Monday, 8 April 2013

Mamelon - Chapter 31

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE




It was a subdued company of seven that rode across the Dragon Hills all the next day, pausing now and then only to rest the horses or take a drink from those few streams that hadn’t dried up completely or been driven back to their underground sources by the drought. Tol seemed to know them all. He had an instinct, too, for those places where berries, edible roots and mori could be found.
     It was good to ride. But Pete, on Lucky, was inconsolable and Heron blamed himself for the boy’s distress. Beth remained preoccupied with her deepening concern and feelings for Mulac while Arissa, weary of the tiresome elf trotting meekly beside her, was impatient to discover Radik’s fate. Heron’s account had been sketchy and the boy had contributed nothing, merely becoming tearful and withdrawn.  She laughed aloud. It amused her no end that the krill leader should have been bested by a stupid gluck of all things. He will be hard put, indeed, to live that down. She laughed again. Pers flung her a hurt look and wished she would share the joke, but she continued to ignore him. 
      Irina’s heart ached to see the misery etched on her brother’s face even as she agonized about exposing Arissa for a traitor. She longed to speak out, and knew she must, but would anyone believe her?
Only Tol, leading the group, kept his eyes fixed on the mist-shrouded purple towers that loomed ever closer and refused to brood on past, present or future.
      At nightfall they made camp and even lit a small fire since the krills would not catch them easily without horses. While keeping two extra horses to help carry their packs, Heron had let the others run free. It would take the krills a good while to round all be beasts up, and even then some would be left without a mount. Meanwhile, two rabbits, courtesy of Heron and Tol, provided an excellent supper.
      Unable to bear Pers' adoring looks and deep sighs a moment longer, Arissa seized an opportunity to slip away and be on her own. Irina saw her go and made to follow, but checked herself when she saw Heron go after his sister.  She relaxed. Heron was no traitor, she was sure of that. Does he suspect Arissa’s involvement with the krills, she wondered?  There was a sure way to find out.  She glanced around. The red haired boy, Heron’s arm flung protectively around him was asleep already. Heron himself, head resting against a tree, was gazing moodily at the ground. Tol and Bethan were still eating, and seemed so relaxed in each other’s company they might have been old friends chatting over a meal. Irina chuckled. The very idea of a mute chatting to anyone!  Wandering off in another direction, she hastily doubled back through the trees. In no time at all, she located brother and sister at a nearby stream and crept within earshot.
      “What are you up to, Arissa?” Heron was saying.
      Arissa pursed her lips and put aside her annoyance at being followed. She had planned to summon her dream-self with the intention of paying Radik a flying visit. Her pest of a brother must not suspect. She smiled. An old motherworld saying, amomg many that had passed into Mamelon folklore, about the smile on the face of a tiger sprung to Irina’s mind as she watched from her vantage point behind a viola bush.
      “Why are you so unkind to me, Heron? Are we not flesh and blood? We were close once.”
      “Once,” Heron agreed tersely, “But you changed.”
      “I grew up, you mean, and discovered that a woman is equal to any man. In the heart and soul, where it counts, if not in this mortal frame we call a body. You cannot bear that. Few males can.”
       “Show me your heart and soul, Arissa, and I will show you fool’s gold,” said Heron placidly. “Now, tell me about our parents. Why are you not with them? What devilry are you playing with this time?”
       “Oh, my Heron, you are such a fine specimen! Ah, but so so brave, yet so tender also. So cruel, too… The red haired boy adores you and the rest would trust you with their lives.  If only they knew you for what you are, dear brother, if only…”
         “And what am I, Arissa?”
       “A fool,” Arissa hissed. “No more or less. You think you can save Mamelon because your male pride says you must. Yet, you are but a pawn in a game beyond your understanding, Heron. You see only what you want to see, hear only what you want to hear. One day you will find that out and it will be too late.”
       “Don’t bandy words with me Arissa,” growled Heron, “just tell me about our parents….”
     Arissa shrugged. “I know no more than you do. I was not there when the krills came to Ti-Gray.  I returned to ruin and slaughter and a note from our mother saying that she and our father could be found in the Vale of Ca-an. So, like you, I make my way to the Purple Mountains.”
       “A note, that is all?”
       “It was enough, surely, to tell us that they are alive and well?”
