Satan’s Rock

Part Twelve

Warm Summer Lightning

In the heat of  afternoon, thunder threatened.  Beyond  Francine’s opened windows, the world hung, muted by  expectation.  No birds sang.  She lay upon the bed Arthur’s household had prepared for her, listening to the mutter and cursing of the elements, suffering the clinging heat which, though she wore the briefest of shifts from her limited wardrobe, brought a bloom of perspiration to her cheeks.   Earlier, a doctor summoned from the nearby village of Thorpe Harkness, had declared her injured arm sprained but unbroken, bandaged it and prescribed bed rest.   It was too hot!  Although she lay on top of the covers their fabric clung to her, defying any attempt at sleep.  So when someone’s knuckles rapped  upon her door she was wide awake.

“Come in!”  Expecting her maid, the invitation was issued without thought.  Too late she discovered her visitor was Arthur.  He stood framed by the doorway, hesitant, and unable, for an instant, to avert his eyes from the vision before him.

“Arthur!”  It was a small cry, embarrassed as it was confused, “I thought…I mean, I rang for Peggy…”  With her good hand, Francine probed for a sheet that might restore her modesty only to find she was lying on top of all the bedclothes,   The hand flapped helplessly.  Her face reddened in a furious blush.  “Forgive me!”

“No, no, no!”  Retreating, Arthur struggled to articulate; “The fault is all mine.   I will call upon you later, when you’re…”

He withdrew hastily.

She called after him.  “Please stay!”  She had’nt rung for her maid.  Why had she said it?  What possible excuse could she have for saying it?

Why did he turn?  What possible defence could he offer for this behaviour?  “If you…I mean, do you not..?”  Alone with a lady of respectable reputation, in her bedroom, and she in a state of such undress?

She read his thoughts, laughed at herself.  She laughed aloud, then rebuked herself immediately for laughing so loudly.  “There is such heat in this room,” She said; “Will you stay and sit with me for a while?”

Advancing as  a man guilty of outraging common decency at every step, Arthur drew up a chair beside Francine, whose eyes sparkled with delight, reminding him how bewitching she really was.   “Why do I feel I remember you?”  He asked. “When I am certain we have not met before this year?”

She raised her injured arm slightly, gesturing towards the ewer on her nightstand.  “I feel ridiculous!  One petty injury so disadvantages me I cannot reach a cloth to bathe my face, Arthur.  Could you…?”

“Of course.”  He stood once more, his back turned to her as he drenched a flannel in cool water from the jug.  The thought of his muscled thighs, clothed though they were to respectability by his breeches, so awakened her that she almost lost herself when he turned to her once more.  Then cold water dripped upon her arms and breasts and she giggled girlishly.

“You saved my life, sir, today.”  She murmured through the cloth, as using her good hand she bathed her face luxuriantly; “And now it feels as though you have saved it again!  Ah, this revives my spirits so wonderfully!”

“It was your son who saved you, ma’am,” Arthur returned, “Young Samuel discovered you were not abed, then led us to your aid.  He is a fine fellow.”

“Then I have another debt of gratitude,” She declared.  “Is my little frog quite well?/”

“Exuberantly so, ma’am.  He has made a confidante of your maid.  Peggy and he conspire together in the servants’ hall.”

“And I am forever in your debt.  Ah, me!  So many obligations!”   Francine drew the wetted cloth from her face, slipping it over her chin and throat to her shoulders, gently stroking her pale skin with its moist relief.  A tiny trickle found its way beneath the hem of her shift before vanishing into the cleft between her breasts,  Arthur was captivated,   “You watch me closely, sir,”  she chided him kindly,  and it was his turn to blush.

With no further comment she reclined for a while, the exposed part of her bosom draped by cold cloth.   When its pleasing effect had dissipated, she asked, in altered tones and with candour, “Why are you so disturbed by the thought that we might have previously been acquainted?  What do you think it is that exists between us?”

He pondered that question deeply:   “I feel – no, I am sure – we have met before.   On each occasion when we speak of this I grow more certain, yet I cannot explain it.  I can tell you the story of my life in some detail and find nowhere that you might fit within it; nevertheless…”  He spread his hands.

Once again the searching intensity of Francine’s stare sought his eyes, and were they the window to his soul she would surely have opened it.  “Is it not as if there were a locked room somewhere that we shared?”  Her long fingers absently guided the cloth to the limits of her neckline and began to seek beneath her shift as if they mimicked the action of his hands, for she desired his touch quite shamelessly.

Then the moment was passed, and he had seen and felt the same temptation.  Arthur rose to his feet. 

“I must go!”  He exclaimed, afraid of himself.   He took her hand in both of his.  “Francine, whatever this is, the answer must be found, and I am certain it hides within your vanished history.  You may be sure we shall uncover the truth.”

Don’t! Stay!  Her inner voice wanted him to remain, but he retreated purposefully and her door closed briskly behind him.  She knew as well as him the constricts of reputation which had demanded that he leave, yet her heart and her body saw no reason to resist their mutual passion, and if his hands and his morals had strayed, she would have made no complaint.  Was she so permissive, so morally dissolute?    Of one thing she felt certain:  this Arthur was the man whom she and Maud Reybath, her ‘sister’ from Bleanstead so urgently sought.  Although its mechanism was beyond her understanding, Francine knew a gate was rapidly closing, a gate only Maud could help her to find.  A message must be sent to Bleanstead somehow, confidentially and without delay…

The room, far darker now, flared with sudden lightning.  Thunder cracked in a fusillade of fury.  The storm had begun.

#

Peter and Melanie made pilgrimages to The Devil’s Rock together a few times after Peter’s first visit to St. Benedict’s House.   For his part, maybe, Peter wanted to justify the description he had given Melanie of the Great House, to introduce her to Vincent and Alice.   It was important Melanie should be with him if he were ever able to visit there again.  From those late March days to this, though, the house had been locked and silent, its gatehouse closed.

 The seagull, the bird with the diamond mark on its neck, never reappeared.

