof down on his head, but he was
dragged out from under them by his feet, and roughly propped upright against
the partition. He felt dreamlike hands going through his pockets. When they
had finished they let go and Nicholas slumped down onto his knees, holding
his face in his hands; blood from his crushed nose running down over his
lips, and between his fingers.
Everything seemed to be happening in flashes as suddenly he was being hauled
to his feet again. One man on either side, he was dragged outside into the
cool evening air.
His mind was a haze. His toes were dragging over tar. They were crossing
the road. Vaguely he could see they were approaching the Crete wall. One
of his assailants was talking, laughing. He was telling the other to hurry.
They would miss a turn.
Nicholas once more had the wind knocked out of him as he was roughly dropped,
kneeling and half draped over the wall. He stared down. It seemed far, far
down and he could only dimly make out the rapids in the almost darkness.
They were laughing and talking about flying, as he felt his legs lifted.
Nicholas suddenly understood that they were going to throw him over into
the chasm. "I have money." he desperately cried out.
They held him.
"There are tokens
in my shirt." He pleaded through painfully
aching lips as he balanced over the precipice.
"He's got some more". He heard one say
"He's lying, I looked.", said the other defensively.
"I have a
.. hidden pouch." Nicholas said breathlessly, but
now a little more confident that he wasn't about to plunge over the wall
"Look again, and make sure this time," snapped his first assailant.
Nicholas was pulled back away from the wall, roughly turned and dropped
heavily onto the roadway, as one ripped open his cloak to look inside. The
coarse fingers tore his top open to expose a small bag hung around his neck.
He ripped it off and tossed it to his companion. His rough hands grasped
at the torn shirt. "Is that all?" he snarled.
Nicholas stared into his eyes. "For you it is." He said calmly
as he reached up and clutched out at the man, his fingers curling around
the cloak lapels. The surprised man instinctively tried to stand back up,
but Nick held onto the front of his tunic, letting himself be lifted almost
waist high before lifting his own foot, kicking it into the thug's stomach.
The man grunted and lost his balance as Nicholas allowed his own weight
to drop him onto his back; pulling the thug down with him. Nicholas hit
the ground hard, crunching the back of his head on the gravel as he rolled
backward, simultaneously straightening his legs and pushing up his with
all his remaining strength. The man easily cleared the wall, and was already
plummeting down towards the rapids before he uttered his first, and that
was only a dwindling scream.
Nicholas had completed the rolling motion against the wall and was almost
on his feet. Ignoring the pain he braced against the wall, twisting his
panting body into a crouch. The other man was still staring in disbelief
past him over the wall; until he saw Nick rise up. He dropped the pouch
and let out a stream of abuse as he thrust his hand into his tunic.
Nicholas didn't wait to see what for, he clenched his fingers and lunging
up with a straightened arm, jabbed them deep into his opponent's throat.
The thug's head snapped backward as he dropped to his knees choking, and
gasping for breath. Using his left hand Nicholas grabbed him by the hair
pulling his face down before bringing his right hand down in a chop to the
back of the man's neck with the force of an axe. He dropped the prone body
to the ground and stepped straight over him. Wiping the blood from his face
with his sleeve, he stumbled in agony back towards the tavern.
Nicholas burst through the door, immediately noticing that the table used
by the five was empty. He pushed his way through startled patrons toward
the entrance to the rooms. Shouts and curses were called after him as he
spilt drinks, and knocked tables of playing cards over, but no-one dared
to bar his way. The bar tenderer had seen him coming, and produced a vicious
looking club from beneath the bar. He stepped in front of Nicholas and raised
the weapon to hit him. As it came down Nicholas swept a chair from besides
him, and deflected the blow. The chair splintered into a dozen pieces, but
Nicholas had already released it and stepped through the shower fragments
to grab the man's shirt. Pulling him closer, at the same time as he lunged
forward Nicholas drove his forehead into the bridge of the man's nose. There
was a sharp crack as his nose broke, and blood splattered everywhere; driving
the few patrons still near, well away. Nicholas cast the moaning man to
the side and strode towards the door. Even though his bones ached he took
the stairs three at a time, and rushed down the first floor passageway,
throwing; or kicking open door after door. A number of the rooms were occupied;
those inside startled and frightened by the bloody apparitions sudden invasion.
There was no sign of Harriet
Screams were coming from before and after him now, as he desperately climbed
to the second floor, to meet a man coming down the stairs. The man gripped
the balustrades, and swung his feet forward in a kicking motion.
During the swordfight Nicholas had been confused at how he reacted. The
seemingly slowing of action; and how he had controlled fear and panic retaining
clearness in his mind. Now he knew how to use them, and as he ducked to
the side of the man's steel studded boots, he gripped his ankles, twisted,
and leaned over the balustrade. The man shouted in shock as his own bodyweight
carried him over the banister. He hung on with one hand and desperately
tried to grab with the other, as he sailed out into the stairwell. Nicholas
didn't wait to see if he was successful, guessing he wouldn't be as he ran
up the last stairs. Two doors down a man ducked back into a room slamming
the door behind him. Nicholas raced to it and kicked it open. She was there.
The keeper held her arms pinned behind her, with his other hand over her
mouth. She had a look of fear and desperation in her eyes. Her cloak was
torn back over her shoulders and her shirt was ripped open. A second man:
the officer from the five was cupping her breast. Between him and this man
was another; their leering faces all turned to Nicholas.
A short while before Nicholas had not expected trouble, which had been a
mistake; or been prepared for it, which had been an even greater mistake.
But now he was, and as had been the case with the Veldt, Nicholas did not
feel any actual fear. He could almost feel the anger that had boiled up
in him fade away. Even the agony of seconds ago was bearable. His main thought
was that each time the odds seemed to be getting more in the opponent's
favour. He felt his body like a taut spring; he knew he was ready. "Let
her go," He demanded in a calm but threatening voice.