      Heron was puzzled. Why hadn’t their mother contacted Arissa in the same way that she had appeared to himself?  Could it be that even her own mother distrusted Arissa? Surely not…?  Yet, Arissa had changed. Slowly but surely, she had distanced herself from the whole family. Between morning, noon, and night she would go away and return a different person,  as if by…magic?  Heron started. Did his mother suspect that?  Is that why she did not send her dream self to Arissa, because she did not dareNo, never. She would have confided in him…surely?  It had to be as Arissa said herself.  The sweet child had become her own person but, sadly, not a nice one. That was all…surely?  But Heron remained gravely troubled. To even consider the prospect of magic, however unlikely, was no small thing. “You could be right, Arissa. Perhaps I should see and hear more carefully. Thanks for the warning, I’ll certainly bear it in mind,” contriving a broad grin to mask his confusion.
     “A warning, you say?” Arissa flung back her head and laughed aloud. “You are such a drama queen, Heron. It was merely good advice as sister to brother.”
      “Maybe we should try harder, Arissa. At the brother and sister thing, I mean.”
      “We are as we are, Heron. Nothing can change that.”
      “You know what I mean, Arissa. Why do you always run away from me?”
      Arissa shrugged again. “Perhaps I have no wish to be found.”
     “Or you fear it.” The fleeting look she gave him sent a shiver down his spine.  The fire all but went out of the lovely eyes. For a moment, he found himself regarding a single desperate flicker of light among its dying embers. The tiny flame emanated a beauty and pathos that briefly touched his heart before the fire took hold again, reducing the flicker to insignificance.
     “We shall soon see who is afraid, Heron, once we reach the Purple Mountains.”  Arissa turned and walked away, leaving Heron feeling even more bruised than he had after the fight with Radik. 
     Irina stayed until she could bear to watch Heron’s distracted pacing to and fro no longer. Moving sylph-like out of the shadows, she gave a discreet cough before joining him. Heron tensed and glared, then appeared to relax and even managed a half smile. “Oh it’s you, Irina, I thought….”
     “I was a krill?” Both laughed. Irina took heart and came closer. “I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d take a little walk. I, err, thought I heard voices…”
      “You did. Arissa was here. I’m surprised you didn’t bump into each other.”
    “She is a strange one, your sister,” said Irina, ignoring his remark. If Heron suspected she had been eavesdropping, so be it.  He couldn’t know for sure and, besides, what harm? “I have never met anyone quite like her.”
     “That’s because there is no-one quite like her,” said Heron with a smile that did not quite explain the catch in his voice. Whatever, this seemed as good a time as any to confide her secret.
     Heron listened, aghast, while Irina talked. At first, the elf girl was confident enough although soon began to shake and stumble over her words. But she pressed on with such dogged resolve that Heron had to admire her for it. At the same time, he recoiled in horror. “You are sure it was Arissa?”
       “I am sure.”
     “Sometimes we only see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear.” Involuntarily, he found himself echoing Arissa’s own words.
      “I saw what I saw, Heron, and I heard what I heard,” Irina insisted.
      “Have you told anyone else?”
      “No.”
      “Why?”
      “I did not think anyone would believe me.”
      “So why should I believe you? I’m her brother for Ri’s sake!”
      “So you will know what she is capable of,” Irina snapped. “I don’t care whether you believe me or not, Heron. I had to tell someone…”
      “So it might as well be me, eh? I see.” Heron sighed.
      “Is she capable of such a thing?”
      Heron shrugged. “Capable, yes, but…”
      “To send a self image like that requires…”
     “Magic, yes,” he groaned amd then added quickly, “but Arissa knows nothing of magic, no more do I although it is true we grew up on Ti-Gray...”
      “You lived among The Dead? Irina was appalled.
     “The dead mean no harm. And there is no magic about death, that’s for sure. Let’s face it. Death comes to us all,in the end. Oh, it’s true that our mother knows something of magic but she has never shared it with us. My father is a plain man and has no time for such things.” He began pacing to and fro.
     “Perhaps Arissa inherited the gift from your mother and taught herself to use it on her own account…?” Irina suggested.
