Monday, 4 February 2013
Mamelon - Chapter 9
Pete’s terror at finding himself alone in the darkness caused him to lose his footing. As he fell face down into a pool of warm mud, he was close to tears. Bog folk were very close, their shouts rising to a crescendo that sounded like an express train that was heading straight for him. He tried to get up, but could not move. It was almost upon him, the train. There was no escape. He would surely die. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself at the moment of impact, battered and bleeding, tossed like a doll into the air, limbs ripped from his body and scattered in all directions...
He lost consciousness.
When he came to, Pete’s first thought was, I’m alive. However, neither surprise nor relief lasted long as he realised he was in a lot of pain. Moreover, an erratic swinging suggested that he was on the move. As if further confirmation were needed, a nasty jolt sent his whole body hurtling through a Black Hole of searing agony.
Slowly, the spinning sensation eased. Pete guessed that he was in a sack of some kind being part carried, part dragged along. His hands and feet had been trussed and knotted tightly. A cloth was tied around his mouth and breathing was difficult. For a few seconds, he panicked and thought he would surely suffocate. But he quickly learned to breathe through his nose and even began to deal with the pain of being bumped unceremoniously along the ground, simply by blocking it out.
In his head, Pete sang the Okay Song over and over. After a while, he hardly felt a thing. From head to toe, a dull ache drummed into him that he was Pete Wright, aged thirteen and a half. And he was a human being. Were there other humans on Mamelon, he wondered, besides Mick and Beth? Have they been captured too? He hoped not. At the same time, he found himself entertaining thoughts to the contrary. It would be less scary if they were all in the same boat…Well, wouldn’t it? Guiltily, Pete dismissed the notion. Besides, company in adversity was one thing, but it held out precious little hope for rescue.
He attempted to come to grips with his situation. Obviously, he had been taken by bog folk although as to why, exactly, Pete dared not speculate. It crossed his mind only fleetingly that they might cook and eat him. Whatever, his luck was definitely not in. A hysterical giggle rose from his belly and proceeded to treat his chest as a punchbag. This had to be a crazy dream. At any minute he would wake up in his own bed and hear his mum shouting, ‘Breakfast, come and get it! He tried desperately to think himself awake.
A series of lurching movements broke Pete’s concentration. These were accompanied by a rapid succession of rough bumps culminating in a sensation of being flung through the air. Pete’s heart flew to his mouth. But the landing when it came was reassuringly soft. Then a high-pitched drone launched an all-out assault on his eardrums. How he longed to cover his ears! It went on and on until, finally, he could stand it no longer and slipped into unconsciousness again.
The next time he opened his eyes, Pete was sufficiently prepared for the horror of his circumstances to ward off instant panic. His dismay at not finding himself in his own bed was relieved only slightly by the gradual awareness that at least he was not alone. A figure lay beside him, also bound. A youth whom Pete took to be about Mick’s age lay beside him. He even looked something like Mick although the dirty blond hair was short and straight. True, the face was mud-stained. Mick, Pete decided, was the better looking of the two. Even so, the resemblance was uncanny. Where Mick’s eyes were grey, the stranger’s were a grey-blue, raging like waves on a stormy sea just as Mick’s did whenever he was in a foul mood.
The stranger was gagged, like Pete. As their eyes sought and found each other in the gloom, each took some reassurance from the other’s presence.
As his body’s numbness wore off and the searing pain took hold once more, Pete could only screw up his eyes and sing the Okay Song over and over in his head. This proved to have a sedative as well as calming effect. For a while, he even imagined that invisible hands were massaging his bruised limbs, restoring him to a sense of near normality. It was the weirdest feeling, but a welcome one. Meanwhile, his fellow prisoner rolled closer until their fingertips touched. It was small comfort, but better than nothing. Suddenly, another wave of pain engulfed poor Pete, taking him almost to the edge of oblivion. Yet, it was as if unseen hands continued to work their expertise on him. Gently, but firmly, they restored him to full awareness.
