Satan’s Rock

Part Five: Exploration and Discovery

The sounds emanating from Mountsell Park’s music room spoke of fingers engaged in a titanic struggle.  Abel Montcleif, too polite to refer to the discordant sounds directly, punctuated his conversation with barely concealed winces and, once, an audible groan.

Arthur Herritt’s business manager shared his employer’s appreciation of good music.   Physically, however, he  contrasted less favourably.  Whereas Arthur surpassed six feet in height, Montcleif fell short of it by four inches,  Where Arthur’s nose was prominent and his chin sufficiently determined to support the chin-strap of a cavalryman, Montcleif’s nose would have been inadequate for the oversight of such a jaw as his master’s.  Thankfully, his lower features tapered gracefully into the rest of his rather full profile, so there was no need, and if his voice had a flutish pitch about it which might have made him unremarkable upon first acquaintance, the force of his relentless personal drive more than compensated after a little time passed in his company.  As a manager of Arthur’s affairs, and those of David Hart-Witterington before him, he was irreproachable.  Arthur, so recently succeeded to the Hart-Witterington Estate, had loved him as a friend for years.

“I have seen very little of the lady,”   Montcleif piped, referring to Francine Delisle,  “In the last several months – since before Lord Hart’s sad passing.  If, as you say, her guardian has been keeping her indoors for fear of some danger, real or imagined, that would not surprise me.  Jebediah Fletcher is an ungenerous and frightened little man.”   

Arthur grimaced as he recalled the name,  “I know him!   Of Fletcher and Green, the grocers’ emporium.   Yet he is always out in Society,  whereas I cannot recall encountering Francine in the City at all.  Is she habitually so retiring, d’ye think?”

“Francine!”  Montcleif raised an eyebrow.  “That rather suggests you have been making up for lost time, doesn’t it?  Are we enamoured of the young lady?”

“She…interests me.  The manner of her appearance at Fletcher’s door, in a Moses Basket, as it were, the absence of any other information concerning her or her son, and now this visit from a crazed Dervish who is clearly far more interested than I?  How does it all hinge together, Abel?”

Montcleif nodded,  “I shall endeavour to find out.  As to your assailant, I would think he is three counties away by now.”

“Truly?  Would you?  If his message had any honesty, I would say he is close by, waiting for a gap in our defences.  It might be worthwhile remembering he used a plural:  he said ‘the woman is ours’.  I rather fancy he will not be waiting alone.  I am not Jebediah Fletcher, yet I can see how the poor man could have been affrighted.”

“In the meantime may I take it Francine has become a guest of Mountsell Park?”

“Do you think it inappropriate?”

“A woman with a child, both in need of protection?  A single man of marriageable age?  Very, but one does what one must.  Perhaps you can help her with her Pianoforte tuition?” 

Much of the afternoon had passed when Arthur discovered Francine walking in the walled garden.  Finding her had not been difficult, for Robinson the Ostler and one of his stable hands, returned from their pursuit of the trespassing horseman, were under instructions to keep watch upon her whenever she strayed from the House.  

“I detain these gentlemen,”    She greeted Arthur, nodding to the pair, who stood like sentries at the garden’s single door;   “I intended to take the air.  Am I a serious inconvenience?”

“Not in the least,”  He assured her;  “There must be other diversions than music.”

“You heard!  You heard and you suffered,  I am so sorry!  My fingers seem eager to find a tune, yet I can make nothing pleasing come from the instrument.  I have taken a decade striving to discover just one accomplishment that survives from the teaching of my past life, but I have found none.  I cannot embroider, I cannot paint, and now I have a whole music room to myself I have no escape from my inability to play!   I am truly worthless!”

“Please pardon my imposition of an escort upon you.  I have no wish to limit your freedom, only to keep you safe.  After this morning…”

“I know; I heard.  And I do understand.  Arthur, will you walk with me?”

“Gladly.  Is Samuel not with you?”

