Beth could not believe she was lost. She ran after the others calling their names and expecting to crash into one or other of them at any second. But only a black passage stretched before her between trees conspiring to trip and scratch. Sure enough, she stumbled and fell. Somewhere she thought she heard Mick call her name. “Mick!” she yelled and tried to get up, “Mick…ah-gh!” A hand grabbed her, another clamped over her mouth.
“Are you stupid, woman? There are bog folk about, and for whatever reason, they have an appetite.” A harsh whisper in her ear made Beth struggle all the more. She lashed out at a shin with her foot and had the satisfaction of hearing the male voice utter a string of muted obscenities. Although she could not understand a word, the gist was plain enough. But his grip on her not only held firm, but if anything it tightened. “Keep still. Or must I kill you myself?” The threat had the instant effect of suspending her foot in mid-air just as she was poised to kick out again. “Now, let your body move with mine. Do not struggle or I will leave you for the Bog Ones to feed on.”
Beth wearily succumbed and let herself be part carried, part dragged, deeper and deeper into dank, bine-crawling undergrowth. Once, her unwelcome companion fell and let her go. They plunged into a pool of steaming mud that sucked her in waist deep. "Quicksand!” she screamed. A hand grabbed hers and together they thrashed a path to solid ground, she and the…what? “Who are you?” she sobbed, but not until he had hauled her clear and they lay panting on a jutting rock covered with spongy lichen that provided welcome respite if a parody of comfort. “You nearly killed me, you brute!” She was unprepared for the roar of laughter.
“Talk if spirit! By Ri, you must have been a man in another lifetime!”
Beth’s hackles soared, but quickly subsided not least because she was close to total exhaustion. “Who are you?” she repeated tersely.
“My name is Mulac. And you, motherworlder, how are you called? For I am thinking you are no native of Mamelon even though you dress like one. Your accent is passable too.”
The suggestion that she might have acquired an accent made Beth wince. It implied a sense of belonging that she fiercely resisted. Besides, what accent? Had she adopted Ricci’s pretty drawl or this Mulac character’s gutturals that grated on the ear like a bass guitar played badly? “Huh!” was all she quite trusted herself to reply.
“A nice name, that. I like it. Greetings, Huh,” he mocked her.
Defying weariness, Beth’s hackles flared again. “If you must know, my name is Bethany Martin. And just what the hell do you think you’re playing at?”
Mulac shrugged. “I thought it would be amusing to save your life. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Save my life? First you scare me half to death and then you drag me along as if I were a sack of potatoes!”
“Potatoes…?” He seemed genuinely puzzled. It was Beth’s turn to laugh.
“We eat them back home,” she explained.
“Ah! Like the bog folk would have eaten you, eh? Never have I seen them with such an appetite. If you had moved just a little in the wrong direction…” He drew a hand across his throat. The unmistakable gesture made Beth shiver.
“You could have warned me. There was no need to be so rough,” she muttered crossly.
“And the two of us not even introduced?” He chuckled. “You would have been pleased to see me? I think not. I am Nu-gen? We are scum, lowest of the low. But you are right, of course. I should have let them have you.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No? And what do you think the bog folk would have done while we exchanged our life histories, listened in for the fun of it?”
“Are you always so rude?” Beth simmered.
“Are you always so ungrateful?” the Nu-gen flung at her.
Beth lapsed into an angry silence. Mulac got to his feet. “Where are you going?” she cried out involuntarily.
“My company obviously displeases you,” he commented evenly, “so I shall leave you to find your own way.”
“You can’t do that!” she protested, “I don’t even know where we are. If I wasn’t lost before, I certainly am now!” It was an admission of defeat. Feeling thoroughly humiliated, she fought back tears. “At least,” she struggled to retain an ounce of self-control, “tell me the way to the Purple Mountains.”
A quizzical eyebrow shot up and drew a blank. Beth refused to elaborate. Mulac shrugged again. If the female did not wish to confide her purpose, he would not ask. Rather, he would die first. “The mountains are that way.” He pointed south while fully appreciating that she could not have the slightest sense of direction. “Good luck,” he added gruffly and took another few strides.
Beth saw that he meant it. He had every intention of abandoning her in this awful place. She scrambled up, ran after him and caught the sleeve of his jerkin just as the shadowy figure was about to vanish into the mist. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, “I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. You probably saved my life and I thank you for that. But you can’t just leave me here, you just…can’t! I could die. Then your heroics will have been all for nothing,” she added dryly.
“Not so much heroics as self-preservation,” he confessed. “We were greatly outnumbered. If they had caught you, they would have caught me also.”
