The Goatherd

Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall, and Jacintha’s hand covered it with gentle fingers.   “It feels so special, here.”  She said, her voice subdued almost to a whisper.  “I just know we could be so happy, darling.  This has to be our house!”

Beside them an Agents’ ‘For Sale’ board rattled.   “The view is to die for.”  Martin admitted.  “You can see miles from those French doors in the kitchen, absolutely miles!”

Martin would never confess that, even with the aid of thick spectacles he always wore these days, horizons could be no more than a haze.  He could see the house, though.  Yes, he could see that.

It was a truly tempting piece of architecture:  five bedrooms, palatial bathrooms, open-plan kitchen and diner ( “The heart of the home, darling,” Jacintha insisted; “The heart of our home!”), living room, study, and so on.  A double garage with a loft above, a half-acre of wild, heather-strewn land.   Yet it was the last house on High Croft, a development of eight newly built houses, the other seven of which had been bought long ago.   Why had no-one wanted it – or was it merely a matter of a price Martin already considered cheap?  Could he make a cheeky offer?

“Alright, my sweet.  If you like it, it’s ours.  I’ll call the Agents.”

Jacintha smiled her satisfaction, suppressing a little whoop of joy within.  It would never do, in her relationship with Martin, to express emotion more honestly.   Martin must be expected to conform to certain conditions, as must she.  He was, after all, somewhat short of her image of the perfect man, but she took pride in his apparently limitless wealth, and his predilection for spending it on her.  He was also good company; even mildly amusing, at times.

Martin found his mobile ‘phone in his breast pocket.  The ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in noisy reminder. 

“It’s a little windy here.”   He said.  “There was a pub just down the hill:  I can make the call indoors.   Last one there buys the first round!”  

As her husband bounded away Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered-looking, waxed jacketed man who witnessed this humiliation from the further side of the road.  She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reverted to an elegant walk.  Ahead of her, Martin’s outburst of fun was already over.  He was looking back for her with an embarrassed smile.

The pub was unpretentious, but comfortable.   Jacintha picked a window table with a settle while Martin ordered drinks.

“You looking to buy that house up top of the hill?”  The Landlord responded, wrestling with the new experience of preparing a Harvey Wallbanger.  “It does get cold in the winter, mind.   You can get snowed in for a month sometimes, easy.  There was a time no-one’d think of building anything up there, not even a bothy.  It’s three hundred feet above the treeline, isn’t it?”

Martin joined Jacintha on the settle by the window.   “The landlord thinks we’re mad.”

“Perhaps we are, a bit.”   Jacintha murmured.  “I love the open moors, darling.  The air is so fresh up here!”

“And there’s so much of it!”  Martin agreed.  “I’ll get the deal sewn up.”  He delved for the Property Agent’s specification sheet, lining up a telephone number to tap out on his mobile.

“The wind up there, it blows forever.”

The voice caught Jacintha and Martin by surprise.   Their eyes rested upon the figure who had watched their feeble attempt at a race not long since, and who stood over them, staring intently at Jacintha, now.  Upon closer examination Jacintha could see this was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills she considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features.   Finding she was breathing too fast,  she collected herself hurriedly.  “Does it?”  She responded lamely.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  It’s wonderful.  I love to feel the wind on my face, it’s so…so inspiring!”

‘Happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you…’ Martin blinked behind his glasses – what had brought that into his head?

“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?”  The man said flintily, with a jaw that hardly moved when he talked and lips so thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth they almost twanged. 

“I believe so.”   Affirmed Martin with as much masculinity as he could muster; aware the proprieties had not been observed, and more aware than Jacintha, perhaps, of how pink she had become.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…”

“Abr’ham.  That’s my name.  You can call me Abe.”  The man waved an airy hand towards the other occupants of the pub.  “Most everybody does.

 “That used to be Meg’s place, there.  You wouldn’t think it, would ‘ee?   Oh, not the ‘ouse, o’ course.  It’d make Meg laugh, in that high squeaky voice of her’n, all that nice clean porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Stone, ‘er place were, with flags for a roof and a door o’ planks she borrowed off the loose boxes from the Squire’s stables.”  Abe interrupted himself long enough to inject a conspiratorial look,  “Not that Squire knowed.”

“Really, Abe?.”  Martin gave the newcomer one of his mildest smiles;   “She sounds like a real character.  Did you know her well?”

“Know ‘er?  Why bless you, yes.  Ever’body lives up ‘ere knows Meg.”

There was an uneasy pause.  Martin broke it.  “I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Martin; this is Jacintha, my wife.  I would guess you know a few things concerning the house?”  He didn’t wish to seem inhospitable.  This man gave the impression of living locally; a villager, maybe.  “If we tempted you with a drink, perhaps you could fill us in?”

“Well, I thank you kindly.  Yes, I could use a pint of Draught.”

 “I’ll get us all another round.”  Martin said. 

No sooner had Martin departed for the bar, than Abe had taken his place on the settle next to Jacintha.  “I adore the house!”  She self-consciously smoothed her skirt over her thighs.

“You’ll be ‘appy there wi’ ‘im, will ‘ee?”  Abe said.  “You’m a strong woman, I can see that.”  Martin brought the drinks.  “You’re def’nitely going to put in an offer, then?”