Pete began to take more notice of his surroundings. As far as he could make out, they were on a raised platform in a huge barn-like structure. From below, came whinnying noises. He wriggled to the edge and peered down. There were horses tethered to poles and munching what might have been hay if it were not a reddish colour. It occurred to him that reds and browns and yellows seemed to predominate in Mamelon.
It had to be a dream, surely? But if bonds and gag were not enough, a nudging at his elbow and his companion’s anxious expression quickly refuted any such wishful thinking. He glanced again at the horses below. They were restless and uneasy. Pete could only suppose that his own presence and that of his fellow prisoner must be spooking them. Then he caught a glimpse of something white moving among the shuffling hooves. Ace... His heart skipped a beat as he strained to call out to the little dog, but what feeble sound he made was lost in the gag. The dog, however, pricked up its ears and looked up. Pete willed the animal to spot him. When Ace scampered off in another direction, his eyes stung, but he didn’t cry. He had no tears left. Seconds later, a frantic licking at the back of his neck and behind the ears made Pete’s heart leap. He rolled over on his back. A soft, warm body promptly landed on the boy’s tummy with a belly flop, its tongue lolling and tail wagging like mad.
A series of urgent grunts broke into dog and boy’s joy at their reunion. Each turned a head. Pete;s fellow captive was jerking about on his stomach, his neck thrust forwards and nodding frantically towards the little dog. Muffled attempts at speech penetrated the gag, but made no sense. Ace, though, soon caught on. He leapt on the older youth’s back and proceeded to nibble furiously away at the twine that bound his wrists. It seemed to take forever.
The more Pete willed his canine friend to hurry, the slower it all seemed to take. Once, a door opened below and someone or something entered. The dog did not pause in his efforts but both captives froze. In seemed an eternity before they heard the door slam shut again. By now, the Okay Song had become a frantic chant in Pete’s throbbing head.
At last, the bonds snapped free. Pete watched eagerly as his companion first wrenched the gag from his mouth and took welcome gulps of air. He then sat up and rubbed his wrists, bent double in agony for a few minutes as the blood began circulating freely again but wasted precious little time before freeing his ankles. Slowly and shakily, he got to his feet and flexed his limbs as if to reassure himself they were still attached to his body.
Ace lay beside Pete and licked his face. The older youth patted the wiry coat before removing the red-haired boy’s gag and untying him. Pete’s motions and grimaces ran much the same gamut as those he had just witnessed before he was able to say a word. “Hi,” he stretched out a grubby hand, “I’m Pete. Who the devil are you?”
“I am called Heron.” He clasped Pete’s hand warmly. “Ah, but you are a motherworlder, surely? I understand nothing. Nothing... ” he repeated in a croaking voice and shook his blond head.
“Join the club,” said Pete with feeling
“Never mind that now, let’s get out of here.” Pete had spotted a ladder and was already heading towards it as fast as the cramp in his legs would permit. Heron…?. The blond youth’s name zoomed around inside his head like a boomerang as if vaguely familiar and he was trying to place it. Yet, how could that be since they were total strangers to each other? Suddenly, the boomerang crashed. His foot slipped on the ladder sent him flying into a pile of horse manure. Badly winded, but otherwise unhurt, he lay spread-eagled in the smelly stuff, feeling increasingly more sorry for himself with every passing second as his companion made a more conventional descent.
Heron was almost at the foot of the ladder when the door swung open again and a giant figure, dripping with mud and slime, stood in the half-light. Pete guessed that he must be a guard or sentry. The horses stirred, some neighed and a chestnut mare close to him shied enough to cause alarm. As he edged away from the nervy animal, the creature in the doorway swung its head sharply and fixed bulbous eyes on the hapless Pete. It moved with amazing swiftness for its size. In seconds, it was towering over Pete and drawing a knife from a gilt-threaded sheath slung across its chest. Terrified though he was, Pete could not help but admire both weapon and sheath, each beautifully honed and not at all in keeping with their owner’s monstrous appearance. But his admiration quickly evaporated as the creature raised its knife arm and thrust downwards, a cruel expression on the hideous face.