“Or you wouldn’t have bothered to help a mere female in distress, is that what you’re saying?” Beth was furious.
“Or a male,” he returned equably, “But you are right. I risked losing face by helping a female to save my own skin.” His swarthy features lit up with a lopsided grin that reminded her, obscurely, since they were so dissimilar, of Mick. “But what is face when a life is at stake?” He tugged his arm free. “And what is done, is done. Farewell, Bethan, motherworlder.”
“Bethany,” she corrected him irritably. Ricci had also called her Bethan, she recalled. “Most people call me Beth.”
“Ah, but this is Mamelon and nothing is as it should be,” the Nu-gen murmured cryptically. “You are Bethan. I am Mulac.”
“You Tarzan, me Jane,” she could not resist and tittered at the feeble joke that would mean nothing to her companion. Beth considered him for the first time. A faint glow flickered through the canopy of leaves. A shiny, oval disc on a cord around his neck glittered like a wolf’s eye and sent shivers down her spine. Why a wolf, she had no idea. Nor did it make any sense that the image of one should briefly fill her inner vision, lift a ragged head and prepare to howl. After that, whenever she happened to glance at the disc, it was always a wolf that looked back at her.
A wafer thin trickle of moonlight also allowed her to make out more of Mulac’s general appearance. He was stocky, not much taller than she. A mane of ragged, jet black hair framed a face that had the leathery aspect of one for whom life had not been easy. Guardedly bright eyes and a full mouth, that she suspected liked to laugh but rarely did, unexpectedly sent her pulse racing. She put it down to her peculiar state of mind and concentrated on the business in hand. “I’m sorry,” she repeated and tried, without much success, to suppress a rearing tidal wave of anxiety. “Please don’t leave me. I don’t know where I am or how I got here. Oh, I know you brought me to where we are standing noe, but before that I haven’t a clue, and…I’m frightened!” she said in a rush, ending on a note of near hysteria for which, in normal circumstances, she would have despised herself.
Beth half expected him to laugh in her face and disappear. Instead, he grabbed her hand and proceeded to drag her roughly and wordlessly for what seemed miles. She made no protest, leastwise not aloud. For one thing, she was relieved. For another, his odd behaviour confirmed a gut feeling. He liked her, this Mulac. But she was hard pressed to keep up with him and hadn’t time to mull over her own feelings.
All traces of light from the twin moons were as if extinguished like dead candles as they plunged into pitch blackness for what she guessed must have been a good hour or so. Suddenly, they entered a clearing lit by spluttering campfires where remains of carcasses dangled from spits. Shadowy outlines that resembled horses whinnied softly beside tents where they were tethered. They were real tents, Beth noted with dry humour, the kind she and her dad had holidayed in when she was a child, not the likes of Ricci’s extravaganza.
Mulac headed for a particular tent and did not let go of her wrist even while painstakingly unthreading the flap opening with his free hand. At last he pulled her inside and hastily repeated the process in reverse. Not until he had quite finished, did he release her. Then he knelt and rummaged in a bag to produce a leather flask and some fruit. He took several long draughts from the flask before offereing it to her. Thirstily, she drank, recognising the same potent juice called vinre that she had tasted at Ricci’s sumptuous table. Mulac snatched the flask from her and took more swigs. Beth turned her attention to the fruit. She had taken only a few bites and let its refreshing tanginess dwell on her tongue when her body sank to the ground and she fell into a deep sleep.
Daylight was already flooding the tent when Beth awoke. She was lying on a mat of soft pile, her body covered head to chin with a sheet of feathery lightness but silken to the touch and as snug as any duvet. It took a few moments more to become as orientated as her mind was fit to grasp. Events began to take a shape of sorts like some impossible jigsaw. But it was something else that alarmed her. Under the sheet she was completely naked.
At first, the thought of Mulac undressing her was a humiliating one and made her blush. Soon, though, she was livid. By the time she had finished pulling on the clothes Ricci had provided, now thrown carelessly next to the makeshift bed, Beth was in a rare temper. Nor could she help noticing that the bed mat still bore the faint imprint of another body lying next to hers. They had slept together. It was too much. She would have stormed outside, eyes blazing. But unhitching the awkward tent flap sent her into another tantrum altogether. By now, she was close to tears.
Outside the tent, Beth was first struck by the marmalade coloured sky and the curious quality of daylight. She wondered why only one sun where there had been two moons but soon dismissed it as the least of her worries. There were people milling about but only a few spared her a glance then looked hastily away and continued about their business. Women were cooking. Men were grooming horses. Old folk were pottering about, some gathered in small knots and punctuating the air with a cackle of conversation. She could not see a single child.