The officer spoke. "There's a surprise," he smirked. "I didn't
expect you to come to take Peters turn." The others laughed as he stepped
forward; smashing his clenched fist into his open palm. "I should've
known better than to send boys to do men's work." He said with a snarl
Nicholas waited until he was close and backed away. "I will warn you
one more time. Let her go."
The man lunged forward followed by the other, but instead of leaving the
room in fear Nicholas reached up and hooked his fingers over the top of
the door, twisting and kicking himself from the ground. The officer tried
to step back, but came up hard against the man behind, at the same moment
that Nicholas's right foot came up and crunched flat on, into his face.
Blood and teeth splattered onto the second, as he took the force of the
officer's backwards movement.
The officer lurched, stunned as Nicholas twisted again; this time hooking
his left foot hook behind his neck. Hanging between man and door his right
foot now came up again under the officer's jaw; pushing his head back almost
bent in two. There was a snap before Nicholas released his scissor grip
on the collapsing officer; brought his left foot beside the other high on
the man's shoulder, and pushed him forcefully back across the room.
Dropping back into the doorway he directed his attention towards the tavern
keeper who held Harriet. The man had spun her about to place her between
himself and Nicholas. His hand had released her mouth, and was now in front
of her. The firelight glinted off a long blade he pressed against the skin
of her throat. "Get back." He snarled. "Get back or she'll
. She'll bleed real bad."
Nicholas stopped and looked at him, noticing out of the corner of his eye
that his second assailant was sluggishly struggling to his feet.
"Get over against that wall." Demanded the keeper as Nicholas
stepped sideways against a chair; slowly lifting his foot until it rested
on the seat.
"Do as I say or I'll cut her," the keeper threatened pressing
the blade against her flesh. Harriet was whimpering in fear.
"No you won't," said Nicholas, calmly pulling up the hem of his
The third man was now on his feet. His, Harriet's, and the tavern keeper's
eyes looked down to the knife that was strapped to Nicholas's calf. The
tavern keeper pulled her head back harder, making her cry out desperately;
and exposing more of the soft flesh of her neck. "Don't think you gunna
get chance to use that," he snarled. "Before her pretty little
head is clean off her shoulder."
Nicholas didn't take his eyes off the man, as his fingers closed around
"I said put it down. Don't move." The keeper screamed threateningly.
"You want my knife", said Nicholas submissively, holding it in
the open palm of his hand.
"Gray. Get it." The tavern keeper called to his accomplice.
For an instant Nicholas looked away from the tavern keeper's cruel eyes,
into Harriet's pleading ones. He smiled reassuringly at her, before glancing
at Gray, and then back at the man holding her. Grey was only two steps away
as Nicholas held out the weapon, but as he reached to take it Nicholas cupped
his palm and drew the knife away and down. Grey snarled and thrust his hand
towards the knife that was now coming back up. In a fluid movement Nicholas
sliced of one finger, and the tip of another, as he turned full circle;
bringing his outstretched arm smoothly around, until his outstretch hand
pointed to the keeper's throat: as it did his fingers folded flat open the
knife slipped away. The movement had been so fast that the tavern keeper's
eyes were trying to fix on no more than a blur. When they did his arm tensed
as he went to draw his own blade over the girls white throat. His reaction
was too late and before he could, the sharp point of Nicholas's knife penetrated
the back of his hand. Slicing through skin, sinew, and bone until it emerged
though his palm. The tavern keeper screamed, and his impaled hand spread
wide in reflex, causing his own blade to clatter to the floor. He released
Harriet: clutching at his wrist with his other hand and sobbing in pain.
The other man was already doing the same and cowered back as Harriet rushed
to Nicholas's side. Nicholas's eyes were already gauging Gray's reaction,
and he knew instantly that the man had no stomach for more. He backed off,
his open good hand held out in front of his chest in a sign of submission..
Nicholas turned back to Harriet. "Are you okay?"
"A little shaken
A lot shaken." She twisted her
head and fingered the side of her neck. "I thought the knife was going
Nicholas smiled. "That was not what I planned." He pulled out
a kerchief and dabbed the trace of blood on her throat. "See
it isn't even yours."
Harriet held her head back and looked up into his face; then she leant forward
and upward to kiss his cheek. "I think we should go quickly."
He nodded and stepped over to the cowering keeper. "I believe the dangers
of the road are a lesser evil than staying in your filthy hovel for the
night." Nicholas pulled the knife from the man's flesh as if it was
an unfeeling lump of wax. Tauntingly he drew one, then the other flat sides
over the man's shoulder, wiping away his blood. "Next time we meet".
He said threateningly. "I will kill you".
The left the room, Harriet pausing only to stamp on the fingers of the man
still hanging from the stair rails.
Chapter 5 - The Book of Stone
Nicholas was both glad and relieved when they turned the corner. The tavern
disappeared behind the gray rock, and the sound of the fiddle, was swallowed
by the night.
Though he was less pleased at how the slight jarring of the horse had made
his pain return. He felt his hands shaking too, and preferred to think it
caused by the cold rather than belated fear as the surge of adrenalin ebbed.
Worse still before they had left the light, he had seen see the creases
across Harriet's brow. Now as the minutes ticked by she would be feeling
the onset of shock.
There was nothing he could do; they both desperately needed the relief of
deep sleep. He consoled himself thinking that likely it would have been
impossible in the tavern, filled as it had been with the shouts of the drunken
patrons. But such consolation was of little comfort to their weariness.
He decided that whatever the complications they would stop once they came
to any nook or cranny that she at least could catch a few hours of rest.
They rode on in silence, the river now so far below that only the clip clop
of the horse's hooves seemed to be echoing up and down the silent canyon
in the chill night air.
The hot breath from the nostrils of their animals condensed around them,
as the horses continued to snort their protest at being dragged from a relatively
comfortable night's rest.
They traveled a good way; though slowly, up the side of the mountain. It
was dark and they could barely see anything in front with the moon hiding
behind thick cloud, so they kept close to the rock face. Nicholas had far
too vivid memories of what lay unseen just the other side of that low wall.