Heron took a flying leap. Youth and guard plunged into a fresh heap of dung and rolled about it, limbs thrashing. It was soon evident to Pete that his new friend’s timely resurgence of strength was ebbing fast. Heron could not sustain a fight for long. He looked around, frantically, for a weapon of sorts. Suddenly, a white streak arched across his vision and his ears caught a yelp of mixed astonishment and pain. A strangled cry was all the guard had time for as the dog sank its teeth into the jugular.
An eerie hush followed. Heron got shakily to his feet while Ace sniffed warily at the guard’s body. If the flow of blood was anything to go by, Pete felt it safe to assume the guard was dead. He had never seen a corpse before. A moment’s morbid fascination promptly turned into a stomach-churning revulsion that made him to look away and throw up.
“We haven’t time for that,” Heron grunted unsympathetically, pausing only a fraction to catch his breath before snatching up the knife and ripping the ornate sheath from the dead guard’s waist. Without waiting for Pete, he raced towards the open door. Pete opened his mouth to protest, thought better of it, retched instead and hurriedly joined him. It had to be in his own best interests, the younger Wright concluded, to stick to this Heron character like glue.
They were in the middle of a bog. The barn was a built-in raft affair. “No wonder the horses are unhappy,” murmured Heron. He was puzzled. Bog folk were fleet of foot for all their ungainly appearance. They never used horses. Some distance away to the right, they saw figures hunched around a campfire. Smoke trails and a hiss of steam drifted their way, along with the succulent smell of roasting meat, occasionally punctuated by bursts of raucous laughter.
“That smells good,” muttered Pete. It seemed ages since he had even thought about food. All at once, he was ravenous. “What is it they’re cooking?” he whispered in Heron’s ear.
Heron shrugged. “Could be snake, could be alligator. I’ve also heard there is a band of Nu-gen hereabouts…”
“It’s true then, they eat people?”
“People…? Nu-gen, they are nothing. But, yes, bog folk have been known to eat people,” He grinned. “A tender motherworlder like you would provide a fine feast.”
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Pete and retched again.
“Be quiet,” Hero hissed. “Do you want them to catch us again?”
Fear instantly got the better of Pete’s anatomy. They continued to observe, well hid in heavy shadow, while Heron debated inwardly what to do next. Suddenly, a small group emerged from undergrowth and approached the campfire. The would-be escapers strained to see. The newcomers comprised five or six squat, bandy-legged creatures, each covered in rainbow scales that should have lent them a peculiar beauty, but instead merely endorsed facial expressions of sheer menace and cruelty.
“Krills!” exclaimed Heron more loudly than he intended and enough to make Pete jump. “What are krills doing here?” It explained away the handsome knife and his fingers flew to the gilt-threaded sheath at his belt.
“Who are they?” Pete wanted to know and opened his mouth to say more. But a stony glare warned him to keep quiet and he lapsed into a sulk. He could almost hear his brother say, “Kids should be seen and not heard.” Not that he would have minded, he reflected miserably, wondereing for the umpteenth time how Mick and Beth were faring in this God-forsaken place. Hadn’t Ricci said something about krills taking slaves to mine for gold in the Purple Mountains? He wished he had listened more carefully instead of getting all fired up about elves. He’d have dearly liked to ask Heron, but this was not the time. His companion’s face wore the queerest expression. He looked around for Ace, but there was no sign of the dog.
Heron forced himself to look away from the ancient enemies of Mamelon whom he and a good many others believed extinct. Instead, he studied the scene to his left where the ground humped and sloped towards what looked like pure swamp. “Can you swim?” Pete nodded.
“Wait here.” He ducked back inside, returning shortly with a pair of what looked like flippers. Nostalgia tugged at Pete’s heartstrings for they were similar to some his dad used for diving expeditions. “Courtesy of our friend inside,” explained Heron dryly, slipping one on each foot. “Climb on my back. These will give us speed and save us from sinking into bog. When we reach the water, jump off and follow me.”
“Where are we going?” Pete did as he was told. “To my home, it is not far.”
“You live near here?”
“On Ti-Gray, yes, it is…an island,” he muttered. “Now, keep still. Most of all, keep very quiet.”
