Friday, 15 March 2013

Mamelon - Chapter 24

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR



Furiously pursued by krills, the four glucks bearing Pete, Heron and their supplies had arrived at the eastern cliff edge of T-Gray, Isle of the Dead, in no time at all. The clumsy, ostrich-like creatures slithered, screeching, to a halt, a flurry of arrows whizzing over their heads.
     “What now?” Pete yelled.
     “Trust me!” shouted Heron, playing for time. What now, indeed, he wondered?  The glucks ran in frantic circles, flapping their wings.
     “Why don’t they fly?” Pete wanted to know.
     “They can’t.”
     “What do you mean, they can’t?”
    “Glucks don’t fly,” a third voice muttered out of nowhere. For a moment, Pete could have sworn it was Sam who spoke. He had named his gluck Sam after a bandy-legged school chum.
     “Why ever not…?” Pete demanded.
     “Glucks don’t fly,” repeated the voice crossly. It wasn’t Heron so it had to be Sam, Pete reasoned with growing exasperation. Absurd it may be, but it was the only explanation.
     “You’ve got wings, dammit, use them!” he yelled as an arrow whistled past his ear.
     “What?” Heron had to swing his mount closer to catch what Pete was saying.
     “It’s a long way down.”  The gluck stuck out its long neck and peered nervously into the yawning chasm.
    “So what do you suggest?” retorted Pete, “Going back?” Another arrow struck the gluck’s feathered flank a glancing blow and it uttered an indignant yelp.  “What are you waiting for?” screamed its frantic rider, “Fly!”
     The panicking creatures spread and shook their wings. Of one accord, they soared into the coppery sky with such effortless grace that the two fugitives were taken completely by surprise. Pete had let his grip on Sam’s neck slacken and would have slid off its downy back if the gluck hadn’t obligingly slowed, bucked slightly and jerked him firmly back into place.
      “Thanks Sam,” muttered Pete in a daze and clung on for dear life.
      “You’re welcome,” he could have sworn the creature replied.
     Aware that Heron was giving him strange looks, Pete settled for a triumphant grin. After shaking his head and calling himself a few names, he was ready to dismiss the notion of a talking gluck as pure fantasy when he heard the voice again.
     “There’s no need to strangle me, either. Relax. I won’t let you fall. Not that I haven’t half a mind to do just that. I mean, well…glucks, flying! Whoever heard of such a thing? I only hope we don’t meet up with any aryds on the lookout for a snack! We’re considered something of a delicacy, you know.”
      “I don’t understand it!” Heron was incredulous, “Glucks don’t fly!”
      “And with good reason,” wailed Sam, “We don’t like heights for a start!”
     “What do you mean, you don’t like heights?”  Aware thet Heron waa giving him another funny look, Pete chose to ignore ut. Instead, he craned forward and saw that Sam’s eyes were tightly shut. “Is it really you, Sam?” he said aloud.
     “Never mind that now,” muttered the gluck, “Look out for the Dragon Hills and a place to land!”
     “Me?”
     “Of course, you!” snorted the voice, “You’re the navigator, for Ri’s sake!”
     “But…” Pete spluttered.
    “But nothing…! You got us into this mess. The very least you can do is get us out of it. And do stop digging your fingers into my neck, it hurts!”
     “Alright, alright, keep your feathers on!” returned Pete irritably, but nevertheless relaxed his hold.  Then he made the mistake of looking down and promptly tightened it again.
     “Gluck, gluck!” complained the unfortunate Sam.
    Pete needed no translation and forced himself to loosen his grip, if only slightly.  Eventually, though, he began to relax and enjoy himself.  He even waved to Heron who grinned and waved back. Below, Mamelon resembled a hand print cast in copper or bronze although its various shades of light and dark were more like a child’s crayoning.  Immediately above, a fluffy blanket of pink cloud reminded Pete of candyfloss at a fair. He was confused, scared, and excited all at once.  At the same time, he was adapting fast to both the pleasures and hazards of being airborne.  He was also keen to pursue the peculiar dialogue with Sam.  “Is that better?”
     “Much,”  the gluck agreed.
