Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Mamelon - Chapter 12


The only tried and tested approach to the Purple Mountains lay by way of the Dragon Hills, an undulation that formed an arc around an arid expanse commonly known as Fah-y-Noor, the Great Desert, or translated literally, Place of Skulls. A more direct route would be to cross the desert itself, but few had ever attempted that and lived to tell the tale. Ka had warned his son to keep to the hills. First, though, they had to find a way out of the swamps.
      “We should be able to see the Dragon Hills soon,” announced Pers after consulting the map his father had lent him.
      “I’ve heard that before,” muttered Kirin ruefully. The two elves exchanged meaningful glances. But if Pers was concerned, his friendly smile gave nothing away and his tone was reassuring enough.
      Not for the first time, Mick found himself wishing that Kirin had stayed behind, Irina, too, for that matter.  He liked Pers and trusted him. The others made him feel at best uncomfortable, at worst uneasy. The elf girl was always flirting with him. While not encouraging her, exactly, neither could he ignore the strength of his own feelings. She was very beautiful. He had never known such desire, such lust. It ate away at his insides like a cancer. On the other hand, the very idea that he should fall for an elf was absurd. Besides, it didn’t need a genius to work out that she was spoken for. Kirin could hardly keep his eyes off her. And there’s Beth. He worried about his girlfriend  all the time, wondering if she was safe, alive even. Guiltily, he tried to tell himself that Irina meant nothing to him. At the same time, he knew it was a lie.
      “Trust me,” said Pers placidly and would have laid a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder, but Kirin moved away and continued to sulk.
      “We’ve been trudging through this infernal swamp for the best part of a lifetime,” Kirin exaggerated as usual, “and I’m sick of it. It’s not fair on Irina,” he added as if anticipating accusations of self-pity.
      “I can speak for myself, thank you!” retorted Irina. She stole a look at Michal, called Mick, hoping for some moral support. Aggrieved at finding none, she went on ahead.
      “Irina, wait!” called Pers. But she did not falter or look back. Her brother flung a look of mock despair at the others. “She has a mind of her own, my sister! It won’t be long now, I promise. But we must keep together.” He ran after her, Mick close on his heels. Kirin trailed behind, but was careful to keep his companions in view.
      Pers sighed. They had barely set out, yet already their journey was proving more difficult than he had foreseen.  For elves to venture beyond the Forest of Gar was never easy. It was an alien experience. As if having to negotiating bog and swamp wasn’t hardship enough, there were tensions among them he could have well done without.  Irina had made her feelings for the motherworlder perfectly clear.  Michal,  for his part, appeared not to reciprocate. Pers could not suppress a grin. Irina’s growing irritation with Michal troubled him, but he could also see the funny side. His lovely, wilful sister did not take too kindly to rejection. Oh, but nor does Kirin. The grin faded as, for the umpteenth time, he questioned the wisdom of allowing either to make this journey. He should have stood firm. Even so, it was good to have the company of fellow elves. Only too well did he understand why a dark shadow often fell across the motherworlder’s face for a terrible homesickness dogged them all every step of the way.
      Kirin suddenly took it into his head to chase after Irina. He put on a spurt, soon overtaking Pers and the motherworlder, and quickly caught up with her.  Irina coolly ignored him and concentrated wholly upon a gap in the trees just ahead. The ugly, foul smelling landscape offended Irina’s elven senses in a way she had not thought possible. Worse, though, was the knowledge that Michal did not appreciate her sacrifice in the least. She ran faster and was the first to burst through the trees into the full glare of a sunlight they has barely glimpsed through thick foliage for days.
      Kirin joined Irina, slightly breathless and too overcome with relief at escaping the swamps to say a word.  The others caught up in no time. No one spoke, each considering the spectacular view confronting them with mixed feelings. They were standing on a rise that, directly ahead, sloped steeply into a sparse plain that, in turn, appeared to extend into a vast expanse of unrelieved desert as far as the naked eye could see. It was an awe-inspiring and terrible sight .
      To the west, a curious rock formation snaked in an erratic half-circle towards a purple mist that Mick rightly guessed to be the mountains they sought.  It, too, had a beauty all its own. At the same time, it conveyed a hostility that sent shivers down the spine. To the east, a gentler but no less awesome undulation seemed to head in the off at a tangent to the direction from which they had just come before in curving inwards and finally disappearing in the same purple haze. 