There was no mist as such at this height above the plain, though even if
there had been it could not have made visibility any worse, but mostly Nicholas
was surprised how cold it had become; even for this time of the seasons.
If Harriet felt the same, she did not say so, but she had likely considered
it before they had set out, as they were well rugged up.
They lost sense of time, but long after they had left the tavern it began
to drizzle. This turned to light rain, which quickly gave way to a heavy
downpour. If the wet wasn't enough the wind gathered speed and whipped icy
droplets into their faces. They pulled their hoods down against the bitter
onslaught, but whatever they did exposed pieces of face and fingers were
soon numb and smarting. It did not take long for them both to become soaked
and thoroughly miserable at their plight.
No doubt the horses felt the same as they tried to hide up even closer against
the cliff face, continually banging Nicholas's knees against the rock; and
at times they slowed as they turned corners into the full force of the driving
Nicholas rode in front, in a futile attempt to protect Harriet from the
worst of the weather; consoled in the thought that as no living thing, including
any dangerous wild beast would be out by choice in this: at least nothing
would delay them more.
There had been no others travelers on the road for a long time. The last
ones had been closer to the tavern, hurrying to the dubious shelter or pleasures
From what he could tell the road was still well made, and occasionally he
glimpsed a thin sheet of water running across the pavement; then flowing
alongside the Crete wall before disappearing through the periodic openings
at its base. Head down against the rain it was reflected in this moist layer
that Nicholas thought he imagined a flickering light.
It caught Harriet's attention, and with effort she called out his name drawing
his notice up ahead. Some distance away was a tiny spot of light.
It grew in intensity until a covered lantern could be made out, and that
held by a person wrapped as they were. Only the flickering light that reflected
from his half-hidden eyes betrayed that a man hid within. A voice was straining
against the wind and the noise of the rain. "Do you need shelter?"
.. We do
.Thank you." Nicholas found himself
saying without hesitation.
Whoever was holding the lantern turned wordlessly. They followed close,
afraid they may lose him.
It was not far, a short stretch of road then off amongst the trees up a
small track, then suddenly the rain stopped. Without realizing they had
ridden into a cavern.
Nicholas helped Harriet down from the saddle, her light body weight increased
several fold due to the saturated garments.
"Take the lantern and go forward. You will see the way," said
their savior. " I will wipe down your animals and tend to their needs."
They felt too fatigued to argue, and did as they were bid. Some distance
along the cave, an entrance to another chamber came into view, and from
this the warm glow of an open fire greeted them. They went in.
What at first had been no more than a cavity in the rock now became a room,
and such a fine room that they could become used to. Of decent proportions,
furnished with tables, chairs, and all the other fittings as would befit
a well to do household. If this man was a hermit, he liked his comfort more
than any Nicholas had met before.
They took off their saturated outer clothing, self-conscious that they would
drop water on the smooth timber that served as a floor, and left them in
a pile at the end of the cavern.
Drawn like moths to flame, they crossed to the fire and stood in front of
it; warming themselves. Immediately the heat made their fingers and toes
ache, but otherwise they had begun to feel much better when their unknown
host joined them.
"Take off your clothes. I have towels and robes you may use.".
He almost demanded
As if young children at their mothers request, they again did as he asked,
too relieved to greatly care for modesty.
Sat by the fire, at last warm and dry, he gave them steaming mugs of hot
goat's milk. The creamy froth laced with spicy herbs. They began to talk
as they drank the nourishing liquid.
The stranger made no enquiry as to who they may be: of their destination,
or its purpose. Instead they talked of daily things, as if it was a meeting
of old neighbors.
Nicholas felt he should explain at least why they were on the road, but
the stranger gave him no opportunity, in fact he seemed to not have the
slightest interest why they had continued to travel in such atrocious conditions.
He brushed off Nicholas's gratitude, saying only that no person should be
out in such weather. He said his name was Eridani, and he had lived in this
place 'since its construction,' he said with a laugh.
Harriet was starting to doze, her head slowly dropping low on her chest;
then suddenly sitting up straight again, only seconds later to drift off
once more. "Pray follow me young mistress," Eridani said noticing
her futile efforts to remain awake. He pulled aside a tapestry revealing
a small anteroom, furnished with a comfortable looking crib
As he returned back to the fire, Nicholas took the chance to explain that
she was his sister, and that he was taking her to the aging at Lakesend.
Eridani nodded. "She may sleep there in peace. For you I will bring
blankets, as you must make comfortable as you can on the couch young sir."
While he was out of the room Nicholas went over to the wall opposite the
fireplace. Along this wall were dozens of books and manuscripts, of all
shapes and sizes. His eyes went to a small but interesting looking volume,
bound in soft red leather. The book felt comfortable in his hands as if
it had been held in a thousand others. He opened the first page. It read
'The Legend of the Stone'.
"It is a peculiar taste in reading that you have."
Nicholas looked up embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I should have asked your
permission, but manuscripts interest me."
"Then that is the most interesting of al," he said. "For
of the writings I have, that is one that asks questions of the reader, rather
than giving him the answers he seeks."
Nicholas put the book back without a clue what was meant, and made up the
couch into a passable bed. Eridani bid him goodnight and withdrew from the
room. Nicholas lay down; cozy, warm, and feeling that safe sleep would come
soon. But sleep did not. He tossed and turned, closed and opened his eyes.
Several times he went and looked through at Harriet; she was deeply asleep.
He stared at her face for so long that he could have painted it from memory.
Her damp hair lay as if drawn oh her unblemished forehead: below her sculptured
cheek bones taking his eyes to her slightly parted; full lips. Her nose;
small and pert, between eye lashes that curled over closed eyelids. He couldn't
see her eyes, but he had already and would never forget them.
He lay down again looking into the fire; he was tired; he wanted to sleep,
but couldn't. He wondered if this was what violence did, charged the body
so much that relaxing was impossible. At last he threw the covers off, rose,
crossed the room towards the fire. His eyes were drawn to the book again
and he took it from the shelf.