Melanie came with him for reasons of her own.   She had fallen in love with the place.  The rock, with its dark and light sides like the two hemispheres of the moon, its rugged wildness and big, wide open skies was reflective of her mood right now.  She needed the sunshine of the seaward slopes, warmed to the cosy little homes, full of summer visitors, which nestled there.   And sometimes she needed the damp twilight world of the landward ruins as much.   The old rock was a mystical playground, somewhere to release the child which was still so vital a part of her.  Here she felt welcomed, and at home.

Then there was a deeper, more brooding affinity.   Why, when she so hated thunderstorms, for instance, did she always feel drawn to this place when the weather was at its height?   Why did she so want to stand on the roof of that Great House and actually feel the lightning playing around her?   Frightened for herself, she would make a shuddering withdrawal from these thoughts, but they always came back when the next storm brewed.  Her mother’s bedroom window directly faced the rock across the bay:  she would stand sometimes for an hour there, gazing through driving rain at its craggy outline, her head filled with wild dreams.

Last, though by no means least, there was Peter.   One reason why the rock always seemed so special was Peter: being with him on this island just fitted somehow, as though the last piece of a jigsaw were slotted into place.  In the deepening of their friendship Melanie was finding a meaning – something she  was happy to accept and let grow.   For the moment, let it suffice that there was nowhere she would rather be than here, sunbathing on the grassy slope of the south side, lying beside Peter.   Let the grass be a little wet: the sun had been scarce for a while; it did not matter.   Time would cease to have meaning.

“What things did he ask about me, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was close:  she felt his breath on her cheek.

“Hmmm?”   Melanie opened one eye.   “Are you asleep, Mel?  Well no, not now, Babes.”

His eyes were a bright, disquieting blue.  ‘I wish he would kiss me.’   Her thoughts said.    She raised herself on her elbows quickly:    “Who – what are you talking about?”

“Howard.   You said he was asking about me.  What did he ask?”

Howard’s first question had been ‘Is Peter your boyfriend?’ and very quickly without thinking she had said ‘yes’ but she would not tell Peter that.

“He asked what we liked to do together; what you were like, where you lived….usual stuff.”

“You didn’t tell him anything about …..”

“This place?   Your little nightmare?   No, of course not.”   Melanie giggled.   “I did say you were a bit strange sometimes.”

“Did he react to that?”

“How do you mean, ‘react’?  Did his tummy start to wobble sinisterly, did ectoplasm flow from every orifice – what?”

“Ask more questions….”

“He was, well, a little probing.   But I didn’t give anything away.   Why are you so concerned?”

Peter shook his head.  “I don’t like him.  I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a feeling: don’t tell him about the dream, Mel?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”    Mel started to get to her feet. “And speaking of feelings, its time we moved on, I’m afraid.”

“Do we have to?  It’s really peaceful here.”

“Yes, we do.”  Mel insisted.   She was afraid of herself:  afraid if she stayed in this desultory conversation, dreaming and talking and talking and dreaming, she would allow unsaid words to be said, let secrets out.

“Why?”

“I want to see if the House is still locked up.  If this Vincent of yours isn’t here today, he should be.   No-one should miss a day like this.”   It was an excuse, but it was one she knew would work.  Peter was as anxious as she to find Vincent at home.

“Okay!”   In a sudden burst of energy Peter leapt to his feet:   “First one to the top!”

“Oh, no – not a race!  You are so juvenile sometimes!”   But she watched his retreating back and the strength of his legs as they thrust against the sharp incline, and a little groan escaped her lips.   She followed with a resigned heart.

The pair had long since discovered a path which, although steep, wound its way directly up the southern aspect of the rock.   Leaving the holiday cottages below, this path led through a minor forest of rhododendrons.  The only habitation in sight, occasionally through gaps in the undergrowth above them, was Toby’s cottage.

Peter clambered up the rocky track, oblivious to Melanie’s wanton stare.   Soon he was struggling through the bushes and she was out of sight.   In the midst of the rhododendron maze, suddenly, there was a sense of loneliness:  a harmonizing with the isolation of the island.   He heard, in the hovering air, the sounds of violence and betrayal from its past.  How many lives had perished on these slopes?   How many dreams and aspirations had been broken here?   Village fishermen drowning in shattered boats pulverised against the rocks below: the abbot watching as his monastery was torn stone from stone; Crowley’s ashen visage at a window of the House, knowing (Peter was sure he knew) how his wife’s lover planned and schemed at his coming end.  And more, and more stories, more and more unsettled accounts.   He heard them, these tormented souls, muttering in the rush of breeze among the grasses, lurking in the trees below.   An eruption waiting to happen: a vendetta against this terrible place, ready to be repaid.

“Well now young Peter!”

The voice was right behind him and so surprised Peter that he only just suppressed a yelp of alarm.

“What be you doin’ ‘ere maister?  The house bain’t open today, you know.”

“Toby.”  Peter breathed:  “We…..er….my friend and I, we’re just visiting the island.”

“Friend, eh?  Don’t see no friend.”

“No…she’s…she’ll be along in a minute.”   Peter tried to regain some self-possession:  “How are you, Toby?”

Toby did not, in fact, look very well.   His always puffy, debauched face was an unnatural pink, and his eyes had a furtive look.  He had improved significantly in one regard, however, for which Peter was grateful.  Seeing Melanie labouring up the path behind Toby he was very glad the cottager was fully clothed.

Melanie found herself being introduced to a grubby, rather bulky man in a check shirt and the nearest thing to moleskin trousers she had ever seen outside a costume museum.  She considered that if the wind were to blow in another direction she would be able to smell him.  The prospect was not pleasant.

“Hello Toby.”   She said.

Toby reached forward to grasp her shoulders with his big, spade hands.  Melanie saw how this movement induced another, a quite convulsive dip of his head and neck.   She felt a pain in him – not acute, not suddenly onset, but suppressed; a lifetime-old ache of deformity.   She sensed it, and Toby’s eyes met her’s in a moment of communion.

“Well now, everybody knows my name!”  Toby grinned, displaying a broken picket fence of grey teeth:  “You’m welcome, missy.  We don’t get too many volupshous young ladies up ‘ere.”   The compliment slithered like an eel from a jar.  Melanie felt her skin creep. She took an involuntary step backward.

“Isn’t Vincent here?”   Peter stepped in hurriedly.