     “Perhaps…” Heron conceded between clenched teeth while continuing to pace up and down like an animal that can smell danger without being able to see or hear from which direction it is most likely to strike. At last he stopped, returned to Irina and placed both hands on the slim, trembling shoulders. “I know it is a lot to ask, Irina. But, please, say nothing of this yet. I need time to get my head around this and see my way clear to…whatever I must do about my sister.” He grimaced and hung his head, unable to meet her enquiring gaze. Then his hands registered the shaking body beneath them and he looked up, saw the frightened expression on the elf girl’s face and impulsively took her in his arms and held her close.
     “I am scared, Heron,” Irina confessed. “This was meant to be such an adventure and I was so excited, but nothing is turning out as I hoped.” She began to sob. “I want to go home, Heron, I want to go home...”
       “And you shall Irina, I promise. One day.”
       “Not one day, Heron. I want to go home now.”
    Keeping an arm around her waist, he tilted the tear-stained chin and smiled encouragingly. “You’re an elf,” he teased gently. I was always taught that elves are much tougher than they look.”
      “Not this one,” she retorted, but returned his smile and managed to stem the tears streaming down both cheeks.
     Without intending to or quite knowing why, Heron kissed the full, moist lips. Almost at once, he drew back. “I’m sorry,” he stammered.
      “Don’t be,” murmured Irina and kissed him back.
      “We shouldn’t do this, Irina,” he protested.
      “Probably not,” she agreed.
     Gently, lest she break, he lowered her to the ground. The cares of the world on hold, each gave silent thanks that the other was the first as, tentatively, they explored each other’s bodies and learned to revel in the joys of lovemaking.
     Meanwhile, a disconsolate Pers sought out Beth. “I can’t find Arissa,” he wailed and slumped down beside, head in hands, “She’s take off without a word!”
      “She’ll be back,” said Beth reassuringly and wished she felt less certain.
     “She cares for me, I know she does. But I never know where I am with her. Sometimes she’s the light of my life. At others…”
      “The heart of your darkness…” murmured Beth, thinking about Mulac and only half-listening.
     “You understand! I knew you would!” Pers was ecstatic and so grateful that Beth’s conscience promptly got the better of her and she resolved to give the elf her full attention.
      “Love is never easy,” Beth said and could hardly believe her ears. How could she be so trite?
      “You can say that again! I don’t know whether I’m coming or going half the time.”
      “You said it,” agreed Beth, but the gentle irony was lost on the besotted elf.
      “If only…”
      “Yes?” prompted Beth.
     “Well, we never talk. Not like you and I are now. If she’d only talk to me, I know I could get her to understand how I feel.”
      “I’m sure she knows that already.”
      “So why does she always keep so far away even when I’m right next to her?”
     Prettily put, thought Beth wryly. But poor Pers would have to discover the answer for himself. She gave the elf a hug. They, too, had kept a distance between them lately and it was good to revert to their old companionship.
      “There you are, Pers!” Arissa descended on them like an avenging angel, “Go and fetch me some water, I’m thirsty.”
      “I’ll go at once.” As good as his word, Pers scrambled up and all but tripped over his feet in his haste to oblige.
      “Must you be so unkind to him?” Beth demanded crossly.
      Arissa gave one of her irritating titters. “Why, he loves it. Can’t you see? And why shouldn’t he? I mean, look at him, asthin as a beanpole and twice as boring.  I doubt if a woman has ever given him a second look before. Or anyone else, for that matter.” She tittered again.
     Beth leapt to her feet. “How dare you! Pers is worth a dozen of the likes of you. He’s kind, generous and…he adores you.”
      “Of course he does. and you’re jealous. A fine pair of wasters, I must say.”
     Beth reeled and fumbled for words. “You’re evil, Arissa!” she said at last, quietly. It took all her willpower not to yell for everyone to hear.
      “And you, my Beth, are as na├»ve as sin,” murmured Arissa sweetly and glided back into the shadows from whence she came.  
      Beth leaned against a tree, let her anger subside and even managed to regret much of the bitchiness she had felt for Irina in the past. Compared with Arissa, Beth reflected dryly, the elf girl had all the makings of a saint.  She pricked up her ears.  But whatever it was she thought she heard, it did not come again. Yet she could have sworn she heard a dog barking and not so far away either.
      “You heard it, too, didn’t you?” Pete appeared out of nowhere, flushed and breathless. “It’s Ace, I know it is. I’d recognize his bark anywhere. Come on, let’s go and look for him…” and he would have run off if Beth hadn’t grabbed the sleeve of his tunic.