Beth caught her breath, remembering what Ricci had told them. Could it be true then, that this strange place, Mamelon, was dying? Yet, everyone seemed lively and active enough. Indeed, it was a natural domesticity about the scene that helped soothe her frayed nerves. Everything looked almost normal. She began to calm down.
“Greetings, Bethan, motherworlder.”
Beth turned, startled, to discover a woman with white hair piled high observing her with searching, colourless eyes. She was dressed in white, too, and might have been a ghost but for an animated smile whose radiance transformed her into the epitome of life and sheer presence.
“My name is Beth,” she insisted, and even to her own ears it sounded petulant. At the same time, it seemed important that she should keep a grip on her own name, as if it were the handle of a door that might yet swing open and allow her to go home. The woman, however, appeared to take no offence and her warm, welcoming, tone did not falter for an instant.
“I am Etta, The Magela” A ripple of laughter greeted Beth’s blank expression. “All Nu-gen tribes have one,” she explained, “In the motherworld we are called gifted ones, or seers. We are descended from Costas, the Greatest of Seers, who was beloved of Terra, Spirit of Earth. In return for His love, she granted him the gift of true Sight. It has been passed from magela to magela ever since. Every tribe follows its own magela although we are counsellors not leaders. We are also healers, some say from an ancient Druid line.” She shrugged. “Who knows? Even those with the Sight are not shown everything.” The beautiful smile continued to radiate an incredible light and warmth that belied a note of sadness in the musical voice. “We travel far and stay nowhere long. In so doing, we defy the very ethic of Mamelon. Who is anyone without roots? Even the dead have their own place. Here in Mamelon, Nu-gen matter less than the dead…for we have nowhere.”
“And everywhere,” commented Beth without thinking.
“Ah, you understand! Truly, Mamelon needs the likes of you at such a time!” The woman came forward to embrace Beth who, in turn, experienced such a rush of pleasure that she forgot to be either frightened or embarrassed.
“Good, you have met.” Beth recognized Mulac’s voice and some of her earlier fury erupted again. She swung round to confront him.
“You undressed me!” she accused him in ringing tones, “Then you…” To her consternation, she blushed and could not continue.
“You prefer to sleep with your clothes on?” he demanded with the same air of impatience that had annoyed her right from the start.
“And should I have left you to lie in the open and be eaten by any wind creature or passing earth beast?”
“No, of course not...!”
“Then stop complaining. Go and prepare some food.” He glared at her and she could have hit him. Go and prepare some food, indeed! What does he take me for, his slave? She was struggling to frame an appropriately stinging reply when a hand tugged gently at her sleeve.
“Come, I’ll show you.” As Etta led her away, Beth thought she heard Mulac snigger and tried to break free. But the Magela’s grip on her arm was surprisingly strong. At the same time, it was reassuring. For now, Beth decided, she would look and learn. Mulac could wait.
Mulac watched them go with mixed feelings. The motherworld female foretold trouble. He had thought as much from the moment he stumbled upon her and bog folk about to do the same. She was unlike any female he had ever known. True, some of them had been more beautiful. None, though, had such spirit. He had gazed long upon her nakedness before sleeping with such feelings running riot in him that they all but frightened him. That he, Mulac, could feel fear was preposterous, insulting. Yet, for the first time in his life he had dreamed of a woman, this woman. It was as if she held him in some kind of thrall. He felt humiliated,
and angry. So why was he not also unhappy, but quite the contrary? It does not bode well.
Etta showed Beth where to pick red berries and how to strip the leaves of a plant called mori, which could then be shaped into a kind of pitta or mori-ga. She also showed Beth how to draw the juice of the berries; after adding water from a nearby stream, it made a delicious squash.
“I understood water is scarce in Mamlon,” she commented.
“In many parts, yes, but not everywhere," Etta replied. "Not quite yet…”she added without elaborating. “There is still some help to be had, some forces for good even in Mamelon although Ri knows for long they can last or how far they may reach.” The musical voice faded, like a dying echo, defying anyone to pursue it. Least of all me, Beth sensed instinctively, and said nothing.
Further upstream, male and female Nu-gen bathed together. They urged Beth to join them. At first, she shook her head. But Etta went ahead and was soon splashing about with the others. So Beth joined in, and was soon glad she had. The water was cool and cleansing against her skin. Although the clothes Ricci provided were tough enough to have withstood previous night’s flight through forest and bog fairly well, her arms and legs displayed some nasty scratches.
The male Nu-gen ate at their own campfires, attended by female members of the family who would later finish off any leftovers. Beth had been warned by the Magela what to expect, but chose to ignore such blatant chauvinism and filled her own bowl immediately after heaping Mulac’s. She then sat cross-legged, as he did, to enjoy a hearty breakfast not unaware that they were the objects of disapproving scrutiny from all quarters.