Once again that feeling as if meeting an old friend enveloped him and he
sat side to the side of the fires glow and read. He turned past the page
read before; the next bore two sentences.
'As they are lived. So shall they be written', and under this, 'Chapter
one; the coming of Arthur'. He read, hungry for words, a tale the like of
he had never heard.
And as Arthur lay dying Sir Bedivere came to his
side. "Take my sword,", he said to Sir Bedivere. "..and cast
it into the lake."
Sir Bedivere protested but Arthur was adamant; so he took the sword to the
lake but as he was to throw it, he was overcome with its beauty and could
not cast it in to the dark depths. So he hid the sword in the bushes and
returned to Arthur saying. "It is done sire."
"And what did you see?" Arthur asked.
"I saw a great splash." he said.
"Traitor," said Arthur angrily. "You have disobeyed your
king. I order you to cast Excalibur into the lake."
Again Sir Bedivere went to the edge of the lake and prepared to cast the
sword but as he was about to throw it he was overwhelmed with the reputation
it command and could not cast it in to the dark depths. This time he hid
the sword inside a hollow log and returned to Arthur saying. "It is
"And what did you see?" Arthur asked.
"I saw sink below the ripples on the surface of the lake.":
"Liar," said Arthur in fury "You have disobeyed you king.
I order you to cast Excalibur into the lake."
A third time Sir Bedivere went to the lakes edge and prepared to cast the
sword, but as he was about to throw it he was overwhelmed with the power
it presented and could not cast it in to the dark depths. He looked at the
sword and knew the king would know if he refused again. This time Sir Bedivere
prized the most glorious gem from the pommel, and hid it under a stone,
so that he may at least have a part. Then he threw Excalibur as far as he
could out into the lake. He watched as it fell towards the still water and
then a wondrous thing happened. The sword turned in the air and fell hilt
first until as it was about to splash into the water, whereupon it slowed.
At that moment slender fingers emerged from the lake; reached up and grasped
the handle, drawing it beneath the surface. Sir Bedivere watched until Excalibur's
tip disappeared and there was nothing more to be seen. Sir Bedivere returned
to Arthur and said. "It is done sire."
"And what did you see?" Arthur asked.
"I saw nothing my lord, but the hand of the lady of the lake, come
take back what was hers."
And Arthur passed from this place, and was taken to the Isle of Avalon to
wait until the stone is joined and the king is returned
Nicholas turned the page entranced at the story, but it was blank, there
was nothing written there. He turned the next that too was a clean sheet
of paper. He turned another, and another, and another. They were all the
same, right to the last page, where again was written. 'As they are lived,
so shall they be written'.
Nicholas heard Harriet moving. She came through the doorway and smiled,
looking refreshed and well, as she made her way toward the alcove that obviously
served for meal preparation.
Nicholas put the book back in its place, as his thoughts turned to the young
woman. He realized that although he had only known her for such a short
while, he had feelings about her that none of the village girls had ever
stirred within him.
"Harriet can I ask you some little thing?" He said nervously.
Gone had the confidence of last night, as the old clumsy feeling returned.
Without turning from her work she replied. "You may, and if it pleases
me to tell you. I may answer."
She was not going to make this easy. "I was wondering.. if you were
... er. Betrothed.."
"Betrothed." she repeated the words slowly.
"..or spoken for ... in any way.": He added quickly thinking he
heard a trace of a giggle. But still she did not turn.
There was a silence and then she turned looking at him coyly she replied.
"Master Nicholas. What is the purpose of your question?"
" He suddenly lost what courage he had. "It
is not important." He said deflated.
But instead of turning back she held his gaze, now he realized with rising
joy that she welcomed it. Her expression was warm as she spoke. "It
is not important." she said softly. "For a moment I thought you
....." She stopped as Eridani walked through the doorway
from the outside.
He had kept rugged up the previous evening so Nicholas had not seen him
clearly, but this morning he was not as they remembered. His hair was unkempt;
his clothes were rags, torn and badly fitting. Making him look shorter than
he probably was. The dwelling and the man did not match.
"Good morning," he said. "It is a fine day to continue on
your journey. The sky is clear and the air is washed fresh."
When he had seen them fed, he took them outside.
The saddles were on the horses, and they were ready to be away, pawing the
ground restlessly, and blowing the sharp air through their nostrils.
They followed Eridani through the trees to the edge of the road and he helped
them climb up. Nicholas looked down. "Thank you friend for I believe
this would have been a sadder morn if it had not been for the meeting of
"Then till we meet again; may your journey succeed." He said with
an air of certainty.
"Strange that such a man, should live such a life." Harriet
said puzzled as back on the road they began to trot towards Lakesend.
Strange it was too, thought Nick, as he glanced back to see if Eridani was
still there, and saw no trace of the path that had showed so clear in the
It was as Eridani had forecast, a beautiful morning. It didn't even seem
as cold, but that may have been because of the sight of the orb rising;
painting the tops of the mountains pink.
They were far higher than they had been when the light failed the previous
night, and although peaks still rose above, and about them, most of the
mountain range had been surmounted.
Alongside them in a narrow deep chasm ran the now almost peaceful river.
It was hard to imagine that it would soon become the foaming white torrent
they had seen the previous day.
After a while wagons began joining the main road from lesser ones that now
began to intersect it.
It was towards midmorning, in building traffic, and while rounding a bend
that they came to see the wall.
It blocked off the entire chasm, and towering above curved away from them:
its sides seeming to grasp around a blue pool at its foot. To either side
jutted out a massive tube, each discharging a great plume of water and spray.
Nicholas would never have believed that from this, the great river was born.
Harriet could see him stare in wonder. "Impressed?"
"Never have I seen anything so awesome; at least not made by the hand
"Then take a deep breath Nicholas Day for we are entering a new land,
and into the embrace of the city of Quone where wonders abound."
He grew kind of accustomed to the sight as they continued up and reached
the level of its top. But here another incredible sight awaited him. Behind
the wall, contained by the adjacent ranges, then broadening and stretching
as far as the horizon was an immense body of water; lake or sea he had no
idea. Sunlight glinted off the deep blue of its surface, and it was dotted
with sails of all shapes. Nicholas had never seen so much water.