     “So how come we can talk to each other? It’s plain daft if you ask me! I mean, you’re just a …”
    “Gluck. I couldn’t agree more. Glucks are shy, retiring creatures. We may be willing and like to please, but we don’t take risks or talk to strangers as a rule. And we certainly don’t fly!”
     “So why are we here?”
     “You tell me. You started this little caper.”
     “I never did!”
     “You did, too!  Fly, you said. The next thing I knew, we were up and away. How you did it, Ri only knows. But I wish you hadn’t. I’ll be a nervous wreck by the time we land. Talking of which, can you see the Dragon Hills yet? We can’t be far away now?”
     “I suppose you’d rather have jumped and got us killed or let those krills have us for breakfast!” Pete grumbled and wriggled about a bit, smarting at the injustice of Sam’s complaint.
      “Stop fidgeting and keep your eyes peeled for a likely spot to land!” said the gluck.
     “How do I know what’s a likely spot to land?” Pete protested. “What do these Dragon Hills look like, anyway?”
     “Like a dragon, I suppose. How should I know? You’re the one with all the bright ideas. Get one and make it snappy. I’m not sure how much of this my wings can take!” 
     Pete glanced across at Heron who was trailing slightly. He lay full-length across Iggy’s back and appeared to have fallen asleep. “Heron!” he shouted, but his friend did not stir. “A fat lot of help you are!”  Pete muttered, half expecting Iggy to call out something. But Heron’s gluck seemed to be concentrating hard and made no sign.  Shifting his position a fraction, Pete half turned and risked a backward glance. The other glucks had fallen back. Their flying was sluggish and they looked decidedly the worse for wear. “Gluck, gluck, gluck!!!” Suddenly, they all started up at once, wings flapping wildly and jerking up and down like yo-yos. Sam was no exception, nor Iggy.
     “Aa-gh…!” Pete nearly lost his hold and fell off. “Help!” he screamed again, legs thrashing in mid-air. It took several well-judged dips and dives on Sam’s part before he was able to swing himself back into a position of relative safety. “What’s the matter now?” Pete panted in one of the gluck’s floppy ears, now pricked up rigid, as he fought to keep his balance.
     “Aryds,” the gluck gurgled and continued to flap its wings in obvious distress.
     “Where…?”
     “Behind and closing fast…! We’re dead meat, all of us! Oh dear, oh dear…!”
     Pete twisted his head. “I can’t see anything.”
     “Can’t you hear them? Can’t you smell them?  Oh dear, oh dear!  It’s no way for a gluck to go!
     Pete paled. “What about me?”
     “Huh!” 
     “What do you mean, huh?”  Pete was indignant.
    “It’s all your fault! Who asked you to come to Mamelon? Did glucks? No, of course not. Glucks know better than to get involved in things that are none of their business. I’ve a good mind to dump you here and now.”
     “You wouldn’t,” Pete cried out in alarm, “would you…?”
    By now, Iggy was flying alongside. Pete looked to Heron for support, but in vain. Heron was still asleep…or dead. Pete toyed with the latter possibility only fleetingly. It was just too much.       
     “We have to land?” screeched Sam, “Can’t you see anything at all?”
     Pete forced himself to look down. His head swam as he peered through a perceptibly thickening layer of heat mist. He wondered whether they shouldn’t descend anyway, and take their chances. The glucks were clearly thinking along the same lines. Iggy dived first, and then Sam. At the same instant, Pete had a flash of inspiration. “No!” he cried, “Up, we must go up! The aryds won’t follow us there!” he yelled again without knowing why. What did he know about aryds, after all? 
     The two glucks paused in mid-flight, exchanged meaningful glances then swung upwards with astonishing grace and speed. Wings that once flapped clumsily now spread with increasing resolve and skill. Beneath him, Pete felt Sam shudder and tense. Even so, he perceived how both glucks gained confidence the higher they soared into the candyfloss sky. Proportionately, his terror receded. Nor for a single moment, though, did his heart let up its sledgehammer pounding against his chest.  “Now what?” He sighed as the glucks paused again before embarking on a series of ever-widening sweeps into the cloying mist.