Mulac, too, enjoyed the meal. Mori-ga was not the easiest food to prepare; it was an art. Bethan had exceeded his expectations. If he may have tasted better, he would also have settled for much worse. They ate in companionable silence, for all they remained the centre of covert attention. He knew The Magela would have told her what to expect. Even so, he sensed that she wanted him to compliment her on the food. To do so, though, would mean losing face. Instead, he chose not to reprimand her for having the audacity to eat with him as an equal. If others did not like it, that was too bad. It continued to amaze him how far he tolerated this female’s ego. He would have put any other in her place and given her a beating for good measure. She is a rare one, this Bethan. Better still, he admitted to himself with a chuckle that sounded like a low growl to anyone within earshot, she is a challenge.
“We take our customs seriously in my world,” Mulac pointed out in a neutral voice, but loud enough to be heard round and about.
“In mine too,” Beth replied evenly.
“Does not a guest adopt your ways?” He was genuinely curious.
“It depends.” She shrugged. “Up to a point, yes, as it’s only polite, after all. So long as you don’t compromise your dignity, I guess there’s no harm done.”
“It suggests a sense of pride in oneself. Women, too, have it where I come from.”
“Ah!” he murmured,” “Here also, but we prefer not to make too much of it.”
Beth regarded him closely. But if he was making fun of her, it was not obvious from his mild expression. She began to suspect that he might even approve of her little stand and decided this was as good a time as any to appeal to the Nugen’s better nature assuming, she reflected dryly, that he had one. “Will you take me to the Purple Mountains?” she asked with a nonchalance she was far from feeling.
Mulac stared then burst out laughing. “She wants me to take her to the Purple Mountains!” he shouted and everyone roared. It was several minutes before things quietened down around their campfire.
Beth rose and coolly sought out every speculative gaze, male and female. Then she curled her lip at Mulac with such distain that the blood rushed to his swarthy face. “I suppose you think a woman is incapable of making such a journey.” It was not a question.
“Going to the Purple Mountains poses no obstacle that cannot be overcome, but with great difficulty for male or female,” Mulac retorted with a dismissive shrug and there was much chuckling among their attentive audience.
“So what’s the problem?” demanded Beth.
“Getting back alive,” said Mulac with a grim smile. “A male might make it by the skin of his teeth if Ri wills it and the Beasts of the World sleep. But a female...?” He let rip with a derisory snort that met with thunderous applause. The curve of his mouth twisted into such a sneer that, without thinking, Beth raised a hand and dealt his cheek a stinging blow. At first, Mulac simply looked surprised. A hand flew to the spot and gave it a gentle fingertip massage. But as the skin reddened, so the swarthy Nu-gen’s expression darkened and Beth became aware of a tangible hostility in the humid air. The crowd, so far tolerably good humoured, began to make growling noises.
“I’m sorry,” said Beth in a voice meant to carry across the sea of shaking heads and close fisted gestures that were easily interpreted, “but I didn’t come here to be mocked. “ she added with that same spiritedness that made her unique and for which Mulac had overlooked much. But this, this was something else. She had struck him. He must do what must be done.
“A female may not hit a male,” Mulac said quietly.
“Oh?” Beth was already regretting her apology. “And may a male hit a female?”
“That is different,” Mulac snapped..
“You bet it is. It’s cowardly, for a start!” she flung back at him. Gasps from the crowd homed in on her like a swarm of wasps and stung her all over. Beth stood her ground. “As for the Purple Mountains, I’ll find my own way there…and back.” She longed to turn and walk away from them all, head high, but sensed she had made a dreadful error. Every muscle in her body froze.
“The penalty for what you have done is death,” Mulac coldly informed her.
“You’re joking?” Beth was incredulous. But she could see he meant it. She quickly understood, too, that the crowd expected no less either.
Beth paled as Mulac drew a knife from a studded leather sheath at his belt. Inconsequentially, it occurred to her that it was something Mick would have coveted. “You’d kill a woman, a guest?” It came as some relief to see his expression lighten a trifle, a tightness of the mouth ease perceptibly. She pressed on. “Where I come from, we make allowances for the stupidity and ignorance of those who are not familiar with our ways.” She took a deep breath and pressed on, acutely aware that she must do whatever it might take to demean herself sufficiently to let him to claw back face enough to consider sparing her. “I’m truly sorry,” she repeated. “Everything here is so strange. I am frightened. That is no excuse for such rudeness and stupidity, I know, but it is the only one I have. Please forgive me.” She turned to the crowd and stretched out both hands in a plea for reconciliation. “I’m sorry. I am a stupid woman, a stranger who knows no better.” She almost choked on the words, but could see they were having some effect, sensed a diminishing aggression if not open hostility and quickly pressed home her advantage. “Please, forgive me.” A tear trickled down one cheek, and the crowd was won over on the spot. Not bad, for an impromptu performance, thought Beth tremulously, but with wry satisfaction. Contriving with no small success to convey a self-congratulatory grin as an endearingly apologetic smile, she began to relax.