      Mick groaned. He had expected to feel excitement, at the very least relief at sighting their goal, however distantly. Instead, he experienced only disappointment. He felt momentarily crushed by weariness and apprehension. He was angry, too. He did not belong here, after all. He began to reflect how his brother and Beth might be faring out there somewhere, facing all manner of dangers, even death. The prospect, although alarming, fed his anger and strengthened his resolve. His flagging senses rallied.
      “The Dragon Hills!” exclaimed Pers, unable to quite conceal either triumph or relief as he let his gaze wander hopefully eastward.  “That is the way must go.”
      “Surely the other way is quicker?” said Mick, pointing to the narrower arc of reddish rock.
      Pers shook his head. “That is the dragon’s head. It is almost as dangerous to cross as the desert itself.” He glanced at the arid expanse below them and gave a shudder.  Its ghastly beauty had an almost hypnotic effect on the observer. Hastily averting his gaze from Fah-y-Noor, Place of Skulls, he let his eyes follow the gentler range of hills that made up the dragon’s tail.  His relief knew no bounds. For lately he had begun to doubt his own navigational skills. It had been a lonely time for he hadn’t liked to confide in the others. Weren’t elves supposed to excel in such matters and hadn’t his father made him expedition leader?
      “It is good to feel free again!” Irina flung here arms wide as if to embrace the entire unfolding landscape.
     “Don’t hold your breath!” muttered Mick and pointed.  Farther along the ridge, creatures whose scaly bodies glittered in the sunshine had also grouped to contemplate the view.
      “Krills!” hissed Kirin in wide-eyed disbelief. “What are krills doing here? Have they not done us enough harm that they must torment us even now?” His tone was harsh, not at all elf-like. On impulse, Irina put her arms around him and gave him a hug. His expression changed in an instant, radiating such joy that Mick and Pers had to look away although not before exchanging glances of mute exasperation. Both experienced a sharp stab of irritation with Irina.  Mick brooded upon it for some time, but Pers, could never be angry with his sister for long. True, it was unfair to give Kirin false hope. Yet, Irina meant no harm, he was sure of it. She adored Kirin, only not in the way he desired.  His heart went out to his friend. For neither did he doubt that Kirin’s passion would remain unrequited.
      The krills had not seen them. For a moment, Pers’ thoughts were hung up on Michal’s telling expression. They all needed to pull together. If Kirin’s feelings for Irina made him something of a liability, the motherworlder was not helping. Pers had sensed all along that Michal was not entirely impervious to Irina’s attempts to seduce him with every passing glance. Even so, the very fact that the young motherworlder had gone out of his way to discourage her lent him a new respect in the elf’s eyes.
      Suddenly, a distant shout went up. The krills had seen them!
      “Back to the swamp…!” Mick yelled and broke into a run.
    “To the swamp!” echoed Pers, and wasted no time joining him. Side by side, elf and motherworlder plunged into the vile undergrowth once more. Each assumed that Kirin and Irina were close behind, but there was no time to look.  Not until they came upon a clump of reeds and brush that offered a likely hiding place did they turn, breathlessly, to urge the others to hurry. They saw no one. They waited, fidgeting with mere impatience at first. Gradually, annoyance was replaced with a growing feeling of dread. Another mute exchange passed between the two friends. Again, each understood the other completely. Besides, there was nothing else for it.
      They hid.
     A sickening sense of déjà vu overwhelmed Mick and his blood ran cold. He couldn’t help recalling that other occasion when, hunted by bog folk, he had panicked and abandoned his brother and girlfriend to fend for themselves. Pete! Beth! he screamed over and over in his head. Shivering in silence, he was forced to relive the horror of that night as well as this new threat. Pers pressed against him. Instinctively, Mick placed a protective arm around his friend’s shoulders and drew him close. The elf made no resistance. Each was grateful, not only for the other’s reassurance but their body warmth.
      A tightness around Mick’s heart and an appalling dryness in his mouth gradually lessened. His blood pressure returned to near normal. He even achieved a state of calmness albeit one he found contradictorily unnerving given that krills were less than a hand’s stretch away.  Certainly, neither the hunters’ evil looks nor the menacing nature of their grunts left any room for doubt. They were enjoying the sport. Nor would they settle for less than a kill. No way! Mick tossed an unspoken challenge to the krill nearest to him that, as if on cue, promptly thrust a spear into the bushes where he and Pers crouched; it missed them by a hair’s breadth.
