Saturday, February 6, 2016

The King's Challenge #204 and #205

TKC 204 and 205

A press of people await us in the first cave, warming the space. I am thankful for it, being thoroughly wet from the continuing downpour outside.

“This will not do,” Kay mutters as he shifts past me. “Everyone, listen now! Those with children move into the cave to the back there.” He points to a curved entrance. “Women looking after our young, please go with them.”

The space empties swiftly. Someone lights a rush torch beyond, for amber glows soon flicker in the arch.

“Couples please go left,” Kay continues.

Men and women holding hands move towards an opening to the left. Someone calls back, a man’s voice, “There’s firewood here!”

Excellent. We are able to make more light and cook food.

“Everyone else, take the right,” Kay says in a normal tone, for there are not too many left in the first cave. He grins when a younger man mutters about being put with the old folks.

Hal stands in the entrance, arms folded, legs braced, watching the rain. A sheet of water cascades from on high, but beyond is only darkness. “We need to close this.”

I join him. He is right. The entrance is not that large, but it will be visible to anyone outside. “How?” I ask.

He cranes his head backward, eyes darting. “Marian!”

The Messenger shouts from the cave to the right. “Here!” She steps out and hastens over.

“We need to close this,” Hal tells her as Kay and I glance at each other. What is the meaning of this?

Marian is quiet, staring at the older man. Then she looks at me before flicking one over Kay also. “I don’t know, Hal,” she murmurs.

I understand her dilemma. She has a talent and is uncertain as to her reception if she reveals it. “I am a Healer,” I say. “My brother is a Delver and my sister-in-law is, in my opinion, an Elemental first, although she has more talents than simply one. You will not be judged, Marian.”

Marian nods and finally smiles. “Damin married the lady Lyra, did he?”

I laugh. “Under the stars, yes.” Considering we always say ‘by the stars’ it is somewhat amusing.

“It has more worth,” Marian responds. “They chose each other.”

Indeed. I force myself not to look at Kay. I hear him clearing his throat … and a flush of heat suffuses my cheeks.

Marian winks and turns to Hal. “A rock fall?”

He seems removed from present company. Marian nudges him and he focuses to meet my gaze. “Damin Mur is a Delver?”

Kay steps in. “He is. What of it?”

“I am a Delver,” Hal states.

Clarity infuses my entire being. “You can talk to him!”

He offers a wry shrug and smile. “I can try. It is a fair distance.”

Kay smacks his palms together. “By the sands, now that will help.”

Marian narrows her eyes. “By the sands?” she echoes.

Kay endows her with a cold gaze. “I am from the west. There are others here with us also from the west. Is that a problem?’

I move to stand before Kay, giving both Hal and Marian a wary look. “We are in this together.”

Marian smiles. “We are, and I am relieved we have skills from all over with us.” Hal nods apace to her words.

I deflate. Chuckling under his breath, Kay whispers in my ear, “My beautiful defender.” Again heat overcomes my face. It is as well we are not alone … for … he laughs softly again, and I force my thoughts into obedience.

Grinning, Marian faces the rain-drenched outside. She lifts her hands, fingers open. Staring out, she abruptly clenches her fingers into fists and punches the air. Instantly she opens them again.

Rock and stone tumbles into the arch and darkness takes us.

Dante: The Nine Circles of Hell

Friday, February 5, 2016

The King's Challenge #202 and #203

TKC 202 and 203

There is no sign of ships overhead and yet we feel their presence. A sense of doom settles over everyone, characterised by how often folk jerk their heads upward to check the sky. As we race across the last stretch of wildflowers, there is no talk. Even the children understand now is the time to make haste.

The horses are exhausted when we halt at the foot of the plateau in the early dark hours. The darkness is without any points of light; the stars appear masked and there is no moon. I wonder if great ships occlude the stars to create this sense of abandonment. Sunrise seems very far away and I know I cannot be alone in hoping the sun will actually appear again.

Fear has reached long tentacles into our minds, hearts and souls. This is how the Glonu operate and no one is immune.