“He is within doors.  He is much taken with Peggy, the maid you so kindly provided for me.  She has a repertoire of grisly tales that are entirely to his taste.  He is rapt!”

With this and like subject matter to sustain them, the pair made their way from the garden, Francine treating her two heavily-built bodyguards to a nervous look and enquiring whether the fowling pieces they carried were strictly necessary?

Arthur apologised,  “Scatter-guns are cumbersome, I know.  Unfortunately, my noble predecessor had quite individual views on the subject of firearms, so we are woefully lacking.  Other than a pair of duelling pistols, gamekeeping weaponry is all we possess.  I’m working to correct that.”

“You have so much to defend here, Sir!”  Almost without thought, Francine had taken Arthur’s arm and she gave it a hint of a squeeze;  “After my privations in the City, this is very close to Paradise.”   

They strolled at first by the carriage way which cut through the park, Francine buoyed up by the first bite of evening air, Arthur absorbed by her company.  Behind them, the ostler and his stable hand kept watch at what they perceived to be a respectful distance.  At a place where the way reached a depression Arthur guided Francine onto a far narrower defile, where they found their way beside high banks of rhododendron. A birch copse framed the path in ragged discipline, their history of leaf-mould soft to the tread.  The estate gardeners had cleared this gully and made of it a forest path, full of the rustles and songs of evening, though an hour had passed since it was last touched by the sun.  Francine shivered prettily in the chill, he offered his coat and she, adjusting the garment about her shoulders, expressed her gratitude with a ghost of a smile.

“Come,”  he encouraged her.  “We shall be done with the valley and back among the hills in no time!”  As he promised, the lower portion of the path was immediately followed by an ascent which revealed a vista of the parkland to their right side, and Mountsell House to their left.   The climb was steep enough for his support to be required, engendering a sensation which, as he clasped the cool submission of her hand, affected him more profoundly than he might have wished.

“That poor tree!”  She declared as she found space to regain her balance,  “Whatever happened to it?”

The smooth sloping grass beside their path had been massively disrupted by the toppling of a venerable old oak which, torn from the ground by its roots yet supported by its most stalwart branches, lay like a wounded soldier across the hillbrow, as though trying with its gnarled limbs to drag itself to safety.   

Arthur nodded solemnly.  “A sad casualty of the great gale that occurred on Christmas Night,”  he said.  “It proved the demise of several trees, but this one remains to be cleared.  The work of a summer at least, for our woodcutters.   It reduced our Head Gardener to tears.”

“I remember the storm well,”  Francine acknowledged,  “Nonetheless, I am surprised.  One would have thought such a doughty presence capable of withstanding Armageddon, should it occur!   What forces must have been needed to do that deed!”

“A fine old tree too – of some five hundred years standing, Mr Maple, our head gardener, asserts.   He offered an explanation.  Let us look.”  Arthur took Francine’s hand again, which, he had to admit, he rather liked doing, and led her to an advantage from which she might see down into the pit left by the tree’s roots.  “Do you see how shallow the root bole is?  The tree could never grip the soil deeply because rock lies close to the surface here.  With the years of growth those ancient boughs were gradually exceeding the effort of its roots.”

Francine looked as she was bidden, and she saw the base of the depression as Arthur described it – and yet more.  How smooth, how clean, how extraordinary the surface of the rock appeared, as though freshly washed by rain, although there had been none in recent hours; and quite unreasonably she found herself wondering if somehow Arthur had conspired to lead her here, so she had to tell herself it had been her idea to walk with him, and why would he want, anyway, to impress her with this rock’s unaccountable magnificence or become aware of the warmth that seemed to radiate from it?

“It’s quite beautiful!”  She may have spoken aloud.