     “We glucks stick together,” Sam explained. “The others can’t be far away unless…” The weird, high pitch cackle trailed away rather than contemplate the worst. All this time, nothing resembling speech had actually emerged from Sam’s half open beak, only queer glucking noises. It was a puzzle and no mistake. Pete was still fretting about whether he might be going completely bonkers when several layers of candyfloss parted to reveal a horrific scene below.
     Several aryds were fiercely attacking those glucks that had fallen behind. Another gluck that has edged ahead was returning to rejoin the group but with no realistic chance of making an impact. It, too, was soon engaged by a devilish flurry of thrashing wings, flying feathers, stabbing beaks and merciless talons. Nor did the aryds waste any time before feeding on their live victims.
    Pete’s stomach heaved again and again. It was sickening enough to watch the terrible carnage below, worse still to feel so helpless. The image of those glucks in their last, violent death throes would haunt him for the rest of his life.  “We have to do something!” he cried and would have clamped both hands over his ears to drown the terrible sounds of slaughter, but was afraid to let go of Sam’s neck.  There was nothing to be done. They were outnumbered six to one. To descend would be suicide and if an aryd should glance up and see them….
     “Yes,” agreed Sam dryly, “we must save ourselves and quickly…” whereupon both creatures fled in the same direction from which they had come. In their ears, the frantic screeching of doomed glucks was drowned by an even shriller cacophony of gluttonous aryds. 
    “Cowards!” a distraught Pete hurled abuse. Neither Sam nor Iggy paid him any attention. He would dearly have liked to take out his frustration on Heron. But that son of Nadya and Kris remained motionless on Iggy’s back while somehow managing to cling to the gluck’s craning neck.
     “Watch for the Dragon Hills! Look for a place to land!” Sam kept urging.
     A sob in the queer voice moved Pete close to tears. It struck him how the gluck’s distress must be far greater than his own. It was a sobering thought. By now, he was finding it less scary to look down. He made a show of scanning the faint spread of Mamelon landscape with little real anticipation, appreciation or conscious thought. Suddenly, something caught his wandering attention and held it steady. At the same time, it jolted him out of feelings he had no real desire to tackle, returning him to something like his old self. Summoning all the native stubbornness of a motherworld thirteen year-old, he made a solemn vow. From now on, he promised himself, he wasn’t going to let this place, Mamelon, get to him whatever happened.  “Over my dead body,” he added aloud for good measure.
     “Chance’d be a fine thing!” muttered Sam, unimpressed. 
    Pete thought he detected a note of banter creeping back into the gluck’s voice and ventured a chuckle. “Shut up and let’s go down and see what’s what,” he retorted in slightly better humour. Sam dived, Iggy close behind. “Steady as she goes,” Pete cautioned needlessly as they broke cover.  The candyfloss clouds now far above them, they had a clear view of a formation not too far ahead that closely resembled a dragon’s head.
     “The Dragon Hills…!”  Pete could have sworn that both glucks gave an excited whoop.
     In no time, they were skimming grassy slopes bathed in brilliant sunshine before making a perfect landing.  The two glucks sank, relieved and exhausted, to the ground.  Pete was impatient to check on Heron but had to wait for cramp in both arms to pass before easing himself off Sam’s back.  After that, it was a while before his legs would perform sufficiently to let him approach Iggy and see to his friend.
     “Heron…?” Pete reached out tentatively and tapped the older youth on the shoulder. No response. Next, he clambered over Iggy’s back and straddled the inert form. Heron continued to cling, as if senseless, to the gluck’s neck. “Heron…?”  But still no sign that he had heard or was even alive. It proved a difficult and arduous task to prise the Mamelonian’s fingers loose, one by one, from their grip.  Eventually, Pete succeeded and was able to slide the youth’s still-warm body to the ground. “Heron, wake up?” he pleaded and gave the slump shoulders a hearty shake but to no avail. In vain, he searched frantically for a pulse the way he’s seen it done on TV.
      Heron was dead.
