Friday, 19 April 2013

Mamelon - Chapter 34


CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR




Ricci was finding it hard to be angry with Michal, called Mick, for taking off on his own. The poor lad had been in such a state since that dreadful Stalker business. Some time alone might do him good, pondered Ricci. So long as he doesn’t stray too far, that is, and isn’t gone too long. Astor would throw a fit if he lost the young motherworlder again. “I’ll say!” Ricci confided to a passing snake. He had become very fond of snakes. As it was, Astor would be furious that he, Ricci, had panicked and believed the Stalker meant to take the youth’s life. How could anyone have predicted that disaster could be so easily avoided? And by some worthless Nu-gen, for Ri’s sake!  Truly, these were the strangest times.
      “Don’t fret so, Ricci,” chided the Master’s voice in his head. “You have done well.”
      “I have?” Ricci responded in kind and his long face lit up. “Well, yes, I suppose I have”.  He beamed at the snake but it merely wriggled on its way. “And I haven’t lost him, if that’s what you’re thinking! He’ll be back soon. You’ll see,” Ricci added a shade more defensively than he intended.
      “Indeed, he’ll be back,” Astor agreed. “Moreover, he will bring The Keeper and the red haired boy.”
     “Really…? Ricci enthused, “But that’s wonderful! Ricci’s heart leapt. It seemed a lifetime ago since the krill attack that had sent all four of them scurrying blindly in every direction. Now they would be together again and things would be as he intended for once.  Sadly, Ricci’s delight was short-lived.
      “And you will go to the Vale of Ca-an,” added Astor in the tone he always used by way of warning Ricci that any protest was futile.
     “Oh, no, not there…!”  Ricci cried aloud, “I thought the plan was to keep well clear of meddling Druids?”
      “I am a Druid,” Astor reminded him tersely.
    “You know what I mean. They’re a rogue bunch in the Vale and no mistake. But they have powers capable of just about anything. I’m no match for them, I know that,” Ricci declared grudgingly.
      “So, they, Ricci, so do they.” Astor commented dryly, “In which case, they will not see you as posing the least threat. It shouldn’t prove too difficult for someone with your talents to catch them off guard as and when the opportunity arises.”
      “I suppose not…” Ricci remained unconvinced. “But why go by the Vale of Ca-an? There are other ways into the Purple Mountains.
      “Because you can be sure the Druids will take young Heron and his sister, Arissa, there, the elves also. We can hardly abandon them.”
      “Maybe not, but Michal must be our chief concern surely?”
     “True,” Astor demurred, “But the others have parts to play that, as yet, remain unclear. Better by far to keep them all together. Besides, these young people have magic powers whose potential eludes them utterly…although not, I fear, for very much longer.  They will need a mentor, Ricci.”
      “Me?” Ricci preened and blushed with pleasure.
      “I certainly cannot be in all places at once!” Astor pointed out a trifle irritably. He hated lying to Ricci but did not dare trust him with the truth just yet. Nor was he, Astor, convinced he knew the whole truth of things himself. Certainly, each had their parts to play. But how could anyone predict who, what, how, where or when, exactly?  Neither I nor Ragund. He could only pray that, ultimately, Truth would side with the powers of Light and not be won over by Dark Forces.
      “Ricci…!” Bethan called Beth was running towards him. Even as the smiling Mamelonian embraced the tearful motherworlder, he sensed Astor make his customary abrupt departure.  Over her shoulder, Ricci saw the red haired boy run up to them and felt a violent tug at his tunic.
      “Heron and the others have been captured by Druids,” Pete announced loudly, “We’ve got to rescue them.”
      It was too much. Agitatedly, Ricci glanced enquiringly at Mick, having only just realised the young motherworlder had returned. But if Ricci was hoping for moral support, he was in for a big disappointment. The youth looked away, his expression every bit as surly as Mulac’s had been. It really is too much.  A single shriek in the distance chilled them all to the marrow and Pete‘s persistent yanking at Ricci’s tunic resulted in a piece of fabric coming away in his hand.
      “Oops, sorry!” blurted Pete, genuinely apologetic. But Ricci barely heard. A frantic barking took them all but surprise. “Ace!” yelled Pete, ecstatic as the little mongrel rushed up to him, wagging its tail.
      They had no way of knowing that it was Arissa whose scream had made their blood run cold.
     After her set-to with Heron, Arissa had returned to the camp in a foul mood. Finding Pers enjoying a cosy chat with Beth was the last straw. She promptly told the besotted elf to fetch her some water. As he went scurrying off, she matched Beth’s indignant frown with an insidious sneer of her own. She was enjoying their altercation when she glimpsed something shining where the hazy moonlight occasionally fractured the menacing shadows beyond. Can it be Radik? Immediately, Arissa lost interest in the motherworld girl and wandered off with a casual and disdainful air that required neither effort nor pretence in spite of her growing impatience.