I hope that Damin and Lyra and all the others still trapped inside Arc will cope with the fear; they are where it will be deployed to the greatest effect.

Hal, after telling us that the Messengers have always had access to hidden scrolls, thereby explaining his understanding of what is happening to Massin’s people, joins Kay and I in leading this small gathering of survivors. As we left the site of the burials, he intimated we, this five hundred, may be the last of the last soon. Kay did not refute him, and therefore I understand the Glonu will be merciless.

We may be the last indeed; we have to survive.

Hal takes the lead into the caves. Bearing a smoking torch, he summons four young men to him, saying they will investigate first. Kay calls for everyone to put their gear on their backs; we may have to run at a moment’s notice.

Activity increases then, as does talk. A low murmur settles in amongst us.

Kay hefts my pack as well. “We must pray for more rain,” he says, “to wipe away the hoof prints to this place.”

I look up, but the same strange blackness is overhead. One cannot tell a cloud from a great winged bat. “What about the horses?”

He shrugs. “Depends what is inside that plateau.”

Hal returns then, marching to where we wait. “It needs cleaning, but the caves are uninhabited and seem sound. There is a water source, which fills me with relief.”

“How many? How large?” I ask, thinking of the horses.

It is as if Hal reads my mind, and immediately I wonder if he is a Delver like to Damin. “The horses cannot come. How do we feed them? They have a greater chance at survival if we let them go. After these rains there is enough for them to eat.”

“Agreed,” Kay states. “How many caves, do you estimate?”

The Messenger shrugs. “We have only entered those easily accessible, but they will accommodate us. Seven upon first view. We can investigate further once we are inside.” He sighs then. “It will not be easy living in darkness.” Drawing himself up, he adds, “I’ll see to the horses.”

“We will take them in,” I say, gazing sadly at this small gathering. Are we the last?

Hal heads off and Kay motions to the men to start the ingress. Gradually the plain empties of people. The horses thunder off into the distance until they are lost from view.

It feels as if our world empties of all hope as well.

“We will get through this, Siri,” Kay whispers at my shoulder.

I turn into his waiting arms and hold onto him. He is now my reason for living, for enduring. He is my Hope.

Wetness hits my shoulder, and then rain hurtles to earth.

Perhaps hope is not as lost as I believe.

Magic exists

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The King's Challenge #200 and #201

The 200th episode ... and more!

TKC 200 and 201

It rains for two days. We plod on, making steady progress. At night we huddle together for warmth, although there is not much of it. Another day is spent in traversing a waterlogged landscape under an overcast sky. The wind has a bite; everyone soon shivers in clothes that refuse to dry out.

Kay glances up periodically and I know what he is thinking. We will not see the ships arrive if cloud hides the heavens from view. He does not like it. I do not either.

We have not mentioned that threat to the Messengers, because there may be Glonu among them. We have revealed the slavery system Arc operates under to explain why going there is not the best plan.

On the fifth day the plains burst into riotous colour. Under a blue sky, every seed and bulb waiting for the dryness to end erupts into flower. What a display! I am awed and humbled … and grateful beyond measure for this sign of incredible beauty. Life is definitely worth living. I am not alone in this. The children laugh again and whenever we stop they clamber down to create pretty posies, which they then clutch close as we travel onward. The adults smile more.

The plateau grows in height to the east, a decided dark line on the horizon ever higher. Now we are able to see where it begins to descend, and Kay corrects our course slightly to aim for that point.

On the sixth day the cliffs, boulders, scree slopes, and darkened holes of potential caves become obvious. We will be there by mid-morning on the morrow.

On that same sixth day, however, something changes and it has nothing to do with the landscape.

Kay has kept the Messengers close and therefore the sudden and strange gyrations among them cannot be ignored, hidden or remain unnoticed.

Seven men and one woman stiffen in their saddles, stretching upright as if their spines are being pulled into the atmosphere. Arms flail upwards as well, and heads roll back with a neck-snapping sound. Their horses begin to buck.