Harriet said nothing but she smiled again at his stare.
A road ran over the top of the Crete wall. Nicholas was not sure that he
was comfortable crossing the structure. It was plenty wide enough, but the
sight of so much clear fresh water, a man or two's height below on one side,
and a sheer drop into the chasm the other, unsettled his stomach. He at
least was glad when they were over, and standing on the other side. From
here they could see Lakesend; set in an almost enclosed bay that was iced
over. Tiny dots spread over its surface and Nicholas surmised these were
people fishing through ice holes.
As they entered the narrow streets people and wagons were everywhere;
if it could be believed, even more than there had been in Riverslee.
The house they arrived at was similar to the one in Riverslee, minus the
stables. Set in a group of ten, two lanes behind a particularly large and
They were welcomed by a middle-aged couple; the man introducing himself
as Bertram. They were told that Colen had arrived the previous evening,
and had been out most of the day. Bertram said that the horses were to be
tended to for the night, at the local stable, on the corner of the lane.
Nicholas offered to take them, and on his return to the house was shown
to his room by Bertram.
Bertram's sister Alice; provided dinner. Apparently neither had ever been
married. Nicholas wondered why, especially in Alice's case, for she was
a wonderful cook. Colen said he would visit the tavern and asked Nicholas
to accompany him, with a sly wink. Nicholas declined, preferring the company
of Harriet. They sat around the grated fire talking until late, and were
thinking of retiring when Colen returned. He seemed excited.
"I have very good news." He said excitedly. "A cousin of
mine has just this day returned from Quone, He is a lower house servant
in the Marshals household, and has overheard some of their planning; you
must come and meet with him."
It struck Nicholas that Harriet seemed too skeptical at this fortunate news.
"What are these plans Colen?" she asked doubtfully.
"He says it concerns the movement of the guard."
"In what way?" She pressed.
"Their strengths and locations. There was too much for me to remember,
I am not privy to the plans of the rebellion; but you know what is planned
and will understand how it benefits, or not, our cause."
Her concern was rising. "Then the militia is on the move?"
"Yes and no. I cannot say.". He seemed to backtrack. "He
mentions many names; villages, towns, and times. I tried to remember, but
my memory is not as good as it used to be."
"But it seems your cousin's is," she said.
"I thought you would be pleased." He was surprised at her reaction.
"The choice is yours, if I relate to you what I remember then I fear
I may by accident change them about
. And put our people in danger
of death." He added as if to emphasize the urgency.
"Alright." Harriet was obviously reluctant. "I will meet
with him Colen. If it is absolutely necessary."
"It will affect the plans of the rebellion: of that I am sure. He is
close by, in a room at the tavern on the quayside. He is there just for
the night, and must leave before daybreak to travel down to Riverslee. If
he leaves without sharing it could spell disaster for our cause.".
Nicholas took Harriet's reluctance as assign of fatigue. "I have a
good memory." he said "Harriet. You wait here and I will........
"No. No... It must be Harriet
. " Colen interrupted anxiously.
"Colen I have an excellent memory, and will make no mistake. There
is no reason for....."
"Nicholas I mean no disrespect, but you are only new with our band
and have no knowledge of what is about to take place. Harriet is our leader,
and he will not divulge what he has with no lesser.". He hesitated.
"If that was so then he could have written what was to say, and I would
have brought the message myself.". He seemed to be getting more nervous.
"Harriet must meet with him."
Nicholas looked at her. "Is that how you wish it Harriet?"
She seemed to have the same doubt and looked ill at ease with the decision,
but nodded her acceptance. "Anything that may affect the rebellion
cannot be ignored; I will go."
"Then I'll come too." Insisted Nicholas.
Harriet nodded her agreement. "Take no offence Colen; but I have become
a doubter of opportune good news. In my experience one must work for success,
as it rarely comes as a gift."
"Maybe that is so, but luck strikes in unexpected places."
"Then let us find out." She turned to Bertram. "Do not wait
up for us, this meeting may take some time."
"I will wait your return." he said. "Times have long gone,
when a man could leave his door unlocked and unattended at night.".
All was quiet except for the distant shouting from the tavern as they made
their way through the lanes. The closer they came, the more the noise from
Colen took them in the back way, and up a flight of stairs. At the top,
on a small landing stood five doors, on one of these Colen knocked softly.
There was a muffled voice from inside. "It's me
he said. There was an answer and he pushed the door open.
Except for a fire on the opposite wall, the interior was in total darkness.
As they entered they saw in front of the fire stood a man in a long cloak,
nothing could be seen of him just a black shadow against the glow. "Shut
the door." he said. "There is a lantern by the window."
Nicholas looked in the glow from the flames and saw a low table in front
of the heavy curtains. From a flint by its side, he lit the lamp, and a
yellow glow filled the room.
The shadow turned from the fire, to look at Nicholas, and ice ran through
his veins. The man was the same captain that had stood in his own house,
and accused him of murder. "You." He gasped in shock and anger.
The captain spoke quickly. "Do not do anything that would cause your
pretty young companion to die here in this room."
Nicholas glanced at her. Colen held her left arm; his right was behind her.
She thrust her chest out; away from the blade he held between her shoulders.
At the captains words the curtains had drawn aside and two armed guards
stepped from behind. One immediately jabbed his sword under Nicholas's armpit
until he felt it pushing into the soft underside of his shoulder. Another
had done the same with Harriet, releasing Colen of his task. Both guards
now stood between him and the girl. Nicholas threw a look of encouragement
that he did not feel towards her.
"It would be no surprise," said the captain to him. "To know
that I never expected we would meet again. But yet we do. You are a man
of supreme resilience, and have caused considerable trouble, not least in
humiliation for me. That is something which I will not excuse."
Nicolas was furious at how the soldier equated his mere discomfort with
the grief that he had endured. He glanced at the weapons the captain carried,
and then at Colen for some way to take his retribution.