      Time and time again, it seemed they must be discovered. Other spears plunged and probed their hiding place. One grazed Mick’s shoulder and it was all he could do not to cry out. Another penetrated Mick’s tunic and drew blood. It was Pers, though, who almost gave them away.  Yet another spear narrowly missed the terrified elf’s ear. Mick felt rather than saw his friend panic. Spontaneously, he pulled the elf even closer, placed a hand over the already half-open mouth and kept it there until the garbled cry was nothing but a wet patch on his palm. An irrational sense of responsibility for the elf flared in Mick. It was a new experience that, disconcertingly, he found rather to his liking. A sense of responsibility, he had to admit, was not a trait he would normally have owned up to.
      A distant yell followed by raised voices in a sickening cackle of triumph and glee needed no explanation. Kirin and Irina had been taken captive. 
       A few krills continued to search nearby, but not for long. Mick and Pers continued to huddle waist-deep among reeds, hardly daring to draw breath. Once, they heard Irina scream. Mick felt his companion tense and go rigid against him. It did not need a glance to know that he was weeping, silently, but uncontrollably. Pers was at the end of his tether. Mick gave the elf’s heaving shoulders a reassuring squeeze. The grip on his fingers tightened. Mick clenched his teeth, but made no attempt to withdraw his hand.
      At last, when the silence seemed to have gone on forever, they crept to the edge of the swamp and cautiously peered through the thinning wall of trees. The krills appeared to have moved on.  Since there was no trace of Kirin and Irina either, they had to assume the pair had been taken along as captives. “At least they’re still alive,” said Mick.
       “We don’t know that for sure,” Pers responded in a broken voice that earned another hug from Mick, “and even if they are alive, how long before…?” He began weeping again.
      “We’ll find them,” Mick promised.
       “How?” wailed the elf.
       “We’ll have to track them. Can elves track?” he asked hopefully.
Pers shook his head. “Not away from Gar,” he whimpered. Mick managed to smother a despairing groan with an exaggerated fit of coughing. “But clearly they went that way.” The elf pointed to footprints in the damp earth. “We can bur try...”
       “You bet!”  Mick agrred. The elf seemed to perk up as they followed the footprints, for about a mile by Mick’s reckoning.  They were forced to an abrupt halt as the earth gave way to solid rock. “Now what…?”
      “We must try,” repeated the distraught elf and ran on a few paces, first this way and then another, looking for something, anything that might suggest which way to go next.
      “They will be heading for the Purple Mountains,” said Mick with a certainty that sprung from he knew not where. “If we do the same, we’re bound to come across them sooner or later.”
      “To every place, there are many paths. We may reach the mountains or we may not. It is the same for the krills. As for Irina and Kirin, who knows?” Pers was quite calm. A tear trickled down one cheek, his face a picture of misery.
      Suddenly, Mick remembered the gift the elf queen La-Ri had given him. That is, he did not remember, exactly, but rather it was as if the thought planted itself, unbidden, into his mind. Ignoring this unlikely aspect for the moment, Mick delved into a pocket where something all but stuck to his palm. He pulled the smooth, flat stone shaped like a triangle that, to his astonishment, radiated a pencil thin beam of light. While the object remained stuck to his palm, the light swung all ways before settling for a particular direction.
      “Where did you get that?” demanded the elf excitedly.
      “Your mother gave it to me.” Mick saw no reason to lie.
     “Why didn’t you say so?”  The change in Pers was as instant as it was dramatic. He brightened considerably. Indeed, he seemed almost restored to his old self.
       “What is it?” Mick allowed himself to feel cautiously optimistic.
      “It is a puli!” exclaimed the elf with the air of a child presented with a new toy. Seeing Mick’s blank expression, he scratched his head and came up with, “A tracking device. It will lead us to Kirin and Irina!”
       “So why all the mystery…?” Mick wanted to know. “Your mother could have told me, surely?”
      Pers blushed. “It is not elven,” he muttered uncomfortably. “Strictly speaking, elves are not even meant to know about pulis, let alone possess one. They are druid things. One hears things, of course, but one isn’t supposed to…” His voice trailed away and he continued to look sheepish.
     Both contemplated the tiny light without asking the obvious question except of themselves. How had La come to possess a device attributed to druids?