“Shall I forgive her? She is a guest, after all.” It was Mulac’s turn to appeal to the crowd that was lapping up the unexpected entertainment. Then, “No, I cannot!” He uttered a savage, bloodcurdling yell and turned on Beth, weapon poised to strike. Beth felt her legs start to buckle at the knees.
“No!” yelled the crowd in unison.
“I’ll say not!” piped up a familiar voice. Beth gave a squeal of delight and relief as Ricci and The Magela converged on the group with purposeful strides. Ricci was beaming although she thought he seemed a trifle uncomfortable. And so he should since all this is his fault. However, she decided, this was neither the time nor the place for recriminations. As for Etta, the magella only had eyes for Mulac. The Nu-gen, for his part, had assumed such a sheepish look that Beth was finding it hard not to giggle. It would have been a welcome relief after the terror she had experienced only moments before, but commonsense warned her against the sheer tactlessness of it.
“Is this how we treat a guest?” Etta’s voice, deceptively sweet and low, cut across assorted mutterings like a scythe.
The crowd disintegrated on the spot. Males took loping strides this way and that. A few females scampered ahead while others scooped up any remaining food and made for the tents. Few saw Beth flung herself at Ricci and embrace him.
“Mick, Pete, where are they? Are they okay?” The little magician nodded, kept smiling and was careful to avoid meeting her anxious gaze.
“Later, my dear, later,” Ricci murmured, returning her hug with growing self-consciousness. Wasn’t he worried sick about the unexpected turn events had taken? I’ll say so! He wondered how much, in all fairness, he should tell her.
Realizing there were no reassurances to be had from Ricci, Beth could not resist asking Etta with ill-concealed irony, “How did you do that, a woman?”
“I am The Magela,” replied the other with an air of infinite patience as if explaining the obvious to a dull-witted pupil. “Now, let us finish eating inside and we can plot our future course as we do so.”
“Course…?” Mulac was as curious as he was suddenly ravenous again.
“To the Purple Mountains, my dear,” said Etta in a tone that brooked no argument, “I don’t want you getting lost.”
“Bethan, too, naturally...”
“Naturally, Mother,” was all Mulac said as he disappeared after Beth inside the tent…
“You do realize who she is?” Ricci fixed his old friend with a reproachful look.
“Of course....” She squeezed his arm and ushered him after the others. Ducking her head to follow, Etta permitted herself a sigh of relief. If Ricci’s main concern was for the motherworlder, it proved how little he knew about certain other forces abroad. She would just have to chance he would find out later rather than sooner. Otherwise, she was in no doubt, he would hold it against her for countless lifetimes. There was no help for it. Her resolve was firm. Dear Ricci was, after all, inclined to be more than a little accident-prone. She sighed again, secured the entrance flap and silently prayed Mulac would not prove too obstinate. As Ri was her witness, he had been an impossible child. But that was then, and this was now. There were grave decisions to be made; it was vital that each should go as she intended. Does not the fate of all Mamelon hang in the balance? I’ll say! Etta answered her own question, inwardly mimicking Ricci.
As Etta turned to face the others, they, in turn, sought and found reassurance in the lovely smile.
Outwardly, Mulac appeared relaxed. He not only adored the woman who had raised him as her own and would call Mother sometimes, for that was how he thought of her, but he trusted her implicitly. Nor was he any less susceptible to her considerable charms than any other. But, the Purple Mountains…what is Etta up to npw? Curiosity flared in Mulac, amusement too. She would tell them as much as she wanted them to know, nothing more or less. No matter, he would find out soon enough. How much, he wondered as he often had, not without feelings of guilt, did she know or guess how well he had taught his mind-self to break free of the wards she liked to wrap him around him like a babe in swaddling?
Out of the corner of one eye, Mulac glimpsed the motherworlder, Bethan, glance at him and look quickly away. A new flame burned in him, one that rose much higher than the last, and with a far stronger heat.
For once, the Nu-gen reflected with a tight smile, the magela’s over-protectiveness served a useful purpose. Certainly, it was a good thing no one could read his thoughts at that precise moment.