A thunderous explosion rent the curtains of this illusion in twain and startled her so much she squealed in alarm, and instinctively threw herself into the arms of the Master of Mountsell Park!   For a few fleeting moments she succumbed to his embrace before he could explain that the stable hand had accidentally discharged his gun, having jammed its stock heavily on his foot.   When she felt able to look elsewhere than the folds of Arthur’s waistcoat she was gratified by the prospect of the culprit dancing on his painful toes.  She sensed the gentle touch of Arthur’s fingers as they brushed the hair back from her cheek, and stepped away hurriedly.  In seconds the moment was passed; she regained her composure, called out to their chastened escorts to enquire if anyone had been injured, even managed to laugh at the whole affair, but the beating of her heart took far longer to recover, and the vision of that rock would pursue her into dreams that night.   

#

Vincent Harper might have appeared to be somewhat dwarfed by the vast proportions of his mansion.  He was not as tall as his picture, nor was he as young.  But as he bounded forward to greet Peter it was certain that his stellar presence had not diminished.  His flaxen hair straggled forward just as it did on his album covers, draping over his narrow shoulders in wavy strings; and if most of these festoons started from a point lower on his cranium than once they did, it would have been unkind to notice.  His wiry frame was so spare of flesh that, though the leather jeans and the white tee-shirt he wore were obviously made to be tight, they slipped freely over his body.  Only his face, lined heavily by the years and by the harder side of living, gave away a man comfortably into his fifties.  Peter was completely overawed.

“Come on, man, we’ve got some serious work to do:”  Vincent took Peter by the shoulder.  “Never been here before, have you?   You’d like some grub, right?  Come and have something to eat and I’ll show you round.”

Feeling a little shaky at the knees and not in the least hungry, Peter nevertheless allowed himself to be guided.   The great hallway, with its school-corridor echoes and hard stone outlines, reduced him to awe-stricken silence.  The walls were hung with pictures – some original oil paintings, some photographs and prints of y eastern origin – some of Vincent the artist and his band, some of women in states of undress, a few obvious family album pictures, too.  a panelled oak door beneath the right hand flight of the glass staircase opened to admit him.

“Welcome to my pad, mate.  This is the bit I actually live in, right?”

Beyond the door was a room from another world; for, as the great hall had been built to impress, so the salon was furnished to pamper.  His feet wrapped by a deep crimson carpet, Peter breathed in a faintly familiar, exotic scent, gazing upon long, deeply cushioned settees and white-curtained walls which were hung, (where they were revealed), with very expensive paintings and prints – A Warhol, certainly, what appeared to be a Lucian Freud, something very like a late Augustus John with many others he couldn’t identify. Six pillars of satin aluminium supported a low padded ceiling dotted with starry lights, from which two womb chairs were suspended.   Framed perfectly in one of these sat a svelte, languorous woman in a bright green silk robe, whose straight raven hair sparked from her head like an electric shock.  Vincent introduced her.

“Peter, this is Alice.”

“Hi Pete.” Alice’s voice had a slow, dialect drawl.  “Want some nosh?  Something to drink?  Drinkies, yeah?”   Her long slender hand gestured at a low table laden with the stuff of luncheon: salad greens, fruit, bread. The hand, with its fine wrist and impossibly thin fingers, should have seemed beautiful to Peter, because Alice was a model who was used to having the finer points of her beauty dissected and admired, but it did not.   She seemed formless, like a squid.

“Hullo Alice.”  Peter responded shyly.

Vincent gave his shoulder a brief hug. “Have what you like, man.  Make yourself at home.  Plant your arse somewhere and we’ll tell you what comes next.”

A drink and two sandwiches later, Peter found it easier to talk.  Where did he live, what was he studying?  All the time he had the impression they knew what his answers would be.  He found himself half-accepting this, just as for some reason he seemed to find his hosts’ expectation of his visit unsurprising – it was the most natural thing in the world to issue invitations via a wild bird.   Nor did he pronounce himself unwilling when Vincent told him how he absolutely must see the rest of the house that very day. He did try vaguely to protest that he had lectures to attend that afternoon, but already the world outside lacked importance – had faded, almost, into mist.   Besides, the rockstar legend was manifestly proud of his ‘pad’ and it would have been rude to deny him.  The air in the room felt thick and heavy, the yielding cushions beneath his weight too softly inviting.   He began to wash in and out on a tide of sleep. Present gently merged into past, words in his head were befogged by music so he was only able to pick up snatches of conversation.   Alice’s voice, quite sharp, was one of these bites.