“But, Ace…” Pete started to protest. “Hush! He can look after himself, that one.” Heron gave a low chuckle, “We will see him again, you can be sure of it.” Pete certainly hoped so. He had grown fond of the little dog. More importantly, Ace was a link with home and normality.
Their progress across the mud flats was so slow that Pete was convinced they must soon be spotted. He hung on for dear life as Heron headed for a spread of water that might only be a pool for all they knew as it quickly vanished into the darkness. But Heron had said he knew these parts. Pete could only cling on to the broad shoulders and hope for the best. He tried telling himself things could not get any worse although each time he stole a glance behind them or listened out for signs of pursuit, he was less sure. At last, Heron lowered him into a foul smelling, lukewarm water. “This place, Ti-Gray,” he whispered, “Will we be safe there?”
“Quite safe,” Heron assured him with a grim smile. Pete gave a huge sigh of relief. “None will dare follow us to the Isle of the Dead.” A wail of dissent died on Pete’s lips as shouts rose behind them out of a swirling mist.
They started swimming, furiously at first while the chase was on. But the mist was a good ally, and thickening fast. In no time, all sounds of pursuit had died away. Pete, who swam with the agility of an eel, was careful to keep Heron in sight or the mist would swallow them both. This meant keeping up a pace that stretched him to the limit and took all his concentration.
As daylight began to flicker through the trees and undergrowth, progress was made no easier by clouds of insects descending upon them with a rare appetite for exposed flesh. Soon, Pete’s thrashing body was covered with tiny bites. By now, though, arms and legs were performing on autopilot and a single thought occupied his mind, displacing even that fact that he ached and hurt all over. Out of the frying pan, into the fire…
An island loomed out of the mist just ahead. As they approached, Heron spared his companion an approving glance. The young motherworlder had displayed an innocent courage and tenacity that awoke memories of escapades he had enjoyed during his own early years. Adventures, he used to call them, although none quite like this. As for innocence…that was something else. He had neither memory nor knowledge of it. A thought struck him and caused him to falter in mid-stroke. Innocence… Of course! What greater force to combat the Dark Power in whose palm all Mamelon quailed? He perceived the boy with a new respect. And hope. Could the red-haired lad be a gift from Ri? Heron gave a mental shrug. Whatever, it is good that the boy managed to keep up.
Suddenly, Pete found himself treading shallows. Soon they were making their way across a stretch of shingle beach towards some trees. And beyond the trees, what new nasty surprise…? He groaned. Not more bog, swamp and forest, surely? The prospect so appalled him that he burst into tears. He ached all over, every muscle straining to break out of its prison of insect-bitten flesh. Sinking slowly to his knees, he resolved not to take another step and sobbed his heart out. He couldn’t help it. If Heron wants to think I’m a cry-baby that’s just too bad.
Heron loped ahead. He turned, saw the boy’s distress and went back. “My home is not far, we are nearly there. Come.” He held out his hand, but Pete shook his head.
“I’m not taking another step. I hate it here. I want to go home!” he wailed and continued to sob uncontrollably.
Heron knelt beside the lad. “You cannot remain here. There is danger.”
“You said we’d be safe here.”
The older youth shrugged. “From bog folk yes. As for krills, who knows? But we are as safe on Ti-Gray as anywhere…” He shrugged, again, “although what means safety any more in Mamelon, Ri only knows! I leave the island as I have done many times, and what happens? I am taken by bog folk. Such a thing is unheard of. As for bog folk in the company of krills, that is something unbelievable. He shrugged yet again. We are as safe on Ti-Gray as anywhere,” he repeated, “but not here in the open. The forest will give us protection. My parents will know what to do. They will help us.”
“If you’re sure…” Pete remained unconvinced, but managed to stop crying.
“You are lost. I, too, sense that I travel an unknown path. I have come home, yes. But not to stay, I fear. Our destinies are linked, yours and mine. The sooner we find out how and why, the better. Agreed?”
Pete nodded, ashamed of his tears. Hadn’t Heron been a prisoner too and longer than he? “I suppose so,” he muttered.
