Thursday, 22 December 2016

Mamelon 2 - Chapter Two


Beth did not hesitate.  Mick’s cry, ‘Run!’ reached her ears even as the rumbling sounds were already becoming ominously, terrifyingly, louder.  She ran as fast as her legs would carry her to the foot of a tall tree not far from the cave entrance, but far enough to spare her the worst effects of the avalanche. In horror, she watched the mountain rage and spew huge rocks, completely blocking the path she had just fled. “Mick, Pete!” she screamed until, finally overcome by her own sense of helplessness, she collapsed on a bed of tawny grass.
            It seemed to Beth that the mountains continued their furore for ages, but common sense told her it could only have been minutes before calm was restored and the choking dust began to settle sufficiently to allow their magnificent peaks to reassert themselves like birds, majestic and splendid, as if nesting among her tears.  Eventually, the tears ran dry and she began to take stock of her surroundings. All around, clusters of tall trees suggested there was some shelter to be had if little else. Immediately ahead, piles of rocks completely littered the tawny slopes she had only just managed to negotiate in time.
            Beth shivered. It was still very cold. Although the mist seemed to be lifting, it struck her as reluctant to leave altogether. “As if a mist has any choice!” she remonstrated with herself loudly. “For Ri’s sake, what is happening here?” her instinctive call upon the planet’s Creation mythology throwing her consciousness into further turmoil.  At the same time, she had a sense of recovering the same notion of belonging that had embraced her on her first visit to Mamelon and haunted her ever since. As if on cue, her mind’s eye proceeded to open much like petals on a flower.  One by one she was able to put names to the petals. “Ricci, Pers, Irina, Heron, Arissa…” She saw, too, a band of scaly creatures that clearly meant harm, “Krills!” Beth shuddered as the memory of being taken prisoner by those awful creatures came flooding back.
 Another name hovered on her tongue, but it was a while before she could say it, “Mulac.” Instantly, she became emotional and tearful, After all, had she not loved the surly Nu-gen?  Had it not been his voice that had brought her back to this place, this Mamelon? “Oh, Mulac, Mulac” she cried, “Where are you now?”
“A good question,” a familiar voice declared with feeling to one side of her, its owner appearing out of the mist like a spectre from the past.
“Ricci…!” Beth scrambled to her feet and flung herself at the cone headed little man who had brought the three of them to Mamelon that first time. “Oh, Ricci, I am so glad to see you. I’ve lost them. Mick and Pete they’re…in there.” She pointed to the mountain.
“Oh, dear, I’m too late!” Ricci wailed, “I came as fast as I could once my master warned me you had returned and needed my help…”
“Your master…?” Beth was curious to say the least.
“Astor, the White Mage, the greatest and wisest warlock of all time, to whom I am but a humble apprentice…” Ricci waffled on, while Beth’s consciousness revealed more about Astor than the little man could ever put into words.
“So, come on, Ricci, what do you suggest we do now?” Beth interrupted her companion’s lively monologue, much of which she had heard before on other occasions, if more sharply than she intended. “We have to find a way into the mountain and rescue Mick and Pete,” she insisted while adding silently, if they are still alive, yet refusing to concede they were probably dead.  At the same time, her memories became a flood, reminding here why they had come to the Purple Mountains, to find the Tomb of the Creator, Ri, source of the Spring of Life that needed to flow again or Mamelon would surely die.
Beth’s head began to swim.
“Are you alright?” Ricci asked, suddenly alert to his companion’s distress.
“Yes,” Beth lied, “it’s just that there’s so much to remember, so much to do and…”
“So little time, I’ll say!” Ricci wailed so plaintively that Beth got angry.
“All the more reason to make the most of the time we have,” she pointed out, “Now, stop wailing like a Banshee and let’s find a way into the mountain…if there is one,” she added lamely. By now she was calm again. In place of anger, there was only a dull, throbbing ache. “There has to be one,” she asserted with a surge of spiritedness that took both of them by surprise. “I mean, it makes sense doesn’t it?  If there wasn’t, what the hell am I doing here or any of us for that matter?
“True…” Ricci agreed and was rewarded with a smile. It was the first time he had seen Bethan smile since their reunion and it helped ease his conscience about arriving too late to save the others. The red haired boy, Pete, did not count, of course, but Michal…Astor had emphasised the young motherworlder’s importance time and again, but to Ricci’s intense frustration, refused to elaborate. Michal, Ricci thought he understood, was of the royal bloodline descended from Michal the Great. Yet, he suspected there even was more to the young motherworlder. Whatever, at least there was plainly a purpose in keeping young Michal safe which was more than could be said for the Nu-gen tribesman, Mulac.
