Monday, 6 February 2017

Mamelon 2 - Chapter Seventeen


Mulac and Michal had drifted off to sleep. The Nu-gen was the first to wake.  Instantly, he sensed that something was wrong or, at least, not as it should be.  It took several moments before he understood why.
They were not moving.
Michal, opened first one eye then the other, and yawned. “What is it, what’s wrong?”
Mulac did not answer but continued to stare straight ahead, rugged features drawn in a tight, pensive frown. Following his companion’s gaze, Michal immediately understood why.
Before them, threatening and forbidding, towered a rock pile as high as the eye could see, and no obvious way around it.
“We appear to have come as far as the monster can carry us, to the farthest edge of what was once Dom-Y-Baba.”
So what do we do now?”
Mulac shrugged, and continued to peer thoughtfully upwards into the gloom.
“Don’t tell me. We climb, yes?”
Mulac shrugged again, “Unless you have a better idea?” He did not wait for the obvious answer but began to climb. As Michal make to follow, he only just managed to avoid a shower of rocks.
This was not going to be easy.
They had not climbed far when they heard a curious rumbling; it was not the mountain but a sound quite different from any they had heard before. Looking down, they had their first sighting of the kurzle. The monster was returning the way they had some, the   body they had taken for a huge mud bank carrying it along with incredibly grace, no ungainliness about the creature at all.
“There goes our way out of here,” commented Mick-Michal drily.
Mulac made no reply. He had long since given up all hope of their ever leaving the mountain alive but reasoned that, if Mamelon could be saved, any sacrifice would have been well worth it. It seemed unfair, though, that Motherworlders should be expected to sacrifice themselves for what, after all, was a cause in which they had nothing to gain. He continued  climbing, glancing back only now and then to make sure his companion was not far behind. On one such occasion, any reassurance was instantly crushed by the first of many rock falls causing each to lose what precarious foothold he had, and sent them both plummeting. Miraculously, the bank of red mud on which they landed withstood their weight every time and did not suck them under.
At first, Pers missed Arissa terribly. The farther away from her the unlikely trio progressed, however, the less so. Indeed, even his feelings towards her began to change, subtly at first, and then more strongly until he found himself wondering what it was about Arissa that had attracted him in the first place. How could I have thought I loved her? She is evil, that one. I have been such a fool, turned my back on friends, even my own sister. Where was Irina now, he wondered? What have I done? He shivered despite the clammy heat. Any sense of remorse he may have felt, however, was completely overwhelmed by guilt and no small degree of confusion for finding himself in the company of a Master Druid. What is Tol thinking of, helping the druid, and why am I an accomplice to such a thing?
None of the trio spoke as they made their way further and deeper into the mountain, Tol in the lead. Not for nothing had Arissa called him her gentle giant. Pers was tall, Ygor taller still, but Tol towered above them both.  His height should have been a problem, but Pers could not help but notice how Tol appeared to have no difficulty at all in negotiating the mountain’s various twists and turns; now through yawning caverns,  now along low, narrow tunnels; now able to walk three abreast, now negotiating the narrowest of rock shelves in single file.
“You are sure of foot,” commented Ygor drily, sensing intuitively that the other was susceptible to mind-speak, “…for someone who is lost.”
“Who says we are lost?” responded Tol so matter-of-factly that even Ygor was more than slightly taken aback.
“You are familiar with the mountain and its secrets then?  Perhaps you also know whether the future bodes well for them, and us?”
“I know the mountain and its secrets, yes, but the future, alas, no. The mountain will survive, of course, many of its secrets too. Yet, the future lies in the hands of those who wish Mamelon harm, and those who would do right by it. It is a battle of wills, I think. Even I cannot predict the outcome,” he added almost as an afterthought.
Who are you? Ygor wondered. Previous attempts to probe the other’s mind had proven less than useless; on each occasion, the druid had encountered such wardings as he had never met before. This Tol, he has a powerful ally. Astor, surely, and yet…? He was not convinced of Astor’s intervention here. He, Ygor, was a Master Druid; a match for Astor only so far, it was true, but a formidable enemy all the same and more than capable of penetrating even wardings constructed by the White Mage. Previous attempts to penetrate this Tol’s mind, however, had failed miserably. Tol was warded in such a way that had utterly defeated Ygor, and left the druid gravely concerned. Do I need to be afraid?  Although the prospect of fear was inconceivable to him, Ygor felt compelled to toss the question into an infinite well of thought, but chose not to look for answer.