“Bless you no. Not been here these two months gone.  Left the day after you was last here, young Peter.”

“And Alice?”

Toby looked puzzled.  “Alice?   Don’t know no Alice.”

“But she was here when I was here.  Volupshous young lady – very tall with black hair.”

“Oh, ‘Er!   Now I know ‘oo you’m meanin’.   But bless you she don’t live ‘ere.   Never saw ‘er before that day you came.   Never seen ‘er since.”

As this conversation proceeded, Peter learned more about Vincent.  The guitarist and songwriter was too wealthy, in Toby’s opinion.  One house was enough for any man, especially one like St. Benedict’s, but Vincent had three.  In the winter he was to be found in Monaco, and sometimes, when business called, in Los Angeles.  In Toby’s opinion after all that a yacht was a terrible extravagance, but Vincent had one of those, too.  Anchored in the – well, Toby had difficulty with the name of the sea, but it had all them islands in it.

 “Caribbean?”  Peter suggested helpfully.

 “Ah, yes. That ‘un.”   Toby nodded sagely, lapsing into a sort of rumbling, guttural sound which sounded much like an elephant’s stomach. Then he added:   “Nothin’ that man ‘asn’t seen, mind.  Nothin!”

Toby seated himself awkwardly on the grass, clearly ready for a leisurely conversation.  He went on at length, then, about the rock star – his ‘rowdy bliddy instrument’ and the shenanigans that went on within the closed gates of the Great House.  Toby’s head was bowed (Melanie had already defined the area of his disability to the vertebrae of his neck, and kept getting sharp reminders of the hurt it caused him) so he had to engage their attention by looking from the top of his eyes, an unintentionally reproachful look, like a mild accusation.   Melanie and Peter sat opposite him, listening dutifully.

As she listened, Melanie began to find a musicality in Toby’s voice which lulled her, so that she forgave him those first leering introductions and began to see him as a part of this island, at one with the birds and the wind-song of the afternoon.   There was a song to the whole place.   Somewhere in her inner ear she could hear it, feel it, wanting to come through.  And although it told of a thousand sorrows it was not an unhappy song, but one of hope.  Try though she might, Melanie could find no malice in St. Benedict’s Rock.   The song was enchanting, maybe bewitching, to her.  It drew her towards it with the gentleness of approaching sleep….

“Old Ben be talkin’ to you, eh, missy?”   Toby’s words floated towards her on a raft of cloud.  They were for her, pertinent to her alone, entering her mind with acuity so precise she thought Peter might not even hear them.  She felt a jabbing pain in her right arm.  Peter was nudging her.

“Wake up, Mel!”

Mel shook herself out of her reverie. ‘Old Ben be talkin’ to you….’   Had she dreamt the words?   Was the rock talking to her?

“Toby, when Peter came here, you said he was ‘expected’ didn’t you?”  She found herself asking.

Toby’s face creased in a frown.  “Aye.  Expected he was, yes.”

“By whom, Toby?   Was it Vincent who invited him?”

“Mr. Vincent, he knew young Peter was coming, yes.”

“But he didn’t invite him.   It wasn’t Vincentwho sent the bird.”  Even as she said it Mel realised how ridiculous the whole premise was.   A globe-trotting millionaire with a trained seagull?

Toby looked at her, then at Peter.   “Well, of course not.  Mr. Vincent was part of it.  ‘E knew as how it was happ’nin’, that’s all.  ‘Aven’t you worked it out yet, then, you young ‘uns?”

“Worked out what?”    Peter felt that he was being incredibly dense.

“Well, Mr. Vincent ain’t ‘ere today, is ‘e?  But you be. You’m expected.”

“But….hang on a minute…”  Peter reasoned.  “You were surprised to see me, weren’t you?   You asked me what I was doing here.”

“True.”  Toby pursed his lips.   “But I didn’t say ‘twas you as was expected now, did I?”

Slowly but surely the truth dawned.  Melanie felt emptied.   “Me?”  She asked:  “I’m expected?”

Toby grinned a set of intermittent teeth again.  “See?  Now you’ve got it!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Felix Mittermeier on Pixabay

Old Cottage: Werner Weisser, Pixabay.

Continuum – Episode Eleven Introduction to the Man-Child

For some days Alanee, widow of a Hakaani foot-player, has been resident in a luxurious City apartment, so it seems her fear of punishment for non-conformity is baseless.  Ellar, the Mediant of the City Council tells her she has a very important task, but gives little information about it.  She is much more forthcoming on the subject of Dag Swenner, Alanee’s aerotrans pilot friend, who is missing, presumed dead.

Dag is alive, however, and has joined forces with Ripero, a Mansuvene boy, in shared experience of a mysterious force that has wiped out Ripero’s village.  Unbeknownst to them the City Council has learned of this force, and has despatched one of its best generals to investigate.

Meanwhile, on a promise of beginning her ‘task’ Alanee has been chained and tortured in an underground dungeon, where she catches sight of her captor, an outlandishly disproportioned man-child.  She faints, and wakes in a bed, with her head filled by a cacophony of noise, at the root of which is a familiar voice, anxious to know she is better…

The noise in Alanee’s head stops!  Each individual component shuts down; switches off, extinguished like a candle-flame.  And now in the silence she knows exactly whose voice she hears!

With a dry shudder she draws herself up in the bed they have made for her.  There it is, her torturer, her persecutor, strange mixture of angel, child and nightmare, framed in a doorway just a few meters away.

Alanee cannot conceal the loathing in her voice.  “Don’t let that near me!”

Her reaction is instinctive, her words clearly taking effect, for the woman that the ‘thing’ addresses as ‘Mother’ withdraws from her as if shot.  A cry of horror escapes the woman’s lips; she rushes to the ‘thing’ as if to comfort it, but its youthful features do not display offence:  instead, the look it gives is much like a dog seeing a rabbit for the first time.  Curiosity, interest; even, perhaps, amusement.  It drops one shoulder and tilts its massive head to one side, as would a dog.  It smiles.

“Did the manacles hurt you?”  It asks innocently.