“Better get him moving now, or he won’t be going anywhere.  Once he drops off, it’ll take hours to get him back.”

Vincent’s hand was grasping his shoulder:  “Come and have a look around, mate.”  He said.

Now, with an odd sensation of floating, he was being steered back into the great hall,   Alice following on spidery legs, her slippers shuffling unaccountably loudly over the marble as though they were treading sand.   Here, with the fresher air clearing his head, he was ready to be told about the history of the pictures on the wall, the architecture, or maybe even some stuff about Crowley or Ballentine.  Could one of the portraits depict Lady Elizabeth herself?   But Vincent did not seem to know – or if he did, he gave very little information.

“Truth is, Peter, I’m not too clued up about the past of this place.   You probably know more than me.  And you’re going to tell me everything you do know, mate; aren’t you?”

© 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

Featured Image: Kevin Wenning from Unsplash

Tony Sent Me…

A frigid sun, not bright, lights this scene.  A car park, rarely so busy at this time of day, is crammed with shoppers on errands of desperation, pattering busily to and fro carrying bags stuffed to the gills with toilet rolls, tinned foods, more toilet rolls…

Tomorrow is lock-down day (again).  Another month of incarceration by the organs of the Nanny State.  Although enforcement of any kind, left in the hands of the local constabulary, seems unlikely.  Envisaging our beloved but utterly work-shy County Force in a role best delineated by George Orwell in ‘1984’ requires a stretch of anyone’s imagination:  nonetheless guilt nips at my self-confidence, reminding me I should not be in this place, that my presence here is forbidden – if I am caught…    

I glance about me, trying not to think how furtive I must look.  I have parked my car between lines as my OCD demands, and now I must give the signal we arranged, but dare I? Suppose my contact is late…suppose this is A TRAP!  Hunched low in my anxiety to avoid recognition I hit the horn.   The building is close by, its windows darkly shuttered, its bland brick faces staring back at me.  It gives no sign of recognition in reply.   

Come on!

I blast the horn again.   Every head turns. A bumper pack of toilet rolls falls to the floor.  All eyes are focussed on me, and my little white car.  The woman who has dropped the economy twelve-pack pins me with a glare of annoyance over the shawl collar of her blaze red cardigan as she wrestles it back into her carrier bag, but still the building remains, silent and inscrutable.

There is nothing else for it.  Disguised and cowled by hoodie and mask I leave the shelter of my car to head towards the only interruption in that unforgiving wall.  A small door: a plain door – a very closed door.   

I knock.  I pound my fists upon the panels.

The door opens.  Thank god it opens!

A face appears, a man’s face, masked.  The eyes above the mask glance quickly to the left, to the right.

He mutters, “Come in!”

Inside, the surgery looks much the same as it always has; the same consulting rooms, re-tooled perhaps for COVID victims such as I.  My doctor, too, would look the same if there was any feature of him I could see apart from those eyes.  In scrubs, with a cap to cover his head, he is almost a stranger.  To meet demands set in train by events of recent days, I must be tested for an urgently-required prescription and the only way to keep an appointment with him, given my sentence of self-isolation, involves masks and emergency doors after the fashion of a 1970s narcotics deal.   The surgery may be a clean, modern building, but in the face of a pandemic it has a new, more sinister face.

“I said come alone.  You got the cash?”

“Yeah – you got the stuff?”

“Yeah.”

Show me!”

“Show me the cash!”

The meet is concluded quickly, the deal done.   I return to my car more confidently, glad the moment is past.  I drive home.  As I pull onto my drive, my neighbour’s curtain twitches.  One of the most damaging side-effects of lock-down is mistrust.  Mistrust is everywhere now.