“Good. You have done well. I am proud to call you my friend.” He gave the lad a hug.
“Don’t patronise me!” Pete broke free and struggled to stem a new flood of tears.
“Patronise? What means, patronise?”
Pete scowled and looked away. He hadn’t a clue. His mother used the word a lot when he and his dad were arguing. ‘Don’t patronise me,’ she would yell at him. ‘I’m not, I’m trying to be fair,’ his dad would fling back at her. A guilty sigh escaped Pete’s pursed lips. I’m not being very fair to Heron, am I? Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Don’t be,” said Heron with a grin, “Regret is a burden. Imagine, instead, a full belly and a good sleep. You feel better already, yes?”
“You bet!” agreed Pete and scrambled up. He had no difficulty keeping pace with Heron as they ran for the trees.
The forest thinned out very quickly. They stumbled upon lots of pretty glades, all of which boasted a carpet of flowers. Some had pools and little waterfalls. Tiny toad-like creatures scampered everywhere and Pete thought he spotted a rabbit twitching its nose in a clump of long grass. “Why, it’s lovely here!”
Heron laughed. “Why should the dead be deprived of beauty? I could show you sights to make the eyes pop out of your head. Ti-Gray is a jewel among our northern territories although few know it. I imagine its only rival is the Forest of Gar but I wouldn’t know for sure as I have never been there. It is elven land,” he explained in a voice that conveying both awe and longing. “But it is good that people stay away from what they do not understand,” he went on, “Many among the living have no respect for beauty. Or much else, for that matter,” he added bitterly.
Pete hesitated, and then asked the question that had been nagging at him throughout their journey through the swamp. “Are you dead?” Heron stared, and then threw back his head and laughed. Pete coloured, growing even angrier the more foolish he felt. “If you’re not, how come you live here? You can laugh, but it’s a fair question.”
“Do I look dead to you?” Heron’s guffaws subsided but his face still wore a huge grin.
“My dad reckons that how people look is mostly a red herring because no one likes to be taken for what they really are until they’re good and ready.”
Heron nodded. “Your father is a wise man. I’m sorry I laughed. You were right to ask.” His lips twitched. “But I love life. The idea that I may have no claim to it is, well, amusing.” He laughed again, saw the boy’s increasing embarrassment and was immediately contrite. “I’m sorry. In your place, I dare say I would be frightened also.”
“I’m not frightened,” Pete lied, “But you’re a complete stranger and I can’t say I’m impressed by you Mamelon people so far. Besides, I have a right to know who you are and just what sort of mess you’re getting me into.”
Heron nodded again. “I am called Heron as you know. I am the son of Kris and Nadya. Many lifetimes ago, my father came here to escape being taken into slavery by krills who would have taken him to mine for gold in the Purple Mountains. T-Gray is one of the few sanctuaries left in Mamleon. Here, the living and the dead exist freely side by side although…” he paused and the timbre of his voice hardened, “…I suspect only the dead are truly free.”
“Why did the krills take you prisoner?” Pete was not entirely satisfied.
“I don’t know,” confessed Heron and his frown deepened. Then he countered sharply, “And you? What trouble do you, a complete stranger also, bring to Mamelon?” Already, though, the teasing grin was back in place.
“Touché,” Pete muttered sheepishly.
“Do you believe me when I say I’m your friend?” Pete nodded. “So you will trust me?” Pete nodded again. “And will you be my friend also?” Pete gabe another, more positive nod. “Good. Then we are friends. Come, friend. Food, sleep and good company are near.” He held out a hand. Pete took it. The other’s grasp was warm and firm. Nor did he resist the brief, comforting hug. For his part, Heron was glad the boy was willing to put his fears aside and put his trust in him. He had the strongest feeling that trust between them would prove all-important in times ahead. Keeping hold of Pete’s hand, he broke into a run.
Pete caught something of his friend’s excitement as they entered yet another but much larger clearing. There were many huts, coils of smoke from faintly flickering fires, cooking utensils left nearby. On some spits, carcasses roasted unattended. Yet no one was about.