Immediately the soreness in Alanee’s right wrist flares:  she feels it as though it were being analysed, examined.  The sensation remains for less than a second before it moves to her left wrist, then her ankles in turn.

She manages to turn her wince into a scowl, “What are you?”

At this, ‘Mother’s’ eldritch cry is loud enough to reach the halls beyond the room and echo there.  “Guards!   Bring the guards!”  She is plainly outraged, and would have Alanee back in irons if she could, but the creature stills her.

“No, Mother.  This is well.”  It spreads well-muscled arms in greeting.  “I am Hasuga.”

“Oh, good!  Very good!”  Alanee knows how visibly she shakes:  “How do you do, Hasuga.  And I am terrified victim number – how many?  Can we move past the pleasantries, then; what do you intend to do with me this time?”  She thinks that if she gets a chance, this creature with its unwieldy, unprotected brain must be vulnerable to attack:  though she blanches at the thought, she tries to position herself so she can spring.

Hasuga is completely unperturbed.  He (or it) registers vague bemusement, as though there is some element of an equation he might not understand.  “Do with you?   Nothing.  We had a game.  It was fun.  I don’t want to play it again, although certain parts of it intrigued me.  I like the game you are thinking of: it would be interesting.  Mother, do you think she can fight?”

‘Mother’s’ face is grim.  Her withering glare speaks of all she thinks, but she adds one word:  “Blasphemer!”

“No, mother.  She is different.  She is as Ellar says she is.”

Alanee has never heard the description ‘blasphemer’ although from ‘Mother’s demonic expression she can imagine there is little in it that is complimentary.  However, she recognises ‘game’ well enough; and the mention of Lady Ellar reminds her of the Mediant’s peculiar description of this episode as an ‘encounter’:  is this what she meant?

Suddenly the most appalling chasm of a future opens up before her – one in which she becomes the subject of an eternity of such ‘games’:  the creature before her is clearly some purposely-constructed form of sadist, and she is intended to be its experimental toy.

Surely that cannot be why she was brought here?  Such a thing would be insane!  Her two protagonists are watching her in silence, as though waiting for her response.  Alanee thinks carefully.

“You like games that hurt people, Hasuga?”   It is the first time she has accorded him a name and he smiles with what she supposes to be pleasure.  “You enjoyed humiliating me, I suppose?”

“I like to play games, don’t you?”  Hasuga’s voice is bland. 

“Not when they hurt me.  May I return to my apartment now, please?”

“You don’t want to stay?  We could play another game!”  The man-child looks genuinely puzzled.

“No.  I don’t want to experience anything like that, ever again.  And I’m not sure I want to meet you again, either; at least not until you have acquired some manners!”

Throughout this conversation the woman Alanee knows as ‘Mother’ is becoming increasingly agitated.  She cannot quite discover whether it is anger or distress the woman feels, but Hasuga has sensed it.

“Leave, Mother.”  At this the woman is plainly aghast.  A look of complete tragedy crosses her face as though this is the last thing she wants to do, yet she cannot protest.   She is in such a dilemma Alanee fears she may faint.  “Now, please?”

Mutely, on reluctant feet, ‘Mother’ leaves the room.  Wondering at this sudden reversal of the normal relationship between mother and child, Alanee faces the prospect of being alone with Hasuga; however, her calculation, that if the events which brought her here were on the level of a game she might treat her protagonist merely as a naughty child, seems to have worked to this point.  Now she has no idea where the ‘encounter’ may take her.

Hasuga moves to a chair beside the bed.  Alanee recoils instinctively, but wondering why she does not feel more afraid.  He moves with a grace that belies his grotesque proportions, she thinks; those two supports which help to carry his great dome articulate so he may turn with ease, and there is a long elegance in the fingers he folds together as he clasps his hands over one knee.  He has no (has she expected it?) odor.  He says: “If I told you to leave….”

“I would go; happily.”

“I do not want you to.”

“And you are used to getting what you want, aren’t you, Hasuga?”  Alanee props herself into a sitting position.  “Well, if you want me to stay you will have to do better than you have so far.”

“I see that.”  He sits in silence for a moment, as though he would listen to her breath, which is audible in the oppressive peace of this place.  “When I do this…”  He pauses:  “Do you feel nothing?”

“Do what?”

Hasuga smiles.  “Yes, you are different.  Thank you, Lady Alanee.  I am sorry you did not enjoy my game.  Go now.”

And the creature, or youth, or child, whatever Alanee can make of him, rises swiftly, padding from the room.

For moments Alanee cannot come to terms with what has passed.  Then, overcome with the desire to escape, yet not without effort, she rises to her feet and walks unsteadily on sore ankles to the door.  She finds ‘Mother’ awaiting her in the corridor outside.

Despite clear agitation only a few minutes before, the woman now shows no emotion.  It is as though she has been switched to another mode.  She takes Alanee’s elbow gently.  “Come with me, Lady.  I will show you to the lower floor.  A guide will take you from there.”

Within a few yards the corridor has opened out to become a large open space with rose-marble pillars and floors of soft, deep foam.  Light comes from windows on one side, from some undistinguishable source between ceiling and walls upon the further side.  Such a place should be sombre, even forbidding by its sheer size and would be so, were it not for the paintings and reliefs which adorn its high walls:  pictures of animals humanised by smiling faces, fantastic machines, stylised landscapes of high mountains and green hills.  Some of these are quite endearing, like the little group of golden-haired apes gathered beside a river, and most appear to be ancient, the fruits of imagination older maybe than a thousand years – yet for all their mellowed colours they exude warmth and love.  There are children’s toys everywhere; a dolls house of generous proportions and complexity, a wooden fort, tricycles and pedal-along aerotran models, soft woofing bears and replicas of exotic animals.  Otherwise, furniture is scant:  a couple of settees, a chaise framed in gold.

To the further side of this immense nursery there is another corridor.  A door hangs open to their left and as Mother leads her by, Alanee cannot resist a peek inside.  She sees what is apparently a simple room, two chairs, a single gondola-bed, or habbarn, and Hasuga, seated on the bed with his back to the door, gazing from his window at the ever-present snow.  Although their passing is silent on the floor-foam and although he does not turn, or even move, Alanee is sure he knows they are there.