Whereas isolation is of no consequence to me, the forfeit of trust is harder to bear. I can imagine there are those for whom it will remain engraved upon their souls forever.

Thank you to everyone who has sent me their good wishes since my diagnosis for COVID.  I am pleased to say that with two days of self-isolation remaining I am still completely asymptomatic.   Of this, more to follow...

Continuum – Episode Thirty: Flight

Continuum – Episode Thirty:      Flight

In the previous episode:

Alanee has completed Hasuga’s task, bringing the stolen book, which has revealed itself to be called ‘The Bible’, to place in his hands.   When she does so, the integrity of The City is destroyed and the Continuum moves in.  Hasuga is taken, images, places, people are stirred up and scattered like leaves.

Alanee strives desperately to find her way back through the ruptured dimensions to Sala, her friend, but Mother, Hasuga’s previous carer attacks her and in the fight Alanee is badly wounded…

Now read on.

Exhausted amidst the chaos of the collapsing City, Alanee is alone.  Hasuga has gone, taken by the demon that her predecessor, the old Seer, gave a name.  Celeris is gone in just the same way, stripped from her mind by Hasuga’s destruction and unable to fulfil a promise both had made.

‘I will never leave you’

So if it is help she seeks, it will not come.   If it is strength she needs, that, too is gone.  But Hasuga gave her his legacy and his faith that she can fulfil whatever purpose this monster, The Continuum, has.

“I have made you powerful haven’t I.”

Power that lies in the great vault of knowledge he has etched into her brain, which must offer the solution that will lead her back to Sala:  if she can only find it. Her head aches, her eyes hurt, yet she can still think.  She can still see.  Her injured limbs cry out their protest.  She was in the Palace Yard – is she now?

She should feel something outside herself – the stones of the pavement, the heat of the sun on her face, perhaps – but no.  Despite the great structures that fold into ruins all about her, no toppling statue seeks to crush her, no mighty boulder of construction does so much as scrape her flesh as it passes by.  Where is the dust?  The bookseller side by side with Ellar – she sees falling people and their fragmented homes, businesses, lives; people who are all familiar to her.  She sees them because she knows them.  If that is true then why does she not see Sala?

She focuses entirely upon Cassix’s chambers, that one location.  It is still intact!  The old stones, marked mysteriously by Cassix, are a spell she must break.  Cassix’s enchantment; his final defence!  She centres upon Sala in her mind, straining every brain-cell,  and instantly she is on the flags of the chamber with Sala standing over her, pale and scared.  “Alanee!  Oh, Habbach, Alanee?”

“My magic…stronger than Cassix…”

“Oh, ba.  What in the seven hells have you done?”

The old stone room is steady at the moment, although Alanee knows that will change.  In her joy at reuniting with Sala, she lets her thoughts shift away for an instant, and the floor begins to move away with them.  The noise, that insane roar, is close behind her.

 “We have to leave here, now, ba.”  She clambers to unwilling feet:  she must discover some means of escape, “We have to – to stay here is to die.”  It is all she can do to raise her voice above the demon’s clamour.

Sala steadies her arm.  The chambers are collapsing around them.  The great ball Alanee moved with such ease vanishes, the mirrors are melting into candle-wax cascades.  Only that metal disc remains, and it spins now beneath several searching lazer light needles.  In vain she tries to pin her thoughts to the elevator that leads down to the gardens, knowing even if they find their way to it, it will not work.

Frantic because she can feel her concentration fading, Alanee stares about her, seeking answers.  In all the turbulence, the heaving floor, the melting walls, that ancient wooden cabin remains as impenetrable as ever.  There is a door, she has seen it, but where is it now? 

“Look for a panel, or a handle – something!” She gathers her resources once more.

There is no response.

“Come on!”

She focuses again, makes a fresh demand of the wood, but no – the opening she saw in the mirrors, the place where the old one sat will not appear.