      Arissa paused at the edge of the small clearing, leaned against a tree and called softly, “Radik?”  No reply. But krills were out there, she sensed it, and that meant Radik. Her gaze fixed absently on the campfire’s dying embers, she watched Irina and Heron return together and help themselves to fragments of rabbit still dangling from the makeshift spit. They looked happy, she observed dryly. Well, not for long. Not if Radik runs true to form.  Suppressing a sly chuckle, she whispered again, “Radik?”  Again, no answering sound reached her ears. She was about to edge farther away from the camp when they appeared out of nowhere. Druids…! All else she could think of was that she must warn Radik.
      Arissa screamed.
      Irina froze. At her side, Heron reached instinctively for the dagger at his belt.
     “Don’t be afraid. We mean you no harm.” One of the robed figures stepped forward, smiling benignly, both arms outstretched. “We mean you no harm,” he repeated. He was a tall, bearded man who cut an imposing figure and seemed particularly interested in Heron. “I bid you greetings, son of Nadya and Kris.”
      “You know me?” Heron’s grip on the dagger did not relax for an instant.
      “Your mother described you well. She and your father await you at the Vale of Ca-an, your sister also.” He raised his voice slightly so that Arissa would hear as she approached but did not turn his head. “We come to guide you.”
      “How do I know you speak the truth?” Heron remained wary.
      The Druid plunged a hand into his robe and pulled out a closed fist, indicating with a slight nod for Heron to come closer.  Heron took a few steps and stretched out a palm. A smile on his face that Heron did not trust for a moment, the Druid let a small object drop into it. Heron looked and pursed his lips. It was his mother’s ring. He would have recognized it anywhere. Releasing his hold on the dagger hilt, he met the Druid’s steady gaze and let a smile play on his own lips. “You have the advantage, Druid,” he pointed out equably enough.
     “Forgive me. It is so long since we have had the pleasure of company that I forget my manners. I am Ygor.”
      “You are their leader?” Heron nodded towards the others and counted five.
      “We have no leader. But my friends have done me the honour of electing me to speak for them.”
     “This is Irina,” Heron gave the elf girl’s hand a reassuring squeeze before introducing his companions. “This is Irina and her brother, Pers. The tall one is called Tol who travels with Arissa.  My sister, Arissa, you have already met.”
      “Your mother speaks of her children with just pride,” murmured the Druid. “I bid you greetings also, elves of Gar.” He continued to ignore Arissa and did not spare Tol as much as a passing glance.
      “We were told to expect others…”
      He is stabbing at shadows, Heron sensed, and summoned a disarming grin. “We are, as you see, only five.”
      “As I see,” agreed the Druid placidly. “May we join you and rest? For we are weary and we must start out again at first light.”
      “Do we have a choice?” Arissa hissed, joining Heron and Irina so that she could see the whites of the Druid’s eyes.
      “Not if you desire to see your parents again,” said the Druid . Nor was it only Heron and Arissa who thought they detected a veiled threat. Irina suppressed a little cry and felt Heron’s arm around her waist tighten.
      “It will be our pleasure,” said Heron.
      “Speak for yourself, brother!” Irina snapped. But she accepted the warning glance he flung her at face value, resisting an urge to pursue her obvious dislike for the Druid spokesman and his silent, shadowy confederates.
      “You are welcome to share our camp. But we have already eaten and prepare to sleep on the ground without comfort or ceremony,” said Heron pointedly.
      “We also,” responded Ygor with a dry laugh. “So now we shall withdraw apace and let you talk among yourselves.” No sooner said than done, the small company of Druids made their way to the other side of the smouldering campfire then lay flat to form a star shape.
      “And the stars miss nothing…” murmured Heron, not meaning Irina to hear, but she did. The elf girl shivered and pressed even closer to him. One of her mother’s sayings sprung to mind. Trust no smiling beast, it anticipates an early feast.  Heron drew her gently aside, whispering in her ear before they were joined in a close huddle by Arissa and Tol, “I love you.”
      “We must escape before daybreak,” Arissa insisted.
      “We are prisoners then?” asked Heron.
      “You think we are not?” she countered.
      Heron shrugged. “We journey to the Vale of Ca-an, sister. So why not let these Druids take us there?”
      “Because we cannot trust them, you fool!”  Arissa cried, stamping her foot..
      “It is not wise to trust Druids lightly, I agree,” Heron responded evenly, “but it is no bad thing to play trust by ear, surely?  Or betrayal, as the case may be…” he conceded with a shrug. Tol caught his eye. Heron sensed his approval.  Not for the first time, he wished the gentle giant could speak.
      Only Irina appreciated the full import of Heron’s words or felt his every sinew tense, barely expressive of the turmoil within even so, as he struggled to stay calm in the face of his own sister’s traitorous designs on them all. Neither she nor Heron had doubted for a moment that Irina’s hysterical scream had been a warning. But meant for whom, each wondered, for themselves or the krills?
      Irina’s heart missed a beat. Krills, Druids…What chance do elves stand against such odds?  This bore no resemblance whatever to the adventure she used to dream about within the wondrous but comfortably predictable confines of Gar. Why couldn’t she have been like other elf females, content with their lot?  Then Heron gave her hand another squeeze and she knew the answer.  But it was poor Kirin’s adoring face that passed before her eyes, not Heron’s or even Michal’s, and she grew even more afraid still.