A stairway descends to an enclosed elevator.  Here, to Mother’s apparent surprise the guide who awaits is not a palace operative, but Lady Ellar herself.  Greetings between the two women are terse.  Alanee cannot miss the antipathy between them.  Mother accords Alanee a brief farewell and walks away with a pronounced turn of her back, as if she would do, or say, far more if she could.  As if she would be angry – if she could.

In the chamber of the elevator as they descend Ellar warns Alanee:

“Say nothing of what you have seen, or what has passed here.”

Alanee’s anger is seething.  “If I do?”

“Do not.  It will not be allowed.”

“You – you know what that…that thing and its gorillas did to me today?  You see these?”  Alanee waves her wrists.  “You condone assault in your precious Habbach-forsaken City?   Habmenach-Sech!  It is some kind of psychopathic mutant!  It should have been liquidated at birth!”

Ellar passes her hand across a censor in the elevator wall, bringing it to a halt.  “Lady Alanee!  No, I have no idea what happened, nor have I the right to know.  I warned you, didn’t I, that this would be a journey for us all?  Perhaps I didn’t lend sufficient emphasis to the fact.  It is a journey that must be made.  Neither you nor I can know how it will end, or what milestones we will pass along the way, but this I can promise you:  it will be a road we travel in secret.  No-one, absolutely no-one, must know of it except those whose work it is to make it happen.  Until you find out who those few people are, I advise you strongly to keep your mouth shut!  Do you understand?”

Alanee’s blood rises.  “And if I don’t?  What will you do to me, Lady precious Ellar?”

“You want to know?  Very well.  You seem to insist upon the unpleasant, so here it is.  Your mind will be neutralised until you remember nothing.  A similar fate will await those to whom you speak of this.  So for your own sake, and for theirs, please stay silent.”

Tears of fury fill Alanee’s eyes.  She bites them back, fighting the urge to retort.  Finally she says dully:  “Let me out of here.”

Ellar sets the elevator in motion.  Seconds after, the doors open onto the great hall of the palace and Alanee walks away, leaving Ellar to contemplate her retreating back with the reflection that it is never easy to be Mediant in such a complex place.  She does not blame Alanee for her rage – if she could she would tell the girl so much more – sometimes there are just too many requirements for silence, too many rules.  And no matter how she tries to insist to herself that the Lore is always right, there are times when she wonders….

Though Alanee knows the enclosed route back into the Consensual City now, she deliberately makes her way through the colonnades into the open courtyard, desperate for bitter air and the kiss of snow on her flesh.  There are few others willing to pursue her option:  those who do hurry past her more suitably clad in thick woollen capes or furs, casting amused glances in her direction from beneath shielding hands.  She does not care.  Out here she can scour all the subterfuge and intrigue of this society from her ears and eyes.  Here, seated upon a marble plinth beneath the stern effigy of some forgotten pedagogue  she can turn her face to the leaden sky, letting its small white emissaries cool her eyes, letting her mind empty. 

“Alanee-ba!  Where have you been?  Oh, ba, what has happened to you?”  A slight figure submerged in acres of fur hurries towards her.  Sala’s anxious eyes peep out from amid a diplomatic mission of impaled snowflakes.

Alanee steels herself:  she is positive – as sure as she could ever be – Sala was complicit in her betrayal. “That,” She replies grimly, shouting against the gale’s howl.  “I cannot tell you.”

#

As the day’s heat retracts, the evening sun is like a benediction.  Dag Swenner raisess his eyes to find Ripero looking back at him.

“You’re doing well,”  Ripero encourages him.

They have been walking in silence for most of the day, Ripero always leading.  Each footstep Dag takes wracks his whole body with pain.  Progress is difficult:  the previous night’s slick of ash and rain has caked in the sun but is still liquid beneath.  And all around them a featureless landscape glares in the heat.

“You haven’t told me what happened to you?”  Dag asks.

“I don’t know.”  Ripero shrugs.  “It was a wall of fire, yet there was no heat.  I felt nothing, while my girl turned to ashes not a yard in front of me.  I saw the flesh torn from her bones – I watched her bones charred into dust!  I could not rescue her, or touch her!”  Ripero nearly brings himself to tears as he describes Saleen, the girl he has lost, then admits.to his conviction that all of his family are also dead.  He waves vaguely towards the eastern horizon.  “My village; it was over there;  Kaal Takken.  It’s gone.  There is only rock burned to glass.  The river is dry.”

They walk on.  Although he feels Ripero’s sorrow, Dag does not know how to comfort him.  Ripero continues:  “To begin with, there was a firm margin, like the fire had consumed only what was within the wall and left everything beyond untouched:  like me.  That is how my girl was destroyed and I was not.  Then (I was further away by then because I ran) the untouched land began to sizzle and burn with a blue fire of its own.  It spread out and out.  I took refuge in the cave where we slept last night and, for some reason, it did not find me.”

By agreement, the pair are heading northward and a little to the west.  This because Dag knows it to be the direction of the Consensual City, although he does not divulge that information; content, rather, to let Ripero believe their best course is to aim for Ax-Pallen, a town in the lower reaches of the neighbouring Fass Valley.  There is an aerotran port there, and he hopes or believes the town might not have been affected.  As they progress, Dag describes how his aerotran was robbed of power by the event, and how the locating beacon which might have brought their rescue was long ago wiped out.

“I’m sure I travelled many miles off course before I crashed.”

“There will be a rescue, though.  There must be.”  Ripero reasons.

“I don’t know.  The electrical activity in the air may well stop any rescue, especially if the authorities think there are no survivors.  I wouldn’t rely upon it, if I were you.”

As the hours have passed Dag’s back has become more mobile, rather than less, while he chooses to ignore the deep distress in his left side.  The light is fading before they reach the foothills at the margin of Dometia Wilds, and begin to climb towards the Fassland Hills.  Thus far they have found neither water nor vegetation of any kind: the land is reduced to bare rock from which all life has been scourged, a worry that Dag cannot dismiss from his mind, for he knows Ax-Pallen is two days of walking from here, and they will not make it without gaining some sustenance.