Cursing, Alanee musters one last mighty effort; all the suffering of her life, all her belief poured into a single vision of an open door, a way outside.  But still there is nothing; no movement, no sign that the door she has seen just once was ever there.  Once more the heavy cloud of defeat wraps about her; once more she drops to her knees, this time in certainty.  Her strength is gone, no answers have been found, she has lost.

Sala curls herself about Alanee’s hunched body, kisses her goodnight as she would a child, preparing them both for death.  Alanee can do no more than take her dear friend’s hand, to press it weakly in her own, to feel her flesh, the ring with the emerald stone she has always worn…

The stone!  The stones!

“What stones, darling?”  Sala asks. 

“The stones!  Find the leather chair!”

Sala’s reply is soothing and kind:  “The chair’s gone, Alanee-ba – everything’s gone!”

But hope, however unjustifiable, is returning.  “No.  No it hasn’t!  It’s still there, I know it is.  Fix your thoughts upon it:  fix all your thoughts on two stones – one on each arm of the chair.”

Sala shakes her head:  Alanee, don’t make me leave you, ba…”

“No.  You can do this.  You must do this.  Remember the chair, how it looked!  Use that memory!  Go to the stones.”

“For you.”  Sala sighs, dredging up a last strength of her own.  She will do as Alanee asks.

“Concentrate!   It was right there, remember?  It stood there!”

Unbelieving, the Mansuvene woman stares hard into a space that has no levels, references or form of any kind.  Her world, her whole world and every memory in it is whirling before her.

Alanee’s voice is suddenly powerful:  “The stones.  Bring them to me!”

Out of nowhere the old chair appears: standing solidly in the eye of the hurricane, and the stones, one upon each arm, waiting for her.  Wordlessly, Sala rises to her feet, strikes out; a few terrifying steps. 

Bring them!  The command is not spoken, for the dervish yell of the Continuum drowns all sounds but those inside her head.  Determined now, Sala turns to find Alanee on her feet, buoyed up by strength beyond her own.  She lifts the stones, passing them into Alanee’s extended hands.  An instant flash of raw power nearly throws her over, its blue plume of light bathing her friend in garish relief as she slams the stones against that obdurate wooden wall.  They explode – shatter into a thousand pieces that fly off, glittering, into infinity. Overawed, Sala is witness as, apparently from no visible place, a door springs open.

He is there.  Karkus sits within, just as Alanee saw in her mirrors, at the self-same desk.  With a grey-as-time smile across his thin dry lips he raises a hand, gesturing towards the interior of the cabin, and with Sala supporting her arm Alanee staggers inside.  Behind them, the door to The City closes and they find themselves standing together in the gardens, facing the path that leads down to the Balna river.

Sala is stupefied.  Her Mansuvenian superstition speaks to her of witchcraft, insists that this cannot be real: her body may have accomplished a descent of several hundred feet in less than a couple of steps, but her mind will not accept it.  “What deception is this?”

“It was a doorway, ba, a portal.  Cassix knew what would come and he provided himself with a means of escape.  He brought it from another place, an ancient place.  Or maybe it was here first.”

“The old man…”

“His job is done.  He can rest now.  Come, we must hurry”

Muttering prayers for their protection, Sala supports Alanee, shutting her ears to the devastating shout of destruction which rises once more behind them as they struggle down the pathway to the banks of the River Balna.  It is a painful journey and only when they have reached the river will Sala look back.  What she sees is beyond comprehension:  her city has gone.

There are no cries:  there are no escapees but themselves.  There is only the wall towering into the sky like a white fog – and now it seems to be gathering heat, moving so quickly it leaves no room for question, no margin for doubt.  Nothing will be left.

Unspeaking, the pair pause in homage to those they have known; Ellar, Trebec, Rabba, Delfio, the Domo – so many others.  Alanee urges Sala on:  “We must keep moving.  It will not rest there.  It will spread.”

She sees the emptiness in her friend’s face:  “Come on, ba.  There will be an answer somewhere, you’ll see!”