    All Pete’s earlier resolve disintegrated on the spot. He ran off a short distance, possessed by a desperate urgency to discover a way out of the continuing nightmare before it was too late. Then it hit him that there was none.  For Heron, it was already too late. As for himself, what chance did he stand of getting out of this place and ever going home?  Flinging himself on the grass, he gave up trying to stem the flow of tears that soon became a flood.  Eventually, he sobbed himself into an uneasy sleep.
    For several minutes after opening his eyes, Pete remained blissfully disoriented. The long grass was soft, like bedding. In his bedroom at home, he had red lamp shades, much the same colour as the tawny sun slowly coming into focus above his head. Then he remembered where he was and sat bold upright.  He must have cried himself to sleep, he reflected sheepishly. Wearily, he yawned, stretched, and looked around. The two glucks were sleeping heavily, their snoring told him that much.  Heron lay nearby, exactly as he remembered.
     Not knowing what else to do, Pete rose and went for a walk. His dad, he recalled with a telling lurch of the stomach, was fond of proclaiming with predictable frequency how there was nothing like a brisk walk to clear the head. He hadn’t gone far when a girl appeared out of nowhere and scared him half to death.
     “Who the devil are you?” he flashed, angry and humiliated at being caught lost in thought and completely off guard.
    “Who are you?” she countered spiritedly as she approaved, a pretty smile on her face that Pete instantly distrusted.
     “I asked first,” Pete insisted but took the precaution of retreating a few steps.
     “True,” she conceded, “But a name is precious. It is not easily given away.”
     It occurred to Pete that, Heron aside, the girl was the nearest thing to a flesh and blood human being he’d set eyes on since becoming separated from Mick and Beth. His eyes filled with tears. He missed them both terribly. Perhaps this strange girl had seen them? His heart leapt. Almost at once, it sank again. True, this was no krill. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t an enemy, not that he had a clue just who the enemy was…
     Suddenly, Pete was past caring. He was fed-up with the whole rotten business. To his horror, he burst into tears again. The petite figure came closer. He retreated then, “He’s dead!” he blurted.
     “Who is dead?”
     “Heron,” sniffed Pete between sobs. In spite of his misgivings, the sound of another voice was a comfort in itself and made a pleasant change from having only glucks to ‘talk’ to. “He was my friend,” he added.
     “Show me,” urged Irina with a smile few could resist. Pete was no exception. He hesitated only a fraction then retraced his steps, glancing behind now and then to make sure that she was following. Irina kept a discreet distance. They had not gone far when he disappeared behind a clump of rocks. Warily, she slowed her pace. She had guessed his identity, of course, and was both curious and relieved to find some company. But she was taking no chances. Even so, she did not hesitate when the boy reappeared, unsmiling, and beckoned with a grudging wave.
     The elf girl knelt beside the motionless figure on the ground and felt for a pulse. She could not miss an ugly burn close to the heart and drew in her breath sharply. It was the mark of a krill arrow, almost certainly one that had been dipped in poison. Her father, Ka, had described such horrors during bedtime tales that his children, when small, had constantly nagged him to tell. They would listen agog. Later, Pers would creep into her bed or she in his, depending who could resist the longer, and they would huddle together in abject terror. The lovely mouth creased into a smile. They would lie awake for ages, each feigning sleep lest the other suspect. Dear Pers, how I miss him! The smile faded…
     One hand lightly brushed the mane of blond hair. It flopped back, revealing finely chiselled features that made her gasp. His resemblance to Michal, called Mick, was remarkable. True, he did not possess Michal’s smouldering charisma. Yet, he exuded a like quality of raw strength and radiated a certain charm even in death. Something else, too, she shyly acknowledged to a deeper self.  This Heron, he was very beautiful. “You say he is called Heron?” she put to the red haired boy for the sake of something to say.
     “Yes,” mumbled Pete tonelessly, exhaustion creeping up on him.
     “And you, motherworlder, are called Pete.”
     “How do you know that?”
     “Your brother has spoken of you. The one called Bethan, also.”
      “Mick, Beth, they’re alive?”  Pete could scarcely contain his excitement.