"Let him go." Harriet pleaded; more desperately than Nicholas
was expecting. "He is not one of us. Colen will vouch for that."
The captain looked disbelievingly at Colen. "Is that so?"
"He is not one of the rebellion, but he is well known to them."
Again Harriet spoke. "Let him go. I will tell you what you want."
The captain looked at Nicholas. "Strange
You are not one of them
but she begs for your life. Why would she do that?"
Nicholas didn't know, but he hoped he did.
"Your Lord," sniveled Colen. "If you would be so good as
" he grinned pathetically. "
I should be leaving."
The Captain looked at him. "You will get the usual, and maybe more.".
He looked Nicholas in the eyes. "Our friend here has done well, all
I asked for was a rebel leader to interrogate, and he brings you."
"Let him go or I will tell you nothing." snapped Harriet.
"No?" The captain looked at her disdainfully. "I have heard
many people say such words many times before they enter the dungeons of
Quone, and experience the inquisitors in their work of persuasion. It is
always the same, at first defiance; then words pour out of their bleeding
lips in a torrent." He looked at her cruelly. "You will be begging
to be taken to the barracks pleasure rooms, while I take news of the rebellion,
." He looked at Nicholas. " ..inform the Marshal of your
long overdue death."
Nicholas stared hostilely at him. Nothing was making sense, why would the
Marshal be interested in him?
The captain was rubbing his hands together. "What a fruitful night
this has turned out to be. Believe me Nicholas of Boramulla. You have made
me a very happy man. But I must not gloat." He said gloatingly. "And
I remind you, Nicholas of Boramulla that if you are considering any sudden
heroic action I will not hesitate to kill the girl." He looked at Harriet.
"It would be a shame, but as you will no doubt already have realized,
we know all about the ageing. In fact the Lord Marshal has a full understanding
on just about all that you hope will unfold. But he is not complacent, and
insists we take every opportunity to squeeze what more can be squeezed out
of traitors like you." He leered at Harriet. "You can never have
too much information is that not so? But as I have said we know enough of
what is planned from patriots like our friend here, even if you have nothing
more to give." He glanced at Colen. "Return to the Drakken, and
let the Lord Marshal know we have what we sought, but say nothing of him.
News of his capture must come from my lips.". He looked back to Harriet.
"You will fly back with us, and if you are still able you can watch
as we surprise your rebellious rabble, with such off world power as they
cannot begin to imagine.". He turned again to Colen "Go now. Return
to your errand. Speak to no one of what has happened here
.. You have
some reason for arriving back alone?"
"I do sir. The information they heard, hastened their journey to Quone.".
"Tell them only that they have gone on. Do not elaborate; the rebels
must be ignorant of what is in plan. Go, make speed."
Colen left the room and the captain turned to Nicholas. "This is indeed
beyond success. I came to this meeting for information, and am given the
opportunity to complete a task long overdue. After all the trouble that
you have caused me, I have you Nicholas of Boramulla. At last the final
link is broken and I shall still have the honour of breaking it."
"It appears so," said Nicholas defiantly. "But what link
you speak of, I have no knowledge. I do not know why you have sought so
hard to kill me, or destroy all that I have known and loved?"
The Captain looked at him curiously, then turned and slowly walked across
to the fire. He put another log on to it. The timber steamed slightly, and
those already burning below collapsed sending out a shower of sparks that
were quickly sucked up the chimney from view. "You know nothing of
"I am a provider's son; that is all I know, and it is enough."
The captain shrugged. "I suppose it is not too much to ask of your
part in the scheme of life, when you are about to see it end. I even imagine
you feel you have the right to know who I am. Well Nicholas of Boramulla,
of that information I am proud to confess. My name is Mathew San Mons, though
that knowledge will be of little use to you." he said, still staring
into the embers. There was short silence broken only by the crackling of
the fire, before he spoke again. "You really don't know of what has
passed before; do you?" He spoke in a puzzled, questioning voice; though
he did not wait for an answer. He just shook his head in a sad gesture as
he walked over to the table in the middle of the room. Half sitting on it
he stretched his right leg toward the open fireplace. The firelight flickered
in the shine of the high boots. Still he did not look at his prisoners.
He sighed. "As a young soldier I was taught that for a man to die with
pride, he should meet with his maker in battle, with a weapon in his hand,
fighting the enemies of the state. You will not have that honor, but I will
allow you to die with some knowledge." His mood changed as if he had
reminded himself of some distant memory, and turned to face them. "Where
shall I begin; a history lesson perhaps. Not too far back in time, I would
not wish to occupy your last moments of life with that of no direct consequence."
The cruel smile that Nicholas remembered from their last meeting had returned.
"When the first Marshal took power, he did so by being the strongest,
and uniting other warlords round him. There was some opposition at first,
but he subdued them. As for the population at large: if they had any choice,
they just accepted him as leader. They saw it to be just another autocratic
regime; one was as good as another. It was normal for the times. Little
opposition as there was came from those who had held high office in previous
clans. Still he tried to be magnanimous; and felt this was best controlled
by diplomatic means. Propaganda campaigns were organized to discredit some,
well other means sufficed
." He shrugged. "Eventually
remnants of what could have been thought of as the royalist, of royal houses
accepted him. Very reluctantly true, but they accepted him. So by this time
voices raised in protests were very few, and as a gesture of reconciliation
he allowed the Royal house to continue its rule, but strictly under his
"This state of affairs continued for some time, until a movement against
him, and those loyal to the old ruling system began to grow in strength.
Of course it was totally forbidden to become a member, but more and more
misguided took the risk to join with this movement. With such support, ultimately
the Royal household rebelled against him, and stated they would publicly
denounce what they termed as his corrupt practices. It was then the decision
was taken to remove all dissent by any means required. Patrols were dispatched
to take all of the royal families, and their supporters into custody, they
were to be disposed of in labour camps or permanently removed.