Alanee makes to move again, sending pain shooting through her leg and hip:  her head is beginning to spin, making each new step an unsteady agony.  By crippled stages, she and Sala make their way along the path beside the great river, but her blood loss is taking its toll.  By the time they reach the bridge, Alanee knows she can go no further.  “I’m finished.  You’ll have to leave me here.  I’m sorry, Ba.  I’m so sorry.”

Sala says:  “What about that?”

Clarity is fading.  Alanee mutters stupidly:  “What?”

Ignoring her cries of pain, Sala hoists her friend bodily to the rail, pointing down at the river.  “That!”

Moored by its painter, an old wooden skiff Alanee once saw braving the jostling ice-floes of the spring thaw, is still there.

Alanee’s impressions of what follows are patchy and confused.  Sala almost carrying her across that wide bridge, each move striking shudders through her quaking bones: half-stepping, half falling into the rocking boat, lying in the prow while Sala arranges some green-stuff from the bank behind her head and all the while the closing thunder of the Continuum:  these before darkness comes in merciful release; after that, only night.

Sala does not fear impending danger, nor does she particularly want to run from it:  For someone whose whole life is invested in The City the prospect of life without it seems more formidable than the quick death the Continuum offers; if she feels a compulsion to go on, it is only for Alanee.  Alanee is her lover after all, and now her only friend.  Nevertheless she has to prompt herself to loosen the mooring and commit them both to the mercies of the Balna.  The skiff lurches free of the mud, the river snatches, the river takes:  stern first, then wheeling around so swiftly Sala clings to the gunwales for her life as she is launched into the turbulent narrows downstream of the bridge.

For some hours the little craft faithfully follows the current, throughout which time the heat is intense; the water hot, almost boiling, the wall of the Continuum never far behind.  There are paddles, but these are rarely needed.  The skiff seems to know its way, and bustles about the weeds and tangles of the bank without ever becoming snagged or grounded.  Sala blocks her ears to the noise and her mind to the heat – busies herself by tying Alanee’s tourniquet more severely, using a hem of her own robe as bandaging for the wounds to both leg and arm.  Alanee drifts in and out of consciousness, though even when her eyes are open she barely recognises where she is.  Sala can see her friend is ailing, watches life seep from her in slow, unremitting drops. 

There comes a time – a bend in the river perhaps – when the furious pursuit of the Continuum fades, the steam from the water rises less freely; almost as though the monster has given up their chase and, its mission complete, drifted back into the sky.

Day drifts into night, thunder into silence.

In the darkness, a new distant rumbling from a fresh adversary: white water.  At first Sala believes the Continuum has returned; as the sound grows with each passing minute.  The boat gains speed, rocks perilously.  Then she is amidst cold spray and black rocks, unable to see and unable to steer if she could.  Is there a waterfall?  Cowering over Alanee’s inert form as the helter-skelter descends, Sala can only trust the boat to find its way, which it does.

It is midnight before they reach calmer waters.  The boat has taken on water she has no means to remove.  She knows Alanee’s body is lying in it and that cannot be good, but nameless terrors haunt her, the night-cries of beasts, strange rustling noises, the plunge and ripple of alligators sap her courage.  Sne will not go ashore in darkness.  

By fits and starts she learns to use the paddles.  Colder, wetter and hungrier than she can ever remember, Sala greets the dawn.  As soon as she has confidence enough she finds a place to land.

Child of The City that she is, Sala can remember nothing less certain than pavement beneath her feet.  She is not so naïve she does not know the boat must be hauled up, away from the current, its keel firmly grounded, yet when she clambers gingerly over the side mud lurking in the shallows clings about her legs to make her fall.  She rises to her feet with a city woman’s pettish anger, laments the ruin of her clothes, weeps for her hair, her nails.

Although the boat seems secure, she is nervous of leaving Alanee helpless inside it, fearful lest it should release itself to the river, leaving her stranded ashore.  It is heavy with water, yet she struggles and sweats and screams with it until she has the painter within length of a stunted bush where she may tie it off.  In the prow, at least Alanee now lies upon drier wood, though her clothing is sodden and her flesh cold.  The leg wound is weeping again, refusing to heal.