“Get back!” Kay shouts at those closest, and edges his mount to the side as well. He turns to find me and gestures me closer.

“What is this?” I whisper as I join him.

“The ships are here,” he states. “They are reacting to the Glonu call.”

By the stars! My mouth hangs open. Eyes wide, I watch them. Abruptly their heads return to a normal position … and then they look at us.

“Go!” Kay screams, swirling his hand in the air in the onward sign. “Head for the caves!”

A thunderous sound erupts as men and women urge their horses into full gallop.

“Siri, go!” Kay shouts.

I go, but I do not like it. Kay is on his own with seven Glonu now aware of their fate. A hundred paces removed, I halt my horse and look back.

Kay has drawn his sword and holds it ahead of him, while controlling his mounts with his other hand tight on the reins. He cannot do this alone! I am about to race back to his side when two men gallop past me. One is a Messenger – Hal, in fact – and the other is a young man I know as ‘Sleepy’. The women are always ragging him about his need for sleep; I do not know his real name.

They race to Kay’s side with weapons out.

It is ugly. Death in this manner is ugly. While the Glonu are still stiffened in their saddles, our three move in and slaughter them. Bodies topple to the wildflower earth, accusing in their stillness. Sleepy then rounds up the horses, his face without expression.

Closing in, I hear Kay say, “We must bury them or they will rise again.”

Hal slowly nods. “This is why you said nothing. They are Glonu? Of course they are and you needed to know that first.” He turns to look at me as I slide of my horse. “The ships have arrived?”

Standing amid death upon a field recently awakened to life, Kay and I stare at the Messenger.

The Writer's Rule Book?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review - Four Days with Hemingway's Ghost

The King's Challenge #198 and #199

TKC 198 and 199

There are five hundred of us for four hundred spare horses. The children will ride with an adult each and some of the lighter women will double up. It means, as the sun climbs into the sky, we are all mounted as we set out.

I know I am not the only one relieved to be off my feet. I shy away from the sobering fact that only five hundred made it out of Arc again, when one hundred thousand plateau dwellers went in. And more from the west.

Around midday the heavens begin to darken as clouds roll in. It is still the wet season, given the size of the rivers. Although not much rain usually falls out here, that is about to change, by all appearances. A downpour or two will soon drench us.

As the air grows ever moister, a woman nudges her mount into position alongside me. “Alyssa?” I murmur. I have not seen much of the noblewoman since we entered Arc. She kept away from the main discussions, not doubt to spare Lyra’s feelings. I wonder now if she knows Damin and Lyra are wed. “Where is Emily?” Her sister is ever by her side, but I do not see her.

“Hello, Siri. Emily went south with the work teams … and was not there when the portal opened for us.” Alyssa swallows convulsively.

“I am sorry.” I am sorry, but how is it possible one sister was Glonu and the other is Ilfin?

“We are nor biological sisters,” Alyssa says quietly. Clearly she sees the direction my thoughts lead me. “They are dead, aren’t they? All those sent south?”

Kay did not explain about Damin and Mirlin’s mission to the south; he merely repeated what Lyra said on her boulder – Arc attacked them. Blinking, I admit, “They are dead, yes.”

Alyssa releases a pent-up breath. “I was right. Damin separated us and the Glonu went south, but it was not Arc that attacked them. Damin killed them.”

“While I do not expect you to understand, know that the Glonu sacrifice allowed us to move through the barrier.” I stare at the woman. “Alyssa, my brother is not a killer. He did what needed doing and I swear he did not like doing it.”

Her eyes harden. “You do not know your brother very well.” Fury erupts in red spots upon her face, but she holds it in. “I assume you prefer the others not to know of your murder campaign? I will not say a word, but know this, Siri Mur. Your brother is marked.” Alyssa then turns her horse aside and vanishes into the massed riders.

My brother was marked the day he left Grenmassin, I understand, and he has as many enemies as he has supporters. Alyssa better watch herself, though. Damin is my brother.

Kay shifts in alongside. “Women bear greater grudges than men do. Do not laugh her off.”