Their path is frequently obstructed now by fallen rocks from frowning cliffs that hide the last beneficent sunlight and add chill to a freshening wind.   One such rock forces Ripero to pause, casting about him for a viable path as Dag stumbles up the slope behind him.  He looks back at the plain, and something makes him look again.

“There!  See there!”  He cries.

Dag focuses in the direction of his companion’s waving hand.  Yes, he sees them too: moving figures, perhaps a dozen or more.  Little larger than dots, they are in a group maybe a mile away, walking towards these same hills.  He takes his spy-glass from his pocket to see them better.

“There are men and women, Dometians, by their clothing.  Fourteen in all, carrying a litter with someone laid out on it.  And children, there are three children!”

“We should go to them!”  Ripero is already descending.

“No, wait!  I think they are coming to us.  I think they may have seen us.  One of them seems to be waving – see?”

He passes the glass to Ripero who snatches it up to his eyes, searching eagerly for some familiar faces.  “What if they are from my village?  What if my father and mother are there?

“Do you see anyone you know?”

“Yes.  No – maybe.  We must move closer!”

“As I said, they are coming towards us.”

With difficulty, Dag persuades Ripero to conserve his energy and together they perch upon a rocky promontory to await the little party.  Dag, though glad of an opportunity to rest, finds the management of his pain difficult, for which reason he is unaware of the drone from the southern sky until it is quite loud.  Aerotrans!  He scans the horizon quickly, using his glass:  yes – there!  A flight of five big transporters, flying low!

Excitedly, Dag raises Ripero to his feet, pointing out the rapidly growing dots in the sky.  Ripero’s heart is lifted.  He begins to wave.  The group upon the plain are also waving; rescue has arrived!

But then…..

Something makes Dag grab at Ripero’s waving hands, pulling them down to his sides:  he does not know what instinct guides him, perhaps it is something in the manner of the aerotrans’ line of flight, or the way the gaping access doors in their sides open so early, long before they are in position to land.

“No! Oh no!  Get down!  Ripero, hide!”

Ripero casts him an incredulous look, but such is the urgency in Dag’s expression and voice that he obeys.  Both draw back into shadow.  Through his glass Dag can see the uniformed figures of the Special Operations Squad outlined in those open doorways, their liquidators propped on tripods between their knees.

Upon some internal command the aerotrans wheel, each hovering so that together they form a semi-circle above the small group of Dometians, who dance in celebration – until they see what Dag has seen.  Then the dancing stops.

From this distance death is silent –arcs of tracer, a convergent flower.  It is quick.  In no more than a few seconds, the survivors on the plain survive no more.

 © Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Continuum – Episode Ten Experiments in Fear

The story so far:

Alanee, missing her friendship with Sala and learning her aerotran pilot, Dag Swenner, is believed dead, feels isolated and afraid when Ellar the Mediant tells her that her work in the City is about to begin.

Alanee seeks out Sala to renew their friendship, and guided by a mediator called Seil, the pair pursue a route that takes them well below the foundations of the Palace to an ancient door.  Before she has a chance to protest, Alanee is seized by a giant guard and thrust inside…

No time to struggle; no hope of resistance.  The giant man propels Alanee through that heavy door and slams it with an oaken crash in Sala’s face.  A second pair of brutal hands clasps Alanee’s arms, raising her feet from the floor to carry her, throw her, turn her.  A cold slab of stone at her back, cold iron clamped about her wrists:  her arms hoisted above her head so she is almost hanging and she cries out with the pain; manacles clasp her ankles.  Her captors step back.

A trickle of blood runs down her right arm.  Such is the agony in her arms and shoulders she has to force her eyes to open, seeing her assailants through furious tears.  Both are mighty creatures garbed in black leather jerkins and loin-cloths.  Their muscle-bound forms as immutable as the granite that surrounds them, they stand with their backs to her, one on each side of the room’s only feature, a table of crude construction upon which are arrayed a long black whip, an iron mask with inverted spikes, thumbscrews, and pliers.

Granite walls, granite floor, flickering and guttering in the poor light from torches lodged in brackets on each wall.  In the further wall are two doors, both closed.  The one which admitted her, and another, smaller door to its right.  So this, to an innocent country girl, is how a torture chamber looks.  She might never describe the black despair of this moment, the realisation that all her worst nightmares were, in the end, so inadequate; for nothing could have prepared her for this.  By comparison imprisonment would be a blessing now; all those promises, the treachery of Cassix, of Ellar, of Sala, all leading to this.  At last she knows why those who are taken by the State are never seen again.  Their blood washes walls such as these – their end is unremarked and all memory of them wiped away.

“I think the mask!”  A voice from somewhere beyond her range of vision:  a cold, high voice which whines like winter draft in a casement.  “Try it to see if it fits.”

The pillar of masculine flesh to Alanee’s left seems moved to obey.  He lifts the spiked head-piece from the table and turns towards her.  His sinewy frog-like face creases into a sadistic grin.  He comes towards her, raising the fiendish instrument over her head.  She sees how the spikes upon the inner side of its lid, the long, long spikes, are set in such a way that one will pierce each of her eyes, two others each of her cheeks, another her mouth.  Her heart raises a wild beat, terror quakes through her – she is gibbering – knows it – mouthing words meaninglessly:  “Let me down – let me go!  No!  NO!  NO!

“This is hysteria, isn’t it?”  That high, unpleasant voice sounds at once delighted and a little curious.  “How strange!  I have never seen that.”

Now the rough helmet is being fastened about her neck, that lid swinging unheeded back and forth, its spines threatening any moment to dig into her skin.  Her eyes!  No, pray Habbach, not her eyes!  Alanee is in the grip of a fear more consuming than any she has known, but yet she cannot go to her death without some riposte, some sort of struggle.

“Does it please you, then?”  She strives to find a voice.  “Feeds your fucking perversion, does it, you loathsome toads?”

The lid at last swings too far:  a first spike touches the flesh of Alanee’s cheek, reducing a string of invective to a strangled scream.

“It doesn’t fit my picture.”  The voice has altered in timbre, lost its edge.