All went as planned until while mopping up one branch, it became known that
a princess Tanalee, a descendant of an important Northern Royal family had
given birth to a child days before her own death. This information failed
to find its way to the Marshal, and because of that it
. But I digress;
the short story is that this child was spirited into obscurity. Rumours
sprang up; they always do, and while they persisted, there was no proof.
That is until more rumours began to spread saying that the heir was approaching
the age of rule. This gave your rebels their rallying call, and they became
bolder. It was then that I amoung others were given the task of finding
and removing this last link. The last remaining rallying post. The last
legitimate claimant to the house of Loc-Sie." He fell silent staring
at Nicholas. "But when I arrived to serve that cause; he, as now the
child was a young man, had gone." Mathew spoke without doubt. "You
have the ring?"
What he was listening to seemed not to concern him, but the mention of the
ring suddenly brought back his attention. "Ring?"
"It wasn't in the house when the Alderman took it over, and we know
he was telling the truth, so it can only be with one other person: you."
"I can have you stripped if you prefer?"
"You have you facts wrong I am nobody but Nicholas Day of Boramulla."
"Don't let us waste time playing games. It was in the house when we
were there. The only other option is that you took it the night you murdered
one of our guard. We know you have it, as we could not find the ring at
your dwelling when it was resumed." He glanced at Harriet. "I
have already said that we know all we need to know so show it to me."
He nodded to the guard holding Harriet. The man moved his sword a little
making her whimper in response.
Nicholas took the pouch from around his neck and took the ring from it.
Mathew looked at it eagerly. "Go ahead put it on."
Nicholas slipped it onto his finger. It felt cold to the touch, but comfortable.
The opaque stone seemed to reflect the lamplight. He could have sworn that
for a moment it appeared wet. A brief flash of colour seemed to appear from
deep down inside, as if one could see through it. His eyes were playing
tricks on him. Nicholas looked at Mathew.
"Bring him over to the light." Mathew said to the guard. "
be wary of him." He looked at Nicholas's hand. "
It is said
that the ring once placed on a finger, would know the chosen one, and will
indicate they who have the right to rule. If that is so, we will all see
the true heir to the Royal house
Nicholas looked again, but the ring was as it had been before, a beautiful
but simple trinket. He was not sure if Mathew had seen the brief flash of
colour and depth; for that matter he was not sure he had either. "As
I have said then you have the wrong person.". He confidently stretched
out his arm.
Mathew looked at him.
"See for yourself. The ring is nothing but a ring, and I am no other
than the Nicholas Day who I claim to be." Nicholas's eyes caught those
of Harriet's. There was something in them he sought to understand. She was
trying to tell him something. Her lips were moving, but no sound came out.
Her eyes turned to the guard behind him.
"Let me see." snapped Mathew.
As he moved forward the silence was broken as Harriet screamed. "Warn
them Nicholas." Uttering her cry, she lunged for the sword of the guard
holding her. Her bare hands closed about the blade, pulling it down while
the guard tried to pull it from her grasp. Blood poured out between her
fingers, as the blade sliced through her flesh to the bone as she tightly
held on. Suddenly her grip failed and the man's reflexes thrust the blade
up into her body. Making barely a gasp she took the sword deep into her
chest cavity. He eyes were wide, and then rolled up as she slumped forward
dragging the sword from the guard's hands.
For moments even Mathew was stunned. The scream of Harriet's sacrifice had
taken them all by surprise. The suicidal lunge had been totally unexpected
and for an instant the guards forgot Nicholas. In that same space of time
he twisted away and reached down for the cuff of his trousers. The movements
were smooth; two fingers lifting the material, the other three drawing the
knife from its sheath. At the same time his other hand deflected the guard's
blade with a flat slap to his arm. Then with the power of his tensed leg
muscled he brought the knife up under the jaw of the man so violently, that
the soldier was lifted into the air. Instantly the man died and Nicholas
spun to see the other guard roughly pulling the sword from Harriet's bleeding
body; using his foot on her face. Nicholas's single angry slash almost severed
his head from his body.
Barely three seconds had passed as he turned to the captain
Mathew was drawing his sword. Nicholas knew this would not be like the other
encounters. The Veldt were poorly trained; the men in the tavern had been
no more than thugs, but this time he faced an expert. No matter how skilled
he was, a knife was no match for a sword in competent hands.
Nicholas made his decision and flicked his wrist, spinning the short knife
into the air in a low arc; briefly splattering traces of blood around the
room. In slow motion Nick saw it gain a little height, then fall slightly
The captain saw it too, his eyes opening wide he had time to utter a terrified.
"No." before the blade buried deeply into his throat. Whatever
else he would have said was lost in a gargling sound made through the now
open windpipe in his neck.
It was finished, the man who now lay dying before him, had destroyed him
twice. How much grief was he to endure. He was doubly cursed; if what Mathew
had said; he had and lost two families, and now the only one who he had
ever begun to love.
There was a whimper behind him. He spun around. Harriet was still alive.
He was quickly at her side cushioning her head. Her lips were moving, but
the words were too faint. Nicholas leaned close to her mouth.
"...Be.. my... white night.... give me a vict..ory to die for..."
She said her voice failing.
"Be quiet; save your strength."
"... I wish...it could have.... been... different for
No don't." he sobbed. "You can't
.I love you."
Tears were streaming over his cheeks.
She said nothing more as she began to lose consciousness.
The cuts almost made his heart stop. They were deep and wide. "Oh where
are you now Reigel with your knowledge," he wept.
Through tear soaked eyes he quickly packed the wound below her shoulder,
with a wad torn from his own shirt; and bound it with strips torn off the
table cover; until the flow of blood was partly stemmed. Then he bound still
more around her body so that she could not move her arm. Her delicate fingers
hung back from her hand. Three were almost totally severed. The bleeding
from these wounds was not as bad as had been the flow from under her arm,
but if these deep gashes had have been the only damage to her frail body
it still would have been a fearful injury. She was unconscious now, her
shallow, labored breathing causing Nicholas to fear that every breath would
be her last.