      “Hang on a minute, Pete. Krills could be out there. Haven’t you learned anything since we’ve been in Mamelon?  It could be nothing at all. Or it could be trap. You can’t just take off blindly, it’s asking for trouble.”
      “Ace is out there, I know he is,” Pete insisted.
      “If he is, all the more reason to stay put and let him come to us,” Beth reasoned.
     “Ace is my friend!” Pete was adamant. “I’ve just lost one friend. I’m not going to lose another!” He tugged free and ran off.
      “Pete!” Beth chased after him.
      Pete hadn’t gone far when he sensed rather than heard them approaching. It could not be the krills; not the same band whose horses they had stolen at any rate. There hadn’t been time for them to get this far. Could it be another band of the scaly creatures?  He cocked an ear. Whatever, there had to be several of them and it was definitely feet he could hear tramping the ground, not paws or hooves.  And they were heading straight for him. Pete froze. He needed to move out of the way and fast. But his feet were stuck to the ground.  As the noises came nearer and nearer, he began to make out muffled voices.  He gritted his teeth and willed his feet and legs into action. It was no use. They would not budge. Involuntarily, his mouth flew open and a scream of terror rose like bile in his throat. They were almost upon him.
      Suddenly, Pete felt his feet leave the ground. A hand over his mouth checked the scream on his tongue. Someone grabbed him, held him tightly and dived into some bushes just as a group of robed figures burst out of the shadows and marched past in single file. “Phew, that was close!” muttered a voice in his ear. “Are you okay?” Pete, lying on top of his rescuer where they had tumbled, was too shaken to reply but rolled over and took a while to catch his breath. “Another fine mess you nearly got me into...”
      Pete looked up and could only stare in wide-eyed disbelief. “Mick…!” The two brothers fell into a hug, neither willing to be the first to break away.
      “Sorry to interrupt but can anyone join in?”  Beth had bided her time but could not restrain herself any longer.
       “Beth!” Pete let rip with a string of excited whooping noises.
      “Yes, Pete, he found me too.” She grinned at Mick who poked out his tongue, grubby face shining like some kid at a fair.
      “Wow, we’re all together again!”  Pete gave another whoop, beaming from ear to ear. Mick put a finger to his lips and Pete took the hint but that did not prevent all three going into a bear hug together.
      “Who were they, krills?” Beth asked once the thrill of their reunion had begun to settle.
      “Worse,” Mick paled, “they’re druids. But we can’t hang around here chatting, I know a place where we can find some shelter and get some catching-up done. Follow me.”
      “Wait just a minute,” Beth grabbed Mick’s arm, “Have you seen Mulac?”
      “Later, okay?” mumbled Mick and looked away.
      “No Mick, now. Have you seen him? You have, haven’t you? So where is he? What’s happened to him? Tell me, Mick, please.” Mick turned slowly. It was Pete who cried out although Beth would have done so, too, had she not been struck momentarily dumb by the awful expression on Mick’s face.  The smiles and wicked charm had been wiped away. In their place, a haggard look and tired eyes brimming with tears.    “He’s dead isn’t he?”  Mick nodded grimly. “How…? Tell me, Mick. I have to know. Did he get ill or was he…”
      “Killed,” croaked Mick.
      Beth braced herself for the worst. “Was it krills?” Mick shook his head and seemed about to burst into tears. “Aryds then or…druids…?  What killed him Mick, or who? Tell me!”
      “It was me, I killed him.”
      Pete’s jaw dropped.  Beth could only gape in frantic disbelief. “I killed him,” Mick repeated, slumped to the ground and buried his face in his hands. Pete knelt beside his brother, put an arm around the trembling shoulders and looked to Beth for guidance. 
      Beth could only shake her head and grow impatient for the pain she ought to be feeling but didn’t. What use was she to Pete? What use was she to anyone?  Cruel blow though her mother’s death had been, she had found ways of coping. Nothing, not even Mamelon itself, had prepared her for this.
      Pete frowned anxiously. The druids would almost certainly discover their camp. He silently prayed that Heron would find a way to save himself.
       Mick and Beth, though, remained oblivious to all but their own anguish.

To be continued