Pers was no fool. The elf sensed a battle of wills going on between his companions, but was content to let them get on with it. Why should he care so long as…what? What could possibly be achieved by his collaborating in the druid’s escape from Radik? Worse, Arissa would be furious. He shuddered for thinking what revenge she might exact on him, on all three of them. Perhaps it was just as well that he and Tol were in the company of a Master Druid. Ygor had to be a match even for Arissa, surely? Arissa, though, as he had learned to his cost, should not be underestimated.  I am elven, and yet she put a spell on me I could not resist. How then, he wondered, had Tol managed to break the spell? As important if not more so, why…? Tol had seemed almost as devoted to Arissa as himself. Who is this Tol, the elf wondered as they progressed deeper into the mountain. Whatever, he trusted the gentle giant. He was far more concerned with a question he had never put to himself before but which now so struck him that he most lost his footing, and elves the most sure footed of all folk. Who is Arissa…?
That the krill leader’s consort was far from all she seemed not only came as a revelation to the elf, but also went a long way towards explaining if not excusing his own behavior. She is a witch, and put a spell on me. Yet, why, what use am I to her? Besides, I am elven, so why did I not suspect and at least try to counter it?  Surely, there is such magic about that passes beyond belief…
Thus preoccupied with their own thoughts, the trio descended further into the mountain in uneasy silence and with precious little sense or pretense of camaraderie. The air was so thick with mutual distrust and suspicion, it seemed to elf and druid they had only to reach out and touch it. Tol, for his part, pressed doggedly ahead, concerned only that Mamelon might yet be saved despite forces conspiring against her for their own dark purposes.
The mountain rumbled and shook. Rocks hurtled down, barely missing them, forcing each to hug the nearside of the ledge along which they were presently feeling their way, part of which crumbled altogether even as they stood poised above one of the mountains mightier chasms. “Don’t you, a druid, have any magic to stop this?” Pers yelled above the ear-splitting cacophony.
“Don’t you, an elf?” Ygor shouted back with such a malignant glare that Pers fleetingly feared he might be turned into stone or such like.
The terrified elf closed his eyes and waited for the worst.
Ygor struggled with the knowledge that he was as helpless as the others. No magic he attempted came close to guaranteeing their safety. Not for the first time since entering the mountain did he feel his powers severely restrained as if by some invisible leash. Who or what is doing this, and why? Not Ragund or that she-devil Shireen so…what, and how? Dammit, a Master Druid made to feel like some mindless novice. Someone will pay dearly for this when the time is right. A huge rock flew past, tugging at the druid’s beard as if to remind him the time was not yet. If ever…The thought turned his stomach. Never before had Ygor contemplated defeat. Yet, Radik and his unruly band had disposed of his colleagues with ease while he, Ygor, had been taken completely by surprise, and as bad if not worse, rendered helpless. He spat, an act he despised for suggesting impotence. Ambushed by krills, it was beyond belief. No less so was being saved by an elf and…Yet again he asked the question of himself, who was this Tol, and how did he fit into the pattern of events developing within the mountain? Yet again, he came up against a blank wall. Only, not quite as, for the first time, he acknowledged the existence of a pattern. I will not be manipulated, I will not! The druid fumed inwardly, vowing revenge against…whatever.
Only Tol appeared unconcerned. As the rock slide stopped he looked down, well pleased with what he saw as the fog of dust began to clear.
Ygor followed the gentle giant’s gaze and all but choked upon a gasp of amazement.
Peres opened his eyes upon realizing the immediate danger had passed. He, too, look down, unable to believe his eyes at the fallen rocks and boulders that formed a discernible stairway further into the bowels of the mountain. He watched, with a mixture of admiration and dis belief as Tol did not hesitate, but began to descend, leaping from ‘stair’ to ‘stair’ with all the unlikely agility of deer the elves would occasional hunt in the Forest of Gar; for meat, though, never sport, and only since the demise of the planet and the failure of natural foods to grow.
Ygor wasted no time following Tol.
Pers waited only long enough for the waves of homesickness to pass before taking his turn on the forbidding stairway. Their journey seemed never-ending, but went on and on and on as deeper and deeper and deeper they made their way into the mountain’s gloomy heart. It was no easy task. Unable to call upon magic for succor, Ygor and Pers collapsed, exhausted at the bottom of the improvised stairway. Pers opened his mouth to express relief, but was instantly silenced by Tol who raised his hand to his lips with a commanding look that only a fool would have ignored.
Footsteps were closing in on them fast, and voices, hushed at first, now growing louder. Ygor grunted with more displeasure than surprise as Pers dashed past him and sprinted towards the sounds. “What, the…? Momentarily distracted, he looked to Tol as much for condemnation of the elf’s actions as tacit approval for his own self-restraint in remaining where he stood.
Tol, though, was nowhere to be seen.
Ygor gnashed his teeth in anger and frustration. Had the gentle giant led them into trap, and why, oh, why had he not foreseen the situation? They will see I am not to be used, trifled with as if I were of no importance. I am a Master Druid, for Ri’s sake. I have a central role to play in this…Ah, but who are ’they’ and what is ‘this’ his alter ego mocked him.
