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!”
“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.”
“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.