As if reading his thoughts, Beth felt compelled to ask, “What happened to Mulac?”
Ricci shrugged. “Ask me another,” he retorted with uncharacteristic tartness. “My master says to keep an eye on him and keep him safe so I do, although why all this trouble for a Nu-gen Ri only knows!  And what does Mulac do, the ingrate, but sneak off in the night, to Ri alone knows where, leaving me high and dry and in my master’s bad books yet again. Mind you, he changed his tune when you returned. Astor, that is. He quite rightly relegated Mulac to the status of non-person and insisted I hasten to your aid. I came as fast as I could…”
Poor Ricci looked so abjectly apologetic that Beth gave the little man a hug. Ricci beamed and she, too, felt marginally more optimistic that somehow things would resolve themselves in their favour.
“We were some distance away from where you left us,” Ricci was saying, but Beth was only half listening. “Ygor and the druids entered the mountain by way of one of its better known caves. The female, Arissa, decided to go with them so, naturally, the elf, Pers, did the same. You will remember how besotted he is with her…” 
Beth was remembering only too well even as a petal opened up in her mind that she had overlooked before, revealing a much loved face. Tol…! How could she have forgotten the gentle giant that served Arissa but had warned her, Beth, never to trust his arrogant, tantrum prone mistress?  Beth could not resist a grin. They had communicated, she and Tol, by a mixture of sign language and telepathy that had infuriated Arissa who had been unable to share either. Beth was no stranger to signing. Her father was deaf.  Telepathy, though, had come as a complete surprise. Even so, she had soon got the hang of it. She trusted Tol implicitly and hoped they would meet again. Tol made her feel safe.
Beth sighed. She would have given anything to feel safe now. Instead, she feared the worst for Mick and Pete while having to admit privately that she had precious little faith in the accident prone little man whose comforting arm around her she could not bring herself to shrug off.
“Irina would not leave Pers,” Ricci was saying, “which I suppose was only natural given that he is her brother. Heron tried and failed to talk her out if it so they followed the others on that silly gluck creature…”
Beth recalled how close Pete and Heron had become and how Mick’s younger brother had adored glucks, grieved in fact for one in particular that had come to an untimely end.
“Mulac, of course, being a typical Nu-gen, wanted none of it and went his own way. I was all set to take my chances with the mountain, but my master insisted I accompany Mulac even though it was as plain as the nose on anyone’s face the he wanted nothing whatever to do with me. I tried to be friendly and be the very best of companions. But did Mulac appreciate my efforts?  He could at least have tried to meet me halfway, surely? I grant you, Nu-gen are a miserable, solitary lot, but…well, really, he could have made an effort just this once! I told him I didn’t want to be there but Astor insisted. Did it make any difference? Was he impressed? Not one shred. I’d have tried a spell or two, become a bird of something, but Astor forbade it, said I mustn’t draw attention to myself. I ask you, whose attention? Ragund, I suppose…”
“Ragund…?” Beth struggled to pay attention, “He’s our enemy, right?”
“The Dark Mage is everyone’s enemy including his own,” Ricci absently agreed. “I ask you. What was I supposed to do about Mulac?” he went on. “What could I do? I was given no choice but suffer his appalling rudeness and take it on the chin.”
Beth sensed it was important she learn more about Ragund, but was distracted by a scuffling noise behind her. She looked and was amused to see a squirrel-like creature on its haunches, its bright eyes observing her with such intensity that she was momentarily unnerved. The creature promptly dropped on all fours, turned and scurried away further into the yawning hollow of the tree. Without thinking it through or a word to Ricci, Beth crawled after it.
Ricci, rapt in full, storytelling mode and revelling in a graphic monologue on the legendary enmity between the White and Dark warlocks, Astor and Ragund, did not even notice Beth’s disappearance…until he heard her scream.
“Help…!” Beth had not crawled far before the ground beneath her suddenly gave way and she found herself in free-fall down a pitch black hole.  Finally, she landed on a heap of something soft and quickly felt reassured for apparently having broken no bones.  She looked up at Ricci’s face peering down at her like one of Mamelon’s twin moons, his expression a mixture of concern and annoyance.
“What are you doing down there, for Ri’s sake?”
“Yes, thank you, I’m fine, no bones broken,” she called back.