Instinctively, Irina glanced at Pers for some encouragement. But that elf, lost in admiration for Arissa’s outspokenness, did not even notice.
      While Irina slept beside him, more fitfully than she expected, Heron toyed with his mother’s ring between his fingers. That it was hers, he didn’t doubt. At the same time, it was her wedding ring and he knew for certain that she would never have parted with it willingly.
      Dawn had barely graced the horizon with its presence before the motley group began making their way to the legendary Vale of Ca-an. Here, tales would have it that the body of great Ca-an himself was buried and his spirit roamed free, watching over his flock although whether for good or ill, few dared voice an opinion. A Druid, dead or alive, should never be underestimated. Indeed, reflected Heron grimly as they marched, there were few in all Mamelon who could not point to a grave rumoured to testify as much. A dangerous thing, rumour, Heron acknowledged but was glad Irina rode close by for there was precious little comfort to be had elsewhere as far as he could see.
     Three Druids spearheaded the company and three brought up the rear. They were so swift of foot that being able to ride gave their companions no real advantage. If anything, the krill mounts tired more easily and were hard put to keep up. Iggy waddled, morosely, at his own pace.  Heron marvelled, as he always had, how such ungainly creatures as glucks were ever able to sustain such a respectable speed.
      “You see,” Arissa complained to Pers, trotting happily enough beside her, “we are prisoners. If you or I were to make a break for it, you can be sure we’d be caught and hauled back in no time.”
      “Where would we go?” asked Pers naively. Arissa flung him a withering look. Digging scornful heels into her mount’s flank, she urged it slightly ahead of the impossible elf and drew level with Tol. He may be dumb, but silence can be a blessing in disguise, she reminded herself, while not caring to look too closely at the fact that his solid dependability also gave her a pleasing sense of being invulnerable. .
      Only Tol seemed unperturbed by the Druid presence. The most alert observer would never have guessed at the workings of a keen mind well camouflaged by balding head and impassive expression.  Certainly, as they rode side by side, Arissa had no cause to suspect her trusty servant and long-time companion of attempting to make contact with the motherworlder, Bethan. 
       It was proving more difficult than Tol could have anticipated. Locating Bethan had been easy enough, and it was reassuring that she was among friends.  But something was terribly wrong. An impenetrable wall around her mind defied even his deepest probes. Could it be, she is protected, warded by forces unknown?  But that was impossible…Well, isn’t it? 
     He had known at once that she was open to mind touch. Nor had it taken long to show her, unobtrusively, how to direct her thoughts and access his along mutually consenting lines. Their rapport was unusual, to say the least. Any capacity for mind-speak in a motherworlder was unheard of.  At first, he put their ability to communicate chiefly down to the fact that they had warmed to one another so quickly. Increasingly, he had understood there had to be another explanation. Whatever it might be, he sensed it would have far-reaching if not dire consequences for them all.
      He tried again.  His senses acknowledged that she grieved, this Bethan, called Beth. But it was more than emotion, however strong, that separated them. Moreover, he knew instinctively that, within the confines constructed around her, she would have welcomed his presence. So if she has warded herself, he reasoned, she must have done so unconsciously. At the same time, it followed that, if this was indeed the case, her capacity to ward was innate. So…Who or what is she, this Bethan, motherworlder?
      Uncharacteristically, Tol continued to brood.
      In her turn, Beth sensed the gentle giant was trying to make contact. But it was as if the door to her mind had locked of its own accord. Try as she might, she could not find the key to open it and let him in.       
      Eventually, she gave up looking.
      Beth sighed. Perhaps it was for the best. Once the door was open, anyone who knew how could enter. Druids even? Tol would be a welcome enough visitor, but she really couldn’t face anyone else right now. 
Conscious of Mick’s unhappy gaze on her, Beth willed her defences to last a good while yet.
      Not so far away, Radik led a select band of well-chosen krills and took his bearings from the way the Dragon’s Tail began to slope steeply. “They are heading for the Vale of Ca-an,” he mused aloud. “It augurs well. It has been too long since we made sport with Druids.” The krill leader bared his teeth and gave a hearty cackle. At the same time he was uneasy. It had been a while now since Arissa had made contact. He had taken her scream for the warning it was intended. But suppose it had been genuine and those dastardly Druids have harmed her in any way?  If that were true, Radik silently vowed, before long there wouldn’t be a Druid left alive not begging him to kill them.
      By now, the Dragon Hills had spread wings to form a valley. At the far end, its tail seemed to lead directly into the mountains that towered above them, ominously close. All eyes looked up in awe, peering through a purple mist at the Gates of Heaven as its peaks were sometimes called.
      Gates of Hell more like… thought Heron, but smiled encouragingly at Irina who had turned very pale.
Beauty, threat, magnificence challenge…All these things leapt out at them and more. 
      Beth, standing slightly apart from Michael and Pete, could only gaze in wonder at the spectacle even as she, alone, grasped something else. The purple mist hung ready and…Waiting.
      They were expected.

To be continued