Friday, 5 April 2013

Mamelon - Chapter 30



“Come.” Heron took Pete’s arm and they followed the others at a distance.
       “Why don’t we join them till we’re ready to make our move?” Pete wanted to know.
       “Because while Irina is leading them past the camp, you and I will be entering  it.”
       “Silly question!” muttered Pete.
      “Not at all,” Heron grinned, “We have a saying in Mamelon. Keep a question to yourself and the Dark will take you both.  Never be afraid to ask, my friend. It can mean the difference between life and death.”
      “So why do you need me?” Pete grinned, “And don’t give me all that crap about being a team either.”
     “We are a team,” Heron grinned back, “but you are also the smallest among us. You can go places, I cannot.”
      “Such as…?”
      “Such as…” Heron pointed. They were at the edge of the krill camp. Pete  followed the finger to a large, hut-like construction. “In the absence of anywhere else, krills always make a temporary structure for their horses. It is made of brush and tied together with grasses. There is no door, just a hole in the roof so the horses will not be distracted and run off.”
      “Can’t we just break it down?”
      “Krills are master-builders. It may not look much but, believe me, it is very secure.”
       “So I get through the window and…?”
      “Befriend the horses while you use a knife to cut out a bigh enough hole for them to pass through.”
      “What knife?”
      “This one….” Heron produced a blade from his tunic, the same one he had stolen from a krill just prior to his and Pete’s making good their escape through the swamps.
      “Wow!” Pete was impressed.
      “There will be at least one krill guarding the horses. Leave him to me. When I have dealt with him, I will hoist you on my shoulders and you will climb on to the roof.”
      “And jump through the hole?” Pete was sceptical.
      “You will not be hurt if you take care how you fall.”
     “If you say so,” but Pete remained sceptical. The pair headed for the makeshift stables. There were no krills on this side of the camp but… beyond?  Who knows? Pete wondered uneasily, heart pounding like a sledgehammer against his tunic.
      Heron was right. A krill leant against the construction’s farther side. He was plainly drunk and almost asleep. Heron crept up behind the scaly creature and coolly dealt a blow to the neck that knocked the krill out cold.  Crouching low to allow Pete to mount his shoulders, he then hoisted the boy level with the thatch-like roof.
      Gingerly, Pete crept towards a gaping hole at the centre of the roof and peered down. Several horses whinnied and others shuffled restlessly.  Pete gulped. It looked an awfully long drop. Easing himself into position, he shut his eyes tight, hoped for the best, and let himself fall. Fortunately, the ground was fairly soft and littered with straw. He rose, carefully testing arms and legs to reassure himself all were in sound working order. A horse wandered over and lightly head butted him, but otherwise, his arrival was greeted with neither fuss nor favour.
      Pete set to with the knife. It took longer than he anticipated severing the thick grassy twine that bound together brush, assorted pieces of wood and giant leaves of the kind that practically every other tree in Mamelon could boast. The horses remained restless but docile. At last, he made a sizeable flap in one wall. He opened it a fraction, peered out, and matched Heron’s broad grin with one of his own. 
      Heron dived inside, took a long hard look at the horses and approached a handsome grey. “Win this one over and the rest will follow,” he declared and proceeded to take the animal’s head in both hands and murmur in one ear. At first the beast shied and retreated. Heron stayed where he was and raised his voice slightly. After a few moments, the horse approached.  While pawing the ground with its rear hooves, it allowed Heron to take its fine head in both hands again and whisper in its ear, whinnying softly now and then as if by way of replying.
      It seemed to Pete this curious ritual was perpetuated for ages before Heron finally leapt on the horse’s back, lay flat on his belly and continued to make reassuring noises in the its ear.  Again, the beast’s rear hooves pawed the ground. Its ears pricked up even further as if anxious for as much as responding to the soothing timbre of Heron’s voice. Finally, it quieted and stood still.  Heron gave the animal’s flank a cheerful pat, beamed at Pete and jumped nimbly down.  “See, a piece of cake. Now, give us a hug.” Before Pete knew it, he was caught up in a bear hug.
      “Don’t be soft!” Pete protested laughingly and broke free, but not before returning the hug.
      “Now the horse…”
      “What about the horse?”
      “He knows we are friends now. Take his head as you saw me do, give it a hug, and tell him you are his friend also.”
      “That’s plain daft.”
      “Do you want these horses to come with us or don’t you?”  
      Pete shrugged, did as he was told and was surprised to discover an affinity with the animal he hadn’t expected. 
       “Good. He will let you ride him now while I bring the others.”
       “Ride him?”  Pete was aghast. “I can’t get up there! I’ve never rode a horse in my life.”
       “Had you ever rode a gluck before?”
       “Well, no, but…”
      “Glucks are stupid creatures, I agree. But horses are very intelligent. This one knows exactly what is expected of him. He will not let us down. Nor will he let you fall, I promise.”
        “I was going to say that glucks are…well, smaller.”
      “Big, small...what is that?  I am big and you are small. So what? It makes a difference? It is what goes on inside the head that matters.”