“That’s alright then,” Ricci shouted.
“No it isn’t alright,” Beth yelled. “It’s not alright at all. Get me out of here!”
Ricci paused. “What is it like down there?”
“Suppose you let your eyes get used to that, and then tell me what you see,” Ricci suggested.
Beth looked around, becoming accustomed to a musty smelling gloom sooner than she had anticipated. “There are queer vines everywhere. Oh, and there seems to be some sort of tunnel.”
“Ah, now a tunnel must lead somewhere.” Ricci sounded excited. “I’m coming down.”
“No!” Beth shrieked, but too late as Ricci landed with a soft thud, missing her by a whisker. “Are you mad? “ Beth rounded on the little man, Ricci, “Now we’re both trapped!”
“Not if the tunnel leads somewhere,” Ricci was quick to point out.
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Trust me, it will, I’ll say! We’ve found the Freedom Tree.”
“Oh, so we’re free are we? How silly of me not to realise that,” Beth managed to say between clenched teeth.
“Imagine, we are talking legend here and now we’re a part of it! Oh…” Ricci caught his companion’s incensed expression, “but perhaps I should explain.”
“Perhaps you should,” Beth agreed tersely.
“Many years ago…” Ricci began, settling himself comfortably into storytelling mode.
“Keep it short,” Beth told him.
Ricci flung her an aggrieved look, but sensed his audience was in no mood for longevity. “There was a time, as you know, when krills crossed the Sea of Marmela and invaded Mamelon. They would have taken over completely but for coming to an understanding with Ragund. Instead, they took slaves from all over Mamelon and made them mine the mountains for gold of which, naturally, Ragund expected a share. Few slaves escaped, but the old tales tell of how some burrowed a tunnel that led to ground level, emerging in a great tree that provided them with shelter and a hiding place once the krills realised they were missing. Only a few slaves at a time took to the tunnel so hundreds had escaped before the alarm was raised. The tree has been known as the Freedom Tree ever since.”
“How could anyone climb out of here?” Beth was sceptical.
“Look around you. The vines you spoke of are the tree’s roots. We can haul ourselves back up any time.”
“So let’s do that.”
“If you wish, but don’t you see? This is our way into the mountain.” Ricci could scarcely control his excitement. What leads out must also lead in, yes?”
“I suppose so.” Beth conceded. “Hey, just you wait while we…talk this through,” she added, but to herself since Ricci had already vanished into the tunnel.
Taking a long, deep breath, Beth proceeded to follow on hands and knees  until the tunnel began to open up sufficiently to allow them to walk almost normally, backs only slightly bent until even that was no longer necessary. A phosphorescent light began to exude from the tunnel walls. “Thank goodness we have some light,” Beth murmured, “and the air is better here to.”
“Indeed, yes, I’ll say!” Ricci agreed.
Suddenly, there was an almighty roar and their surroundings shook violently. Dust was flying everywhere as they were tossed about to the extent that Beth was reminded of snow scene in a glass ball that she had loved to play with as a child. She would shake the ball and snow would fall around the snowman inside. At that moment, she felt considerable affinity with and sympathy for the snowman.
Finally, the mountain went quiet again.
“Thank Ri for small mercies,” Beth exclaimed, but in a whisper for fear her voice might set the mountain off again.
“I’m not so sure,” Ricci whispered back, more than shade plaintively.
The dust had begun to clear and the reason for Ricci’s lack of enthusiasm become obvious. The way ahead was completely blocked. Instinctively, Beth found her feet and turned, only to discover the way back, too, was blocked. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. “So what do we do now, Ricci? Can you magic us out of here or something?”
Ricci shrugged. Oh, but if only…
Beth could not believe how incredibly calm she felt. Ricci produced a flask of vinre and they drank of the fruity, wine-like liquid with relish. For a while, both sat cross-legged on the cave floor passing the flask from one to the other. “Not the best place for a picnic,” Beth joked.
Beth tried to explain but soon gave up as the vinre made her feel increasingly heady and past caring about even the prospect of being buried alive. “I feel like Wendy, flying through the air on the way to Neverland,” she confided to a bemused Ricci. “It’s as if nothing matters because we have all the time in the world to make anything matter.” She sighed. “I just wish…”
Be careful what you wish for, Bethan, motherworlder…. A voice in her head made her start …especially when there are powerful forces about. Beth looked at Ricci who gave no sign that he had heard anything. Do you not know me, Bethan, motherworlder?