Unable to answer, Ygor gave huge sigh, and cautiously followed the elf. His senses warned of no peril.  At the same time, he acknowledged that those same senses could no longer be relied upon. Even so, he reasoned, summoning a composure he was far from feeling, the fool elf would not knowingly place himself in more danger than we are in already in…would he? No, Pers had heard something, a voice, one he recognized? Ygor quickened his pace unwilling to admit even to himself that he did not wish to remain alone there any longer than could be helped. In the absence of fellow druids, whatever lay ahead had to be preferable to a sickening aloneness that was, for him, a new and devastating experience, not leas for its implying a lack of courage. I am no coward, he kept telling himself. I despise cowards.
The more he resisted the words ‘I am afraid’, the more they haunted him until he imagined they were dancing over his grave.
They rounded a corner, Ygor unsurprised at what he saw but feeling no less dispirited for that, and more alone than ever.
“Irina…!” Brother and sister embraced. “Oh, how I have missed you!” Pers wept, so delighted was he to see her again.
“”I have missed you too, brother,” Irina responded with equal warmth. Pers had changed. Rather, she corrected herself, he had changed back to the brother she knew and loved dearly.
“Welcome, Pers…” Heron began although none too pleased at the elf’s return.
“Look…” Pete’s shrill cry of alarm cut Heron short. All eyes turned upon the figure emerging from the shadows.
“What is he doing here?” Heron demanded of Pers who visibly cringed under the other’s accusing glare. “Is it a druid you have for company now?”
“I can explain. Tol will explain…”  His certainty dissolved as the look on Ygor’s face spoke volumes.
“Tol is gone,” said the druid flatly.
“Gone, gone where…?” Pers began to panic. He trusted Tol, not the druid, any more than those around him did. Even the red-haired Motherworld boy was giving him strange looks.
Ygor shrugged, and said nothing, not least because he was too preoccupied with his own thoughts. Good riddance to Tol. Without him, I am more than a match for two elves and a motherworld brat. He felt a surge of renewed self-confidence. Irina alone did not flinch from the druid’s icy blue gaze as he singled them out, one by one, so they should know who was now in command. The elf-girl, she might prove difficult, but the others will be as wet clay in my hands. “Comrades…” He came forward, arms outstretched,For, like it or not,  we are comrades, yes, bonded by adversity in a common cause?”
“In a common cause,” Irina agreed. Pers was much relieved that, outwardly at least, she appeared calm. Irina angry was a force to be reckoned with, and like all elves she had reason to hate druids.
Pete almost turned to check on Fred who had related such tales about druids that had made their blood run cold. Second only to Krills, druids were in no small part responsible for the declining numbers of Foss in the mountain that had been their home for many lifetimes. Irina, though, caught his eye, and he refrained from looking round. She did not need to tell him the Foss was no longer with them. Keep safe, Fred, he wished with all his heart while, at the same time, thinking how stupid. No one was safe. How could they be, when the mountain clearly had an agenda of its own? Nor did he need telling that it was not in their favour.
As it happened, though, he could not have been more wrong.
Fred, meanwhile, was in retreat as fast as his small legs would carry him. Yet, he had no gone far when he began to take in the full impact of his knee-jerk reaction to seeing Ygor. He may not trust the druid, but...what now? He was deeper inside the mountain than he had ever been, and had no idea if there were Foss communities in the vicinity. So did he ascend and seek safety with his own kind or…? He argued unsuccessfully that he owed his erstwhile companions no loyalty. Oh, but what worth friendship if it does not deserve loyalty?
It was the first time he had seriously considered the prospect of friendship with anyone. Foss elders were not much inclined to serious thinking. As a tribe, they took each other’s company for granted and it was not their custom to bond as such. They took life - and each other - at face value. On the whole they were content; any discontent was historically down to the appearance of Krills or druids from time to time, and Foss were well practiced in the art of not being found. So why do I have to be different? Why am I never content with the way things are? I have no one but myself to blame for finding myself in this mess. Indeed it is a mess, and that is the long and the short of it. Why am I here? What am I supposed to do now…? It was the first time, too, that he had entertained the idea that he was possibly being manipulated. “Rubbish!” he admonished himself aloud. It must be the mountain, playing games with me. He was pleased with this explanation, and even allowed himself a smile for having worked it out all by himself. I can go up or I can go down? Up means safety, and down means danger. Why should I put myself in danger for those who are not even of my tribe? The answer of course is quite simple…
Fred began to retrace his steps downwards, cautiously but without further hesitation.  As if to endorse his decision, the kikiri re-appeared just ahead, and beckoned with a skeletal hand, only to vanish almost at once, leaving but a pinprick of light dancing along grim walls to convince him she was no illusion. At every twist and turn of the gloomy way ahead, it urged him to keep doggedly on while, at the same time, reassuring him that he was under protection of sorts. Not hers, he was sure of that. So…whose?  After a while, however, it struck him as even more puzzling that he had no sense of catching up with the others. He paused, cocked an ear, and was rewarded with the sound of distant voices. Voices, yes, but whose? He did not recognize these voices. Friend or foe..? Frantically, he searched dark patches between the faintly luminous fungi that clung to the mountain wall, but of kikiri or dancing light there was no sign. Oh, dear… Ah, but you’ve come too far to turn back now, Fred, he reflected with a spirited stoicism not untypical of Foss although they would not have recognized it in themselves.