        “I suppose so if you put it that way…”
      Heron helped Pete to mount the horse, approached its nearest companion and softly called the others. To Pete’s astonishment, they came like lambs. Then Heron went to the flap Pete had made and pulled it open.  “When you are outside, head for the trees on the farther side and try to keep a straight line. Do not deflect or the horses will become confused.”
      “How do I do that?”
      “You don’t. The horse will do it for you. If it hesitates, just stroke its nose and talk to it as you would a sweetheart.”
      “A sweetheart…? Huh!”
      “One day…” Heron grinned. “Now, dig your heels into Lucky’s flank and let him know we are ready to go.”
      “You can think of a better name?”
      Pete gave a resigned sigh and gritted his teeth. “Come on Lucky. And you’d better live up to your name…”
    They covered the first stretch of the clearing without mishap. Lucky behaved perfectly and the others gave Heron no cause for concern. They passed a couple of tents and several krills sprawled drunkenly on the ground.  They had more than closed the halfway distance between themselves and the trees when a shout went up. Lucky paused, nostrils flaring. Pete twisted round in his seat, looked back and paled. A krill was staggering towards them, scaly arms flailing, brandishing an evil looking blade.
      “Hey, you there, where do you think you’re going with my horses?” Radik yelled. “Somebody come and help me here! Hold, you dogs, hold! I’ll teach you to steal from me, damn you!”
     “Go, Pete, go!” shouted Heron, coming alongside Lucky and giving the beast a hefty slap on the rear. Lucky took off with Pete clinging to its neck for dear life. Heron was poised to galvanize his own mount into action when it reared suddenly, depositing its rider unceremoniously on the ground. The remaining horses backed away and it, too, wandered off before Heron had a chance to remount.
     “Is it you, you meddling cur?” Radik screamed, recognizing Heron as he lurched closer.  “I’ll teach you, so help me I will…”
     The horses shied and would have run off in all directions had two ungainly ostrich-like creatures not waddled into the fracas and taken charge. “Don’t be such babies!” Sam called to the horses crossly, “But if you love the company of krills so much, so be it…you’re welcome.”
     “Or come with us and be treated fairly and with respect,” urged Iggy. It was a sobering thought. The horses quietened, but continued to procrastinate.
     Meanwhile, Radik was sobering up fast. He lunged at Heron and both were soon rolling on the ground, limbs flashing, blades thrusting wherever they saw an opening.  Krills excel in hand-to-hand combat, their scales providing better protection than any conventional armour. Heron’s native fortitude began to weaken. Nor would he have lasted so long had the krill been at full strength. As it was, Radik reactions were instinctive, his fighting tactics intuitive.
      As soon as he recognized Heron, Radik had acted on an immediate need to strike out rather than responding to or even beginning to appreciate the full implications of the situation confronting. By now, the initial surge of adrenalin was starting to subside. In its place, raged the blind fury of someone too drunk to know exactly what they were doing but too much of an old hand at the survival game to give in easily.  The krill leader that emerged briefly and instinctively from a drunken stupor had already slunk back into its hole. Vision blurred, mind gone blank, all that remained was a fighting machine, albeit one of Mamelon’s finest.
     Heron sensed some of this even as he battled for the upper hand. It made little difference, however, and the outcome seemed inevitable. He was fighting for his life and things were not looking good. Radik had him pinioned now. The krill leader raised his blade arm and prepared to lunge downwards. Exhausted and curiously resigned, Heron shut his eyes and waited for the fatal thrust.
     The glucks hovered nearby, squawking madly. The horses neighed, occasionally shying, but did not run off, mainly thanks to Iggy who gave Heron’s horse a no-nonsense prod of the beak whenever it looked like breaking ranks.
      Radik was poised for the kill. Sam could not bear it. The gluck leapt forward and stabbed at the krill leader’s neck with its beak, sliding under the glistening scales and penetrating soft flesh. Radik screamed and tumbled to one side. Heron’s eyes flew open, took in the situation at a glance and flung Sam a look of eternal gratitude. Drawing on reserves of energy hidden even from him, Heron scrambled to his feet, ran to his horse, leapt on its back and cantered off.
      “So what are you waiting for?” grumbled Sam to the horses.
      “Follow me!” Iggy took charge again. Horses and glucks cantered towards the trees, Sam bringing up the rear. But Radik was not finished yet.  Forcing himself to his knees, the krill leader raised his blade arm a second time and flung his weapon at the nearer gluck. Sam let out a piecing cry and dropped to the ground. Iggy slithered to a halt while the horses continued to head for the trees where a distraught Pete, sitting bolt upright on Lucky, had seen everything.  Iggy turned his head in time to see the krill leader stagger and fall heavily before he could reach the prostrate gluck. It did not matter. Nor, Iggy knew, was there any need to rush back and see what could be done. Sam was already dead. Neck drooping and long legs moving sluggishly, the devastated gluck joined the others. 
      Heron was trying to comfort the red haired boy sobbing in his arms. The horses waited patiently.
         Poor Iggy had never felt so alone.

To be continued