After this exertion Sala takes stock of her surroundings.  She settles on a ridge higher up the slope, close enough to run back to the water should that untrustworthy vessel take its leave.  Now she is ashore the deep cover of the forest seems closer than it did, and if the night creatures that serenaded her are asleep, they are still very active in her mind.  It is nevertheless an ideal place for her purpose.  A sward of green meadow-grass leads into the forest like a wide path.  Taking a deep breath, she follows it towards the woodland margins, starting like a hind at each unexplained noise, but hungry enough to overcome her fears.

The woods are full of berries, absolutely none of which she recognises.  Enticed by swarthy verdant scents and venturing ever deeper into forest, Sala picks experimentally, tasting as she goes, until she has found a small quantity of some she does not think too sour.  These she collects in the front of her robe, nearly dropping them when she is confronted by a squirrel-like creature the size of a cat clinging to a branch not three feet away.  Her squeal of alarm sends the animal flying for concealment in the upper branches, and serves to remind her that this may not be a friendly place.  With dignified haste she brings her gleanings back to the boat where she tries to induce Alanee to eat; but her friend is barely awake.  At length she gives up: the water in the boat must be bailed out and she has no vessel with which to achieve this.  Once again her robe suffices.  Thanking Habbach for a warm midday sun she takes it off, using it as part scoop, part mop for two long, laborious hours until the stern is emptied.  Then she dries it as best she may upon a rock until, with threat of the Continuum still in her mind, she casts off once more.  Her robe is still damp.  Thirty minutes later she throws up the contents of her stomach into the river.

So it is for the hours of this day, then another.  All the while the boat moves between steep, wooded banks with no sign of any people, anywhere.  On the third day the tree cover thins. Among marshy shallows and low, stony beaches Sala finds a place where she can haul ashore, gathering her courage for a longer expedition.  Throughout the night Alanee has been delirious, mouthing unintelligible sounds, shaking with fever:  this morning her condition is desperate, scarcely breathing, flesh clammy and cold.  Sala is certain if she does not get help today, her friend will be beyond recovery.  She decides she must climb the hills that skirt the valley, in the hope that from a vantage point she might see some sign of civilisation.  As soon as it is light she makes her friend as comfortable as possible and sets off.

Her shoes are not meant for such rigours.  Hunger has weakened her and the climb is arduous for limbs that, however fine, have never made any serious ascent.  Behind her and far below, in the green trough carved by a million years of flowing water, the little boat with its precious burden waits.  The sun beats from a cloudless sky and far away to the west she can see a rainbow low over the horizon where the white water runs.

  That is behind them now – what lies ahead? 

At noon Sala stands upon a high summit, her vision so clouded by tears she can scarcely see.  In every direction the prospect is featureless; an infinite desert of grey ash.  Only the lofty needle of Kess-Ta-Fe stands resolute, a distant marker to the ruined north.  The river valley, it seems, has escaped.  Otherwise, the Continuum has taken everything.  The world she knew has vanished.

That afternoon when she returns to the boat she tells Alanee all she has seen, while Alanee, of course, hears nothing.  Alanee has neither moved nor shown any sign of consciousness since before the dawn.

On day four Sala wakes late.  Although the boat drifts lazily she is too weak to leave it.  Constant vomiting has dogged her attempts to eat; the warmth she shares with her friend against the night-time chill has penetrated her own defences.  She checks Alanee and finds her stiff and cold.

Sala weeps bitter tears for her friend.  She watches over her, warding off those imagined demons that visit the Mansuvene dead.  When the morning is far advanced and there is nothing left to do or say, she gets to her feet.  Carefully stripping her robe from about her she waits until the boat reaches a part of the river where the water is deepest.  There, with a last smile back at her life she slips over the side.  In all her City years, Sala has never learnt to swim.

…don’t miss the final episode of this story…

© 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.

Picture Credit: Matthew Wewering from Pixabay