Across the room that smaller of two doors is opening.  Through it enters a figure who, even in this dim light, defies Alanee’s last vestige of belief.  She sees a young body of athletic build, richly garbed in a toga edged with precious stones that glitter in the torchlight.  This is indisputably a male figure, one which emanates assurance and power.  A face perfectly featured, somewhere between that of a child and a man – pale-skinned, almost colourless – but framed by a head such as none Alanee has ever seen.  For he has no skull at all:  instead, a near-transparent membranous globe that seems to grow from the creature’s forehead and cheeks, extending to twice the size of any normal cranium and so unwieldy it must be supported by two substantial sapling-like buttresses (she can think of no other word to describe them) which grow from his shoulders and attach where, in more usual human circumstances, ears should be.  From there, these growths reach out to each other; encompassing the apex of the globe as if offering some kind of restraining scaffold, from which fronds of external structure spread and curl, like the branches of a vine.

Yet it is not this organic cage that transfixes Alanee’s horrified stare, but the sight of all that lies within; because the globe is filled with a cloudy bluish fluid through which are visible a multitude of fine mucosa strings of darker hue.  Though each of these strands may be no more than a few millimetres in diameter, their constant, rapid peristalsis is obvious: they move among themselves; what is more, they link to something deep and unseen at the centre of the globe – something which flickers with a light of its own.  Amongst this skein of tubular flesh pigmented cells dart from place to place, not in a random manner but with targeted rapidity, like tiny water-boatmen she remembers from days of summer by the farmyard pond.

The sight of this mutation, atop all her other terrors and humiliations, is too much for Alanee.  Her vision spins.  She hears and sees nothing more.

#

There is a tapping.  Dag is not sure when he becomes aware of it, but he knows it is there.  Insistent – tap, tap, tap.  He does not want to wake up because his dream is a good one.  He does not want to leave the bed he shares with this girl.  She is warm and vibrant in his arms with her long limbs wrapped about him and he thinks he could stay here forever, if it were not for that tapping.

“Alanee?”  He must wake her.

“Hmmm?”  Her sleep-drowned face, those incredible blue Hakaani eyes.

“I have to wake up, ba.”

“Must you?”  She is fading,  “Must you?”

He comes to himself with a start.  He is in the aerotran, and he has crashed.  He remembers that.

There is a drumming, and the drumming is rain.  It makes jewels and rivulets upon the window of the pod.  But the rain is not the cause of the tapping sound.  The human shape draped upon the window is.

Little by little all sensation returns, from the pain in his back to the drunken angle of his machine, making him realise that the figure knocking on the glass must be almost lying on top of the aerotran’s safe cell.  The figure belongs to a swarthily-featured young man dressed in the habiliment of a Dometian peasant, a simple shift which, unsurprisingly given the conditions, is extremely wet.  He is mouthing something.

Dag’s first thought is that help has arrived.  After all, he must have been on the ground for some hours now.  But further consideration casts doubts:  this is not a suited rescue service operative, with mask and gloves. 

He presses the release button.  The hatch behind him slides back.  “Who are you?”  He calls out.  “Can you help me?  I think I’m damaged.”

The rain is blowing into the aerotran now.  From outside he thinks he hears the young man’s reply as:  “Look to your right!”

“What?”

“Don’t move!  Your right – look to your right!”

Dag moves his head carefully and is thankful to find his neck, at least, is unbroken.  Oh, Habbach save us!

To the right of his aerotran the view is uninterrupted.  That is because there is nothing but empty space.  He hangs above a canyon, balanced on a vertical cliff over a dry river-bed some hundred metres beneath.  The fulcrum point is so finely placed that just the act of breathing seems to set the aerotran rocking dangerously.

“Any ideas?”  He shouts out as loudly as his state permits.

“The problem is the wind.”  Comes the reply.  “If I get off here I think you may be blown over the edge.”

“So?”

“I’m going to work my way towards the tail if I can do it without getting off.  The further back I go the better the weight is distributed, I think.  The trouble is I keep slipping, it’s so wet!  Don’t try to move yet.”

“Not sure I can.  There’s something wrong with my back.”

“Well, we’ll see.  Stay still for now.”

With this the young man slides his right hand across the glass.  The aerotran sways.

“Habbach!  Be careful!”

“I’m trying!”  He moves a foot.  More swaying.  His body slithers after it.

Dag calls out:  “What’s your name?”

“Ripero.  Is that important right now?”

“I just wanted to know who I was going to say goodbye to.”

Inch by inch Ripero manoeuvres himself towards the rear of the aerotran’s pod until he has vanished from Dag’s view.  More than once there is a cry as a foot slips, a hand loses grip.  Then, quite suddenly, a foot appears in the hatchway.  Moments later Ripero is fully inside the door.

“Hi!”  He says.  “Now it’s your turn!”

Dag tries moving to his left.  His back screams a warning, but he persists, forcing his body to lever him up the drunken slope of the floor.  The blinding agony he first feared, the total incapacity of a broken back, does not come.  With mobility if anything the pain is eased.  He is able to crawl around the footings of the co-pilot’s seat and into the rear of the aerotran.  Ripero’s weight stabilises the back end of the machine, so every move he makes in the same direction should bring greater safety, yet it does not feel like that.  Ripero’s urgent shout confirms his anxiety.

“The bloody wind’s shifting it!  Come on, hurry!”

Abandoning all thought of safety, Dag struggles to his feet, launches himself towards Ripero, who shoots out a big hand and grabs him, throwing him out of the hatch and into the teeth of rain and wind.

Dag lands in a groaning heap upon a slick of wet ash, hearing the thud as Ripero’s body grounds beside him.  Together, the two men grasp the land as if it might escape them if they did not hold it down while somewhere behind, with an almost inaudible sledging sound, the aerotran pod disappears from sight.  Above the wind they can still clearly hear a crump of contact far below upon the canyon floor.

Ripero clambers to his feet, looking ruefully down at himself, plastered as he is with black mud.

“These were my best clothes.”  He laments.  “Never mind!  Now I’ve rescued an aerotran pilot they’ll let me have a proper suit I expect!”  He holds out a hand to Dag.  “Be careful, it’s very slippery here.”