Then he heard, or thought he heard, could have sworn he heard another voice. This   voice was different, yet not new; strange, and yet familiar. “Who is that, who’s there?”
“I am Tol, and you must trust me for there is no time to explain. Trust me,” the disembodied voice repeated. “When you get there, go through…”
“Get where, go through what?” the much agitated Foss cried out to the voice that appeared to have no host body.
“Trust me. The only way is through. You will come to no harm. Trust me. The only way is through…” The voice trailed away, and did not return, but the mountain walls reverberated with the word, through…through…through…until it died, as is the way with echoes.
“You are imagining things, you fool!” the much shaken Foss reprimanded himself aloud, shaking his head and taking several deep breaths before pressing on in a silence so thick he felt it was within a paw’s grasp. The other voices had ceased. Why…? Did I imagine them too? Flustered, confused and not a little scared, he had only, however, to negotiate a series of narrow bends to discover the answer to his question.
“Fred…!” Mick-Michal rushed forward to greet the little Foss warmly. A bemused Mulac could only look on as his companion hugged the newcomer who, for his part, wore a no less bemused expression on its furry face.
The Nu-gen glanced despairingly upwards at the huge rock pile he and Michal had attempted time and again to climb only to lose their footing and go sprawling, leaving them further down than they had managed to climb until a particularly nasty fall had returned them to square one.
Fred took the situation in at a glance. “You will never climb that,” he said with a flair common among Foss for stating the obvious as he extricated himself from the surprising but welcome bear hug.
Mick made the introductions.
“A Foss called Fred, whatever next?” Mulac burst out laughing, so rare an occurrence that Mick was as startled as poor Fred.
“I gave him the name,” Mick told him.
Mulac shrugged. What did he care? “So what do you suggest, Fred?” he asked with undisguised sarcasm, “that we go under the rocks by swimming through the mud or take a gentle stroll through them?”
Fred reeled as if struck a blow and almost lost his balance. Through, Tol’s voice had told him. This is what he meant. They had to go through the rock pile. “Oh, through them, definitely,” responded the Foss without hesitation, “Yes, yes, we have no choice but to go through them, it really the only way.”
Mulac and Michal stared, open-mouthed.
“Of course…! Why did you not think of that?” Mulac was the first to recover and looked accusingly at Michal, both hands spread wide in a gesture of incredulity. “We just walk through the rocks, what could be simpler?”  He rounded on Fred, his expression all the fiercer for no small measure of self-restraint. “Are you mad, or what…?”
“Mad, definitely,” Mick agreed with a laugh utterly devoid of humour.
Fed shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, and related Tol’s instructions.
“It is madness…!” Mulac repeated several times. Madness, madness, madness… mountain echoes seemed to agree until at last they faded to a deafening silence. “Does it have a name, this voice you heard, another Fred perhaps?”
“Tol,” the Foss murmured unhappily.
Mulac’s expression instantly changed from openly hostile to thoughtful, recalling how Bethan has trusted this Tol, and had been proved right to do so.
“Tol Serves Arissa, and Arissa…” Michal was quick to remind them
“…serves no one but herself, with the possible exception of the krill leader, Radik. I know of this Tol from Bethan. She, too, engages in mind-speak with him.” Mulac agreed.
“Mind-speak, Beth?” It was Mick’s turn to sound incredulous.
“It must be hard for you Motherworlders,” Mulac observed, “You have a foot in two worlds, it cannot be easy.” He turned to Fred. “Do your trust this Tol?”
“I do,” said Fred with a burst of self-confidence that surprised even himdelf.
“So, too, did Bethan. It is decided then, we will pass through the rocks as if we were passing through a forest. It is important, I think, that we truly believe this, and it will be so.” he added. Only later would he question how he knew this to be the case. As if to quell any opposition, he turned towards the rock pile and proceeded to disappear into it.
Mick and Fred continued to hesitate until the red mud bank beneath their feet began to shift perceptibly. They were sinking. Simultaneously, both all but threw themselves at the rock pile which, in turn, proceeded to wrap itself around each like an invisible cloak, and propel them through the pitch blackness.