     “Once, elves and druids lived side by side,” murmured Pers as if by way of an explanation of sorts. “Even then, there was no love lost between us. It is not that we were enemies, but rather that, by our very natures, we could never be friends. Elven magic must follow elven lore.  We may sometimes attempt to influence the nature of destiny if the ear of the spirits can be bent and Ri wills it so.  But challenge its given course? Never! Yet, that is all a druid lives and dies for…challenge.” He shifted his head slightly and looked directly at Mick. “It is said the druid, Ca-an, single-handedly saved Mamelon from total destruction when it was torn from the motherworld. Now there was a challenge,” he added and the shy grin that Mick had missed lately fell back into place. “Lead on, my friend. No one but no one ever tracked like a druid. You can be sure the puli will take us to my sister and Kirin.”
     Not to mention a few murderous krills, thought Mick, but said nothing.  Something about the elf’s burst of elation did not quite ring true. Having to grapple with the notion that his mother might conceivably have associated with druids must be more traumatic for poor Pers, he suspected, than even their present harrowing circumstances.   At least now, thanks to the puli, they knew which way to turn even if the druid device raised more questions than it was likely to provide answers.
     Mick wondered about Ka’s gift. Why the need for secrecy there too?  Could it be of druid origin as well?  Whatever, it would have to wait. The matter in hand was of far greater urgency. At the same time, he decided not to mention the elf king’s gift to Pers. Not yet, anyway. Instinctively, he knew the time was not right. Similarly, he hadn’t the slightest doubt he would know when that came. It’s so weird, he continued to reflect, how I just…know.
      Deep in thought, Mick had wandered in a small circle and no longer faced the gentle range of hills that beckoned so seductively. Instead, the weird and wonderful rock formation seemed to be vying for his attention. Suddenly, his feet seemed to take on a mind of their very own; not only did they stop, but they would not budge. It was as if he were rooted to the spot. He looked down and saw that the puli had gone quite dead; it neither shone a light nor continued to stick like a limpet to his palm but rolled easily in the hand like any ordinary pebble. He tried again to lift his feet, discovered that he could not and was about to panic. Instead, he felt prompted all of a sudden to just…think. Not this way, Michal. Not the Dragon Hills. Look to Fah-y-Noor, Place of Skulls.
      The voice in his head urged him to look down. No, not urged but commanded. As if obeying an order, Mick obeyed. His feet shifted easily. At the same time, the stone stuck fast to his palm once more and shot a laser-like beam straight ahead.
       Pers thought he understood his friend’s strained expression and identified with it.  His sister and Kirin, taken by krills!  Elves in the hands of such an enemy! It was unheard of. A vision of his distressed parents passed before his eyes only to heap horror upon horror, guilt upon guilt. Now, at least, there was hope. He turned from his reflections just as the beam issuing from the druid stone went into frantic motion.
       Mick cried out in pain as the stone wrenched not only at his hand but his entire body, forcing him to face northeast. The puli light shone into the barren expanse below. It seemed to skim the entire basin floor, leaving a thin white line that stretched as far as the naked eye could see.
       “No!” Pers gave a strangled cry, “Not that way!”
      “It appears we have no choice,” Mick responded grimly, struggling to resist a fierce tugging at him as if invisible hands were intent upon dragging him towards the near vertical descent.
      “We cannot!” the elf continued to protest, “That is Fah-y-Noor.  Even Nu-gen would never attempt to cross the Place of Skulls and they will go anywhere.
      “Place of Skulls?” Mick gulped. “A charming name, I must say!” But his sardonic humour was lost on the elf. If anything, Pers became even more distressed and began wringing his hands in despair. “It appears we have no choice,” he repeated, “mot if we trust the stone, anyway. So…can we trust it?”
       Pers made a supreme effort and Mick was relieved to perceive the elf getting a grip on his feelings. “Of course we cannot trust it for it is a druid thing. But druid magic is something we ignore at our peril. Besides…”  He sighed and shook his head, “my mother would never have given it to you if she thought for a single moment it meant us harm. You are right. We have no choice. And, who knows? The puli may yet lead us to my sister and Kirin, although…” Mick waited. “…I fear they would not survive long in the desert, certainly not this one. Krills, maybe, but elves…” His eyes filled with tears.
     “There’s only one way to find out,” said Mick, crying out again as the tugging persisted and dragged him stumbling, perilously close to the edge. “Not content with having a mind of its own, the damn thing wants mine too!” he exclaimed, but gritted his teeth and prised the stone free, ripping the skin from his hand before he flung it to the ground. “Sorry, to disappoint you chum!” he glared at the stone that lay at his feet, emitting no light.
      “Take care!” warned the elf, “It is not good to meddle with druid things.”