Alexi's words that he should accept others sacrifice's for him rang in his
brain. He didn't want a kingdom; all he wanted was slowly fading from his
world. Carefully lifting her he carried her out the back way. The patrons
of the tavern still shouting and singing, oblivious to the dreadful events,
or to their flight.
Running as best he could, he carried her through the dark alleys to the
house from where they had started. Leaning back against the door he kicked
with his heel against the stout timber.
"Wait. Patience. Patience. I'm coming." The door was opened by
Bertram; slightly annoyed by the repeated kicking. He took one look. "Mother
of mercy what has happened?"
Nicholas didn't reply as he entered. Bertram quickly led him to the small
kitchen. "Lay her upon the table." he almost ordered.
Alice walked into the room disturbed by the commotion.
The move and run from the tavern had caused the blood to start flowing again,
staining Harriet's clothes deep red.
Alice pushed the men out of the way. "She bleeds too fast." Alice
said trying with her bare hands to stop the flow. She turned urgently to
her brother. "You must fetch Malcome?"
He said nothing, but the look he returned her took every hope from Nicholas.
"Go Bertram, Go get him
. for what it is worth."
The man left the room.
"We have a friend who has sympathy to our cause, he is well versed
in the treatment of illness. He can make medicines, and has attended to
wounds before." Her voice trailed away. " .... He will help; if
help any can."
Nicholas looked at Harriet. He had seen his parents; or the people he knew
and loved as his parents, and he had seen his brother, all three in pools
of their lifeblood. He had been devastated beyond words. But somehow this
was different. For some reason watching this young girl; a girl who in truth
he hardly knew; die before his eyes tore the soul from his body. He had
never felt such loss as he felt at this moment, and he wished never to feel
it again. He looked up at Alice. She was looking at him. He did not speak,
but she did.
"Nicholas. The damage is grave. She has lost more blood than she can
afford. Malcome is a good man, but he cannot work miracles, and that is
what we need. You must be strong, and prepare for the worst."
Several minutes later Bertram returned and almost forced Nicholas away.
"Let Malcome do what he can." He said pulling him into the adjoining
room. "I need to know what happened?"
Nicholas slumped into the chair. Bertram looked at him, a thousand questions
in his eyes. "It was Colen. He led us into a trap. The guard were waiting."
Bertram shook his head. Then our plans are known?"
Nicholas told him what had happened in the room. "I don't know if Colen
told others beyond the captain of your part, but you too must flee and warn
what others you can."
"I fear that is easier said than done. They will have scattered like
husks in the wind. Some we may find in time, others will lay low until
They will have to fend for themselves when it all begins."
"It can't still go ahead. The plans are known." snapped Nicholas
"Neither can it be stopped Nicholas. We have no communications. That
is; was, our strength. Groups work and operate by themselves. To contact
each and every one is next to impossible."
"But you must try. There will be bloodshed beyond belief ."
"There will. But like Harriet they will offer that sacrifice.".
"This is madness." snapped Nicholas in frustration.
"Of course it is, but it is a disorder that affects all those oppressed.
Harriet gave her life for a chance to save the rebellion. Not delay it,
or stop it; but to save it Nicholas, and should I walk down the path that
she now walks, heaven pray that I do it with half the courage that a child
has shown to me.".
Nicholas had no words.
"I will warn what others I can, and do my best to save what can be
saved, but run; no, we shall stay here: but you must go."
"No." Nicholas protested firmly. "Whatever the consequence
I shall stay with her."
"Nicholas." said Bertram equally firmly. "Were not her dying
words, begging you to save what you could of the rebellion?"
Nicholas's voice almost broke. "I can't leave her: I don't know what
to do; where to go. I must be with her."
"No." Bertram almost commanded. "She did not die for you
to waste your life here. You must go to Quone. I will give you an address.
Go there, and you do what you can, at least it will give worth to her martyrdom."
." He was almost sobbing now.
Bertram's voice became softer. "Nicholas nothing can be changed here,
but it can in Quone. You must do what you can for Harriet's sake. Now go;
we will meet all again at the celebrations before the gates of Quone; or
as spirits in the afterlife; for we have lived too long as slaves to endure
a day longer." He looked up at Alice as she came into the room.
She looked at Nicholas sadly. "Malcome has done what little he can.
She grows weaker. Nicholas the time has come for you to say your farewell."
They left him alone with her. She looked pale; a deathly white, but peaceful,
and still unbelievably beautiful.
Alice had moved her to the bed, and had covered her with a warm blanket.
She looked to Nicholas almost as if she was asleep. He remembered the night
in the cavern when he had sneaked in to look at her while she had slept.
He had begun to cry again, and reached into his pocket for a kerchief, and
felt the ring. He pulled it out and looked at it. "Damn you and all
you stand for." he sobbed. "But if this is truly the ring of a
" His voice began to fail him. "
be I him or not,
then I give it to my queen, for without you, there is nothing in any kingdom
that I desire." He could hardly speak now. "One day
He sobbed. "I would have slipped my band of gold around your finger,
now this will be my eternal bond to you." It was far too large to fit,
and the only finger on her hand that was least undamaged was her index finger,
he placed the ring along it; curling the tip around the band. As he held
her, and it touched both of their flesh, colour burst out of its depths
in such a kaleidoscope that for an instant it made him turn his aching eyes
away. Suddenly Harriet gasped, and her body went into a spasm. Then it became
rigid: relaxed, and still. All signs of life seemed gone.
Nicholas knelt besides her sobbing for some time before he could stand and
gently let down her hand. He didn't notice that the finger uncurled and
hung down, or that by all logic the man's ring should have slipped from
it. But it did not slip off. It held comfortable and tightly around her
Time had run out for them all, and with a heavy heart he quickly said goodbye
to Bertram and Alice. Thanking them for what they had done.
He asked that they care for Harriet's resting-place, and almost ran from
the house, save they should see the welling up in his eyes or the grief
that he could no longer hold back.
Continued in book 2 ----- Prophecy
- Against all Odds