An awful stillness dragged on their nerves. Something was terribly wrong. Pete was careful to stay close to Heron while they carried out a systematic search. Now and again, he felt something fingers stroke his cheek or neck. He fancied he could make out voices. They could have been sobbing or laughing, it was impossible to tell. By the time he plucked up the nerve to mention it to Heron, he had grown used it. Indeed, he was more intrigued than alarmed.
“It is the Dead, they mean no harm,” said Heron distractedly. Where was everyone? “Bad things have happened here,” he muttered, “But how, why? No one has ever shown any interest in Ti-Gray but for runaways and the occasional mage.”
Pete, seeing his friend was distraught, kept a tactful silence. A humming in his ears, low at first but getting louder was irritating, He bit his lip, did not like to complain. But soon it became unbearable. He put his hands to his ears, unable to suppress a cry of pain.
“What’s the matter?” Heron asked absently. They had been searching one of the huts for signs of life or a clue even to what might have happened to make everyone take off with such haste. Pete gritted his teeth and tried to describe the awful humming sound. Heron’s expression was dismissive at first. Then he paled. For he had heard such a sound himself once, so long ago he had forgotten it. His mother had taught him how to block it out. Suddenly, things began to make sense of a kind. His kidnapping, the deserted village, the presence of mother-worlders in Mamelon, not to mention krills…. There could only be one explanation. “Ragund…!”
As far as Pete could tell, Heron was talking to himself. The other’s speech was low and rapid, like distant machine gun fire. He caught only a few words and one in particular repeated over and over, “Ragund.”
“Yes, Ragund,” a musical voice came from nearby. Both looked in its direction and saw nothing at first. Suddenly, the figure of a woman appeared.
“Mother…!” Heron caught his breath in astonishment, and then began to run towards the woman. Pete froze. Heron’s mother looked uncannily like his own mother, the comparison too painful for words.
“Stay, my son…!” The woman shook her head. An expression of infinite sadness fell like a shadow across the lovely face. “It is not Nadya, your mother, but her dream-self come to warn you. Even as we speak, your father and I fly with your sister, Arissa, and some others to the Vale of Ca-an. We only escaped with our lives because elves sent us warning.
“Elves, huh...!” Pete snorted, but was silenced by a glare from Heron.
“Yes, elves,” the vision laughed and it sounded to Pete like a tinkle of white piano keys. “Believe and believe in yourself,” she added obscurely before returning abruptly to the matter in hand. “Listen carefully, my son. I am unpractised in the art of dream sending and may not sustain it for long. Make your own way to the Vale of Ca-an. We will wait for you there. The dream-self of Astor, your great grandfather, visited me and told me it must be so. But take great care. For there is danger abroad, as well you both know.”
“Ragund,” repeated Heron slowly, “But why? You have never told me about him, only that he is an enemy.”
“An enemy, yes,” the apparition echoed bitterly and was already fading. “Somehow he has tracked us down and will stop at nothing until he has you in his evil grasp for you are the first-born of Michal’s daughter and the Power of the Key is yours., yours to save our world, my son, or his to place it under his own heel forever.”
“I don’t understand,” wailed Heron. “What is this key, mother and how can it save us?” But there was no reply. The dream-self of Nadya, daughter of Galia, who had fled the Lunis, City of Moons with her mother and brother so long ago had vanished.
Immediately, a high-pitched humming started up in Pete’s ears again and he clapped his hands over them in a vain attempt to shut it out. In spite of the pain, he could not help thinking that there was something curiously familiar about the way the piercing notes fell into a rhythm, indeed a tune of sorts, as the piercing notes drilled into his head and seemed to probe.
“Close your eyes,” said Heron sharply.
“It’s my ears mot my eyes that hurt!” retorted Pete.
“Just do as I say,” Heron growled, glaring, and then appeared to relent. “Trust me. It will ease the pain.” Pete closed his eyes. If anything, the humming got worse. “Now repeat after me, Ri-gar, Gar-ri, Gwennor.” Sceptically, Pete repeated the strange words.
All at once, the noise stopped. “It’s stopped! How did you do that?” Pete was wide-eyed with admiration.