      “It’s not good to meddle with a bloke’s mind either!” retorted Mick and for one wistful moment, thought he was back in the twenty-first century.
      “Bloke…?” Pers puzzled expression made Mick chuckle. It also brought home to him where they were and the task in hand. He crouched, considered the stone for a moment, and then gently stroked it. The puli responded to his touch. Indeed, Mick thought he detected a pulse of sorts. “Damn it, the thing’s alive!” 
      Pers approached nervously. “Druids!” he muttered, “It is just like them to give life to a stone!”
    Mick ignored the elf and addressed the stone. He would never know why. It just seemed the right thing to do. “Okay, we’ll do it your way. But no trying to take over or I’ll dump you as soon as look at you, understand?”  If you say so, the same voice in his head that had come to him before appeared to accept his terms.  Mick braced himself and tightened his grip on the stone. It neither stuck to his hand nor, as he got to his feet, did it exert any pull on him. Only its laser-like beam shone as before, heading for the cliff face, dropping down it like a length of string and wriggling across the Great Desert and beyond with all the purposeful tenacity of a snake.
      “I cannot,” the elf sobbed.
     “I understand,” said Mick as his stomach hit rock bottom. “It may be a red herring, anyway. He managed a grin then sung, “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in the Purple Mountains before you…” But the elf was not amused. “It’s okay, I don’t mind,” he lied, “Besides, Kirin and Irina may well be in the hills.”
      “You don’t believe that,” the elf said with a huge sigh.
     “Do you?” countered Mick, and then added with a forced laugh, “Come on. Last one home is a green pig.” A burst of homesickness kicked him in groin and wiped the grin from his face. For the mischievous chant belonged to his childhood, a world whose reality had assumed such a dream quality that, to his horror, he could not recall the name of a single playmate.  One name,, though, dangled on his tongue. I have to remember it, I must. It dropped to the ground. In his mind’s eye, Mick saw it rolling towards the cliff. Once there, it would be lost forever. I cannot, must not let that happen. Calling upon all the willpower he could muster, he summoned it back.  “Jimmy Birchall!” he gave a yell of triumph.
     Pers jumped up in fright. A giggle died in Mick’s throat as he forced himself to focus again on their present crisis. But he was careful to keep a picture of Jimmy Birchall’s freckled face in the corner of his mind’s eye. He was Mick Wright and no Mamelonian, he kept telling himself, albeit with less conviction than he would have liked.
      “Where you go, I go,” Pers was saying. Mick made no attempt to hide his relief. On impulse, the pair embraced. “We are a team, yes?” The elf managed a watery smile.
      “You bet!” Mick wondered if the terror in the elf’s eyes mirrored his own and suspected it did. But decision shone there too, like a beacon of hope in the darkness of near despair.
      Mick gave the elf a big hug as if to reaffirm their comradeship. Pers responded with an appreciative grin.      
     “We must stay together, motherworlder. That way, we can protect each other. In my heart, I know the krills have taken Irina and Kirin into the desert. A puli would never lie.” He shrugged. “We only lie to ourselves. You are right, Michal, elf-friend, we have no choice.”
      The name Michal, especially the way Pers pronounced it, grated on Mick’s nerves as it always did. Only his mother ever called him Michael and he hated it. Here, they pronounced the ‘i’ as a short vowel sound and the ‘a’ as a long one. The result sounded something like Me-karl and invariably had the effect of making him want to smash a fist in the speaker’s face. 
    Mick grimaced. He seemed to be forever practising restraint in this godawful Mamelon.  While recognizing the futility of protest, he resolved nevertheless to keep reminding himself that he was Mick Wright from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, born August 7th 1995.  He turned to face the desert, whose red sands stretched below them like a sea of blood, with none of the difficulty he had experienced in turning away from it. The stone remained passive in his hand, its light unwavering. “Ouch!” Without warning, it bit into his flesh as if urging him to hurry up.  But he was having none of that. “Do that again and I’ll throw you away!” he shouted. Instantly, he felt foolish, but the stone went limp again and the pain ceased. “Okay, where are they?” The light drew a line, like chalk, in the grass.  At the cliff edge, it disappeared.
      Heart in mouths, the two friends ventured to the very edge and peered down. There it was, wriggling against the cliff face. “Like a candidate for the longest worm award,” muttered Mick, and laughed humourlessly. But time was precious and there was none to waste. Slowly, but surely, elf and motherworlder began the perilous descent into Fah-y-Noor, Place of Skulls. 

To be continued