      “I trust so,” replied Irina dryly. She was unprepared for the boy’s subsequent display of delight.  He danced a little jig before her eyes and made strange noises between performing a series of adroit somersaults. He calmed down only long enough to start firing questions at her.
      “You’ve seen them? Where? Are they okay? Why aren’t they with you? Did they have a dog with them? Tell me!” He grabbed her arm.
    “They are well enough and journey to the Purple Mountains.” She tried to prise free the fingers digging into her flesh but, if anything. Pete’s grip tightened. Irina grew agitated and tossed him a look of mixed impatience and distain. “Let go. Or, by Ri, I’ll…” Her voice trailed off as she heard a low moan beside her. Instantly, the boy’s petulant expression turned to one of sheer incredulity.
     “Where am I? What happened?” groaned Heron and tried to sit up but the effort was too great and he slumped back again.
     “Good question,” murmured the elf girl with feeling and a wry smile crossed the lovely face.
     “You’re alive!” sobbed Pete and flung himself at a surprised and momentarily winded Heron. He had little experience of physical contact.  They were not a tactile people on Ti-Gray. Only the dead liked to touch and caress. His first reaction was to withdraw from Pete’s hug. He stiffened, placed both hands on the trembling shoulders and would have heaved the boy side. But Pete continued to cling, his tears soaking Heron’s tunic.  A curious warmth flooded Heron. He managed to sit up. Pete threw both arms round his friend’s neck. Nonplussed but not displeased, Heron sat passively.
     Sensing Heron’s awkwardness, Pete relinquished his hold and drew back. “Sorry,” he sniffed, wiping nose and tears on his sleeve.
    “Because I live?” grinned Heron, “I’m not.”  One arm closed around the boy and both enjoyed an affectionate hug.  “Who are you?”  Heron considered Irina with undisguised suspicion.
      “I am called Irina.”
     “So why tell him and not me?” Pete flung her an aggrieved look but she chose to ignore it.
     “You’re eleven!” gasped Heron.
    Ignoring his accusatory tone, Irina appraised him, frankly, all over again. His beauty appealed to her, certainly, and the fact that he did not instantly undress her with his eyes as most males did. She frowned and pretended cool indifference. But this Heron was no fool. To her consternation, he made no attempt to conceal his amusement and the full, sensual mouth broke into a huge grin.
     “Can you walk?” demanded Irina, more than a trifle put out. Two startled pairs of eyes rounded on her. “Or do you propose that we wait around for Ri knows what to happen?” She glared from one to the other. It helped to get angry. Clearly, these two males had bonded closely. She experienced a twinge of jealousy, not least because she felt totally excluded. How she missed Pers!  A nagging sense of inadequacy made her hackles rise. In addition, she was scared. This was meant to be the adventure of a lifetime. Instead, it had turned sourer than mori-ga left to simmer too long.  At least things couldn’t get any worse, she supposed, and only wished she could be sure. What next, she couldn’t help but wonder?  Biting her lip, miserably, she turned away so neither male would see she was close to tears.
     “Where are we?” repeated Heron dazedly.
    “In the Dragon Hills,” said Irina coolly, “but don’t ask me where, exactly. Ri only knows! But we must get on while there is still daylight left.”
     “To the Purple Mountains…” Heron mused aloud. He had been struggling to gather his wits. Suddenly, memory swooped down upon him like a hungry aryd. He struggled to his feet and was glad to lean on Pete.
    “You too…? Why am I not surprised?” Irina retorted with growing irritation. There were forces about, light and dark, of which she would dearly love to know more yet was afraid to ask. This Heron, he had been dead, she was sure of it. How could she have missed a pulse, she an elf?
     No one spoke. Irina led the way with an air of self-confidence she was far from feeling but which, at least, had the desired effect of plainly annoying Heron who could only stagger way behind, eagerly supported by Pete, still mulling over the incredible fact that elves were abroad in Mamelon.
      “Females!” hissed Heron under his breath.
Bringing up the rear, the two glucks brooded on the massacre of their friends and took what comfort they could from the sheer relief at being on terra firma once again.
“No more flying for me!” Sam squawked. Iggy merely nodded in heartfelt agreement. Neither creature felt much like communicating.

To be continued