“Tol..!” Beth gasped and it was Ricci’s turn to be startled.
“What the…?” Ricci demanded and looked less than pleased once Beth had hastily explained her special relationship with Arissa’s servant.
You must go on, Bethan, Tol continued. The way ahead is not blocked. What you see is an illusion. You may pass through it, but falter just once and you will become as nothing, left to exist in no-place forever.
But where does it lead? Beth lapsed easily into mind-talk, disregarding Ricci’s visible discomfort. Tol, what am I doing here? Where am I going, and why? I need to know.
Have patience and be strong… The voice in her head faded away as abruptly as it had come, in its wake a silence that left her feeling only faintly less dispirited than before.
“Do you trust this Tol?” Ricci asked.
The very simplicity of the question helped Beth reach a decision. “Yes,” she replied without hesitation, “with my life.”
“So be it then,” said Ricci with a shy grin that prompted Beth to give the little man a big hug before taking the lead into the rock pile ahead.
Certain she would suffocate, Beth paused to try and catch her breath, recalling Tol’s warning only just in time to force another step, and another, and another…. At one point she felt faint.  “Limbo, here I come,” she gasped with wry amusement in spite of the deadly peril in which she found herself.  But this was the old Beth talking, not some Bethan motherworlder, and she took great comfort in that. Her legs began to buckle, at which point a curiously familiar lilt in her ears lent her renewed energy.  She pressed on, increasingly relaxed, what could only be described as lullaby acting as both balm and spur to her muddled senses.
It was over as suddenly as it had begun. Even so, Ricci quickly became aware they had journeyed farther into the mountain than he could have anticipated.
Oh, but it was good to be able to see clearly again as they found themselves in a huge cavernous space from which forked several tunnels. Beth had barely got used to being able to breathe more easily again when she spotted a flickering some distance along one of them that could have been a fire. Whatever, it had to mean company. They were not alone. Mick, Pete!
Before Ricci could counsel caution, Beth began to run towards the light. Only as she drew closer did she realise it was a reflection on the tunnel wall from a source below where its floor narrowed to form a ledge at a wide bend. She stopped and peered down,  almost blinded by a light not only reflected from flames licking at something roasting over a spit, but also from scales that covered the body of each creature gathered round it in eager anticipation of their meal. “Krills!” she gasped in horror. “We must go back!” she whispered to Ricci whose breath she could feel on her neck. .
“You observe well Behan, motherworlder,” was the dry retort from someone who was definitely not Ricci. Beth turned, shaken, but not altogether surprised. Nor did she need a finger on her lips to keep her from crying out. “You called me back,” she murmured accusingly.
“I did,” Mulac agreed before taking her in his arms and planting a kiss on quivering lips demanding no less. “I am sorry, yet not sorry…,” he murmured into ear as she snuggled against his tunic.  Beth understood only too well, feeling much the same way herself, “…for you are needed here,” he continued, “and not only by one who loves you. “ He took her face in both hands and kissed her again. “I have missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too,” she murmured between kisses.
Both had forgotten about Ricci, left to stumble bemusedly upon this display of affection and run a gamut of mixed feelings from shock and relief upon seeing the surly Nu-gen again to incredulity that a he was capable of loving anyone and a growing unease regarding so unlikely a liaison. He sighed. No, no, such a thing is impossible. It cannot, must not be.  He sighed again. Oh, well, let them make the most of what time they have. But it can only end in tears or worse, much worse. I’ll say!
“What are they roasting?”  Beth whispered in Mulac’s ear? Whatever it is, it smells good.”
“It is Foss,” Mulac growled, and she sensed suppressed anger.
“What is Foss?”
“The Foss are a hybrid people who live in the mountains.” Mulac informed her curtly.
“You mean…” But Beth could not finish her sentence for having to swallow the bile that rose in her throat.
How much, Ricci wondered with a sinking heart, did Bethan and Mulac understand already concerning their fate?   Whatever, if the dying planet was to be saved, it could not be long, surely, before each was forced to assume the mantle of his and her quite separate destinies? He coughed politely and loudly. So distracted had he been with the unlikely liaison between motherworlder and Nu-gen, that he was oblivious to the krills below. “We haven’t time for this nonsense,” he declared shrilly.
It was Radik, the krill leader, who first cocked and ear, looked up, saw them, and raised the alarm.
“Run!” Mulac cried, already racing along the narrow ledge with Beth and Ricci close behind, a swarm of scaly krills clambering the jagged rock face just ahead in an attempt to head them off.