Free of the immediate danger of the doomed aerotran, the pair are in peril of being washed into the canyon by the force of wind and beating rain.  Beneath them a viscose slick of black ash offers no purchase – to stand is to become a sail before the storm – a storm which, though abated somewhat, has ample force to blow them before it, skating helplessly, into the abyss.  Only when they have crawled, scrabbled, staggered to a safe margin of bare rock may they stand fully upright.

“I’ve found shelter nearby!”  Ripero shouts above the clamour.  “You can walk, yes?”

“Yes I can walk!”

Dag walks.  He walks because there is no alternative other than to stay here and die.  He walks though the pain in his lower back feels as if it will cut him in half at every step, and other pains that have lain undiscovered before, deep and lingering, warn him of further injuries.  Although he has not far to go, this is the longest walk of his life.

#

Braillec’s fortress castle stands like a signpost to the stars.  Atop the highest rock of the Southern Mountains its towers can be seen from every aspect for twenty miles.  Even in first light, before the sun has raised its head over Kiilar Dan in the east, it speaks of its history.  The ghosts are always walking here, amid tales of ancient life, of walls that date back to before the Conflict, of wars and murders and royal intrigue.  It is a magical place.

Nowadays the fort itself is centrepiece to a celebration cake of a town.  Terraced streets wind their way around the rock, or climb at impossible angles straight up its precipitous sides.  White stuccoed buildings – houses, emporia, libraries and small industries, cascade like frosting from every level, glittering beneath street light candles that glow eerily in the mists of morning.

In this dawn haze the citizens of Braillec move like cats towards their day; emerging from their homes to step where no normal man would have courage to tread, descending or ascending as freely as mountain goats in their vertical world.  They are a quiet people who talk with each other in hushed tones, as though afraid that ghosts might hear them.  The castle is their father and a strict one too.  They live in his awe.

High Councillor Trebec is cold.  He is also angry – well, no, perhaps ‘irritable’ would be a better word – at being dragged from his bed at this early hour.  The spectacular mountain vista does nothing for his constitution, though, if pressed, he might concede that it is impressive: he is discomfited, and he is abominably, freezingly, cold.  From his parapet view he sees a very different aspect of Braillec, for, in the deep valley that lies between the fort and Kiilar Dan,( a valley once glacial, in the days before the Conflict) a honeycomb of man-made caves permeate the old mountain’s eastern face.  Before each cave a transport aerotran waits, and beside each aerotran a squad of soldiers.

“We are ready to embark, sir, on your word.”  Says the soldier who stands beside him.

Mission Commander Zess has been placed under Trebec’s orders.  Zess harbours his own opinions of Sire Trebec, which, were the High Councillor to hear them, would not please him, but he never will, of course.  When he, Zess, was told he would be required to lead a rescue mission into Dometia he was surprised.  When he investigated the reason he was alarmed:  yet he would never question his orders.  The order he is about to receive, however, will test that particular discipline to its limits.

“The terrain is sufficiently stable, then?”  Trebec asks.  He looks towards the black threat hanging over the southern sky; a sight that has drawn his eyes continually since his arrival here.  Even now he can see the dance of distant lightning.

“There are signs of remission, sir.  I intend to get as close as I can.  If the storm continues to abate at this pace we should be able to move in a few hours.”

Trebec nods.  “Then you have your order.”

“Sir, if I might?”  Something troubles Zess.  “We have made no arrangements in the City for refugees, sir, or for the injured.  Should we not ask the Almoner to begin an evacuation plan?”

Trebec turns from his view to engage the Mission Commander’s eyes.  He takes a long breath.  “There will be no refugees, Zess, do you understand?  No injured.  No survivors – is that clear?”

“Sir, half the population of Dometia is out there!”

Trebec knows.  How can he explain?  People whose brainwaves have been liberated by the interference of the electrical storm, people who have not received The Word for two days now.  What else can he do?

“No survivors, Zess.  None.”

“Then all these men are….?”

“A front, Zess, nothing more.  At the Dometian border set them down as your mission dictates, let them believe they are making camp for the wounded, field hospitals, that kind of thing:  the aerotran crews will do the rest.  They are my picked men.”  Trebec catches the horror in Zess’s face.  “Do you think I like this?  Do you think I slept last night?  It is duty, Zess.  It is a necessary thing.  The responsibility, the torment; that is all mine.”

#

Iron spears that press into the flesh of her cheeks, into and through:  the distinctive ‘pop’ of yielding skin, the hot pain of rough iron boring in,her eyes!  Oh, Habbach her eyes are gone, she knows it!  Soon they must reach the threshold of the brain….soon the agony will cease…..soon it will be over.  Please, Sire Habbach of my soul, let it be soon!

Hands on her shoulders: gentle light; a kind face that smiles down upon her; is this what it is like?  Is this the after-life no-one believes in?

“Be still, my dear!”  Says the kind face – like her mother’s face – be still, my Alanee-tes, my ba!-  but not, no, not her mother; an angel; an angel’s face.  “It is all over now!  All over!”

She tries to see about her, sees everything veiled as in a fine haze.  Only the sweet face is clear to her, and all that she sees makes her really think she might be in heaven.  Yet there are things…..  Alanee raises her arm so she may inspect her wrists and, true to her expectation, red wields testify to the cruel grasp of manacles.  Her shoulders ache, too.

“Where am I?  Why can’t I see?  Who are you?”  Her lips are dry, making the questions tumble over one another.  “My head!”  A confusion of voices is growing inside her brain  – a sound that is not so much heard as experienced – voices indistinguishable as words or song.

“You are in the upper rooms of the Palace.  We brought you here.  You were very, very frightened my dear, so I gave you a little draught; a sort of sedative, if you like.  Then I bathed you, replaced your robe with another, and we left you to sleep.  You have been asleep for five hours, Lady Alanee:  your fear must have exhausted you.”

Alanee’s vision is clearing – she is already coming to herself.  She catches the scent that anoints her body, feels the fresh robe upon her skin, the comfort of soft bedding beneath her.

“Is she awake, Mother – is she better??”  A voice she knows, from somewhere:  a sound vaguely familiar, yet not.  If only the inner waterfall of noise would go away!  It is much louder now, beginning to express itself as pain.

“Yes, darling.  I think you can talk to her now, if you want.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.