“It is a warding my mother taught me when I first heard it , long ago when I was a child. More than that, I know nothing.” Nothing, he thought angrily, I know nothing.
“A warding, what’s that?”
“A defence against dark magic...”
“Magic…!” Pete was inclined to ridicule the idea. But wasn’t magic responsible for his being in Mamelon, if not subsequent events? Then there was Heron’s mother, who had appeared as if by magic and hadn’t been real anyway. Ricci had said he was a magician. And people kept mentioning elves. Elves, magic…It was all too much to take in and he could feel tears welling in his eyes again. He blinked them away, bit his lip and put on a brave face. “So, this Vale of Ca-an where we have to meet your folks, is it far?”
“Far enough,” said Heron with a long sigh. “It lies to the east.” He pointed. “In the Purple Mountains, Ri knows where exactly! They say druids lived there once, many lifetimes ago, before they were destroyed by a darker magic even than their own. It is said they chose to return to the motherworld as the lesser of evils set against them.” He forbore, however, to mention rumours that Astor, his grandfather, had been a druid. “Druids, I spit on them!” He was true to his word and Pete was mildly shocked. “It is a place more reviled than the Isle of the Dead among those who know no better. How can it serve any useful purpose to go there?”
“You’re asking me?” retorted Pete. Even as he spoke, there were more invisible nudges and brushing against him as if the Dead themselves were trying to tell him something - to make haste, perhaps? He had a flash of intuition. “We have to go, now!” he said aloud.
“You feel it too!” exclaimed Heron approvingly and added with a grin, “We make a good team, you and I. But first we must prepare for the journey. We will need food and drink, a change of clothes, a tent…” He reeled off a seemingly interminable list of supplies.
“How can we carry all that?” Pete was incredulous.
“Gluck, gluck!” As if on cue, an ostrich-like creature came towards them at an amazing speed for such an ungainly looking beast.
“Iggy!” cried Heron and ran to meet it. The pair all but collided, Heron throwing an arm around the thing’s neck while it went into spasm of delight. If it had been a dog, Pete would have expected it to wag its tail. Where was Ace, he wondered for the umpteenth time? He missed the little dog.
“Gluck, gluck.” Pete’s jaw dropped to see more of the comical creatures emerge from the trees.
Later, Heron told him they were called glucks after the noise they made. “They will carry us and our supplies,” Heron informed him, so matter-of-factly that it did not register with Pete at first that he would be required to ride a gluck himself. By the time they were ready and the penny had finally dropped, he was regarding the nearest creature doubtfully. One glassy eye seemed to wink at him, though, as it sauntered over and knelt.
“He likes you,” Heron chuckled. “You’ve made a friend for life there, you’ll see.”
Taking all his courage in both hands, Pete clambered on to the beast’s back. It sprung up so quickly he had to grab a fistful of feathers to keep falling off.
.“That’s right, hang on tight!” called Heron cheerfully. Then his expression darkened as something uncommonly like a spear flew over his head. A band of scaly beings like those they had seen in the company of the bog folk, whom Heron had called krills, were advancing on them. They were mounted and galloping from several directions at once. “Run!” yelled Heron, “Run glucks, for our lives!” Instantly, the glucks broke into full pelt. Several, loaded with supplies, fell, screaming horribly. The rest gathered speed and soon outran the krill’s horses.
Above the din, the humming noise started up again and joined the pursuit. Unable to recall the words Heron had taught him, Pete could only grit his teeth and hang on for dear life as the gluck beneath him hurtled through the forest. Even so, his grip slackened as the assault on his eardrums worsened. Then he heard a voice in his head. Ga-Ri, Ri-Gar, Gwennor, it seemed to say, forcing a passage through the awful humming with quiet determination. Pete repeated the words and the humming ceased immediately. Thankfully, he did not need to control the gluck; it seemed to know the way instinctively. Meanwhile, a name stuck in his mind and refused to budge. It was like a live thing insinuating his brain cells. Ragund. Certainly, it gave greater cause for alarm, terror even, than the wild zigzagging of the beast to whose neck he barely managed to cling for dear life.
To be continued