Grimacing, I mutter, “I intend to watch her, do not fear.” Then, looking at him, I ask, “And you, Kay? You lost someone close to you as well. Is Damin on your hit list?”

He is silent so long, I wonder if he has any intention of answering, but eventually he says, “I have no quarrel with Damin.”

There is something more in his tone. “But?” I prompt.

He sends me a dead look. “Mirlin needs to explain himself.”

I look away. We all carry so many emotional burdens now; much of who we were weeks ago has been smothered. “I hope you can forgive him.”

“Yes, I hope so as well,” Kay utters in a grim tone.

The rain arrives then, a deluge.

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Pretty shells

Review: The Wasteland Chronicles (Omnibus Edition)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The King's Challenge #196 and #197

TKC 196 and 197

We join the Messenger camp and soon most everyone is asleep. Tomorrow we will make up time on horseback. The horses count to over four hundred, and I am amazed we did not hear them as we closed in. Apparently they are foraging further out, under watch.

Brant, a young man who only recently joined the Messengers, informs us that when the asteroid became visible in the day sky, they decided to round up all their horses and herd them onto the plain. A Messenger, he claims, is as nothing without his horse; he grins as he says it, knowing he speaks only truth.

“Many Messengers had already gone to spread the word south and west and thus left with the Great March …”

My eyebrows lift. So that is what they call our desperate flight across the dryness?

“… and therefore we were few,” Brant continues, “but we love our mounts and so …” He lapses into silence, grimacing.

Another takes up the tale, an older man. “The soldiers started rounding them up … for slaughter. We could not stand back and allow that to happen.”

“We lost many Messengers in confrontation with the soldiers,” a woman murmurs.

“There was much panic and chaos,” Brant whispers. “People can be so cruel.”

Swallowing, I ask, “What is the situation on the plateau now?”

The older man answers. “My name is Hal and I was one of the last to leave. I saw was units of cavalry capturing folk who ran to escape the fireball. Chaos is a kind word. How it goes now, after the rock went on its way? We don’t know and we don’t want to know.”

“You chose to remain on the plains?” I prod.

“Much better out here, and safer for the horses too,” the woman adds.

“How do you eat?” Kay blurts.

She smiles at him. “Says the city boy, right? There is always food; you just have to know where to find it. Tubers in this dry earth are pretty nourishing.”

“Taste like crap, though,” Brant grumbles.

“Cease your prattle,” the woman laughs. “It keeps you alive, not so?”

“What is your name?” I ask.

“Marian.” She bobs her head.

“Do you know Hanna?”

Her eyes brighten. “Hanna made it to Arc? And Joseph? Did he? Those two were always meeting up in the most unlikely places!”

Hal bursts into laughter. “I once caught them snogging behind a well in Normur!”

Smiling, I say, “They made it. Both are with Damin …”

“The Marsh Devil lives?” Brant exclaims.

I give him the eye. “His name is Damin Mur and he is my brother. He is no devil.”

Crestfallen, he apologises. “But it’s great he is with the people, isn’t it? He knows how to do stuff.”

Yes, that describes Damin. I laugh. “It’s great, yes.”

“Why are you leaving Arc,” Hal questions then, staring at Kay in particular. “It is meant to be a haven, is it not? We are, in fact, slowly meandering that way with the horses.”

Kay squeezes his eyes shut. “Arc is not a haven. Arc is a trap.”

Gasps erupt from those around the fire with us. “How so?” Marian asks.

He tells them then about the ghostly residents seeking souls to create forever slaves. He speaks of the barrier in place between us and them. Briefly he mentions the Glonu, saying they are the ancients still living in their manner inside that bowl of mountains.

The older man’s eyes narrow. “You are not telling us everything.”

I jump in before Kay does tell everything. There is no telling who is Glonu among us at this fire. “We have our reasons and we will tell you when we know you better.” I smile then, knowing it will disarm the man. “Right now I am too weary to grapple with those issues.”

“Yes, let them sleep first,” Marian murmurs, sending me a wink.