Martin set the glasses on the table.  Piqued at losing his seat, he pulled a chair from an adjoin table with some assertiveness.  “I think so.  We are, aren’t we, Darling?”

“Oh, yes!”  Jacintha breathed.  “Wild, open moorland like that, full of myths and legends – I couldn’t ask for more!” 

“My wife is an artist,” Martin explained, failing to keep all trace of irony from his voice.  “She writes.  And paints.”  He added as an afterthought.  “Tell us about this Meg?”

Abe sipped from his pint of draught.   “Ah!  Crooked Meg, she’m better known as…”

“Oh, why?”  Jacintha cried.  “What did she do wrong?”

“Meg?  Meg done lots that was wrong, but it aren’t the reason for her name.  No, Meg was a goatherd.   She was a goatherd because that’s what her father did until the day he died, and there was a herd of goats to feed, so Meg just took ‘em over.  Ever’one has to make a living, and that were Meg’s.”

“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”

“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here.   They smelt unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too particular how they fed their beasts.  Very few of ‘em had land of their own; theirs was a poor living and they couldn’t afford it, so they just drove their herds about the lanes, letting ‘em graze off the verges, or, if no-one were watchin’, off a legit’mate farmer’s crop, which, o’ course, being goats, they strip to the soil – leavin’ nothing!”

“Gosh!”  Jacintha was enraptured.  “That must have made the landowners awfully cross, mustn’t it?”

“That it did, Missus.”  Beneath the table, Jacintha felt Abe’s hand grip her knee.  “It did madden old Jacob Morrow, when he found ‘er in his cornfield, that’s for sure!”

“I imagine so.”  Martin’s face wore a perplexed look.  “I imagine ‘old Jacob Morrow’ would have taken measures to stop her?”

“Measures?  Oh, ‘er took measures alright.  Jacob were a poor tenant farmer see?  He couldn’t afford to lose all that corn she were takin’.   No-one blamed him.  Not at all.”

“Blamed him?  Oh my gosh!  Blamed him for what?”  Jacintha’s hand was engaged in a covert tussle with Abe’s hand which, having found its way to her leg, seemed reluctant to leave.

“He took after ‘er, see?   An’ she ran, ‘cause he weren’t a good tempered man, and he’d have beat her senseless.   Well, she don’t have time to open the five-bar gate, do she, so she clambers over.  Done it many times afore, no problem for Meg, not that.  If’n this time ‘er hadn’t caught ‘er foot in the third bar, and fell back-over!   You might say it saved ‘er, in a way, ‘cause with ‘er screaming  Jacob got frightened and lef’ ‘er alone.”

“God, that’s horrible!”  Jacintha whispered.

“Horrible, aye.”

Abe quaffed deeply from his pot of beer, which had miraculously emptied.  He pushed it across the table to Martin.  “Thank ‘ee kindly?”

“Another?”  Martin offered, not without reluctance.

“Aye, same again since you’re buyin’.”

“Yes, alright.”

While Jacintha’s husband was away at the bar Abe had two free hands, so he deployed both of them.  As Jacintha’s initial flattery at this attention was wearing thin, she used counter-measures.  Abe discovered, as had Martin years before him, that Jacintha’s annoyance could be quite painful.  Even a waxed jacket could not absorb the full force of rebuttal from elbows like Jacintha’s.

Martin’s return was a little quicker this time.  “ What happened to her?”  He demanded as he set down Abe’s second pint; “What happened to Meg?”

 “ Some say ‘er back were broke, some say her hips.  Still she dragged hersel’ two mile to get home, ‘cause they made ‘em tough, back then, and there weren’t no doctorin’ if you was poor.   She healed bad, though.  Ever after that she were bent over back’ards like a billhook, she were.  That’s why she’m called Crooked Meg.”

“Poor woman!”

Abe nodded into his replenished beer.  “Poor woman, ah!”

“Yes, it is an engaging tale.”  Martin, who was not oblivious to Abe’s rueful massage of a bruised rib, was sceptical.  “One thing puzzles me, er…Abe.”

“Ask away.”  Abe said.

“At the beginning of your story you spoke about this woman as though you knew her personally.     You said she had a squeaky laugh, if I remember.  Yet a tragedy like hers couldn’t happen today, could it?  This took place – what – a hundred years ago?”

“More like two…”

“So how….?”

“Oh, Meg’s still around.”

The silence was palpable.  It was Jacintha’s turn to break it;  “Sorry…did you say…?”

“I said Meg’s still around, Missus.  Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time.  Where you’re going to be livin’, you’ll come across ‘er a lot.”

Martin frowned:  “So this is a ghost story?”

“Well, some might call it that, but only from a distance, if you see what I mean?  See, this isn’t the end o’ the tale.   Affer her accident. Meg couldn’t herd her goats no more, ‘cause she were crippled, so she took after gettin’ ‘erself a husban’.”

“Not easy, I imagine.”  Jacintha muttered. 

“No, she weren’t exactly a pretty dish.  But those were desp’rate times and they had desp’rate people in ‘em.  She married Ben Stokesley, she was the only one who would.  They was a foul family, them Stokesleys, and no sane woman would have had ‘em.  Some say Meg weren’t sane, though, even then.”

“After all she’d been through….”

“Exac’ly.  He were a drinker, were Ben, like all his kin.  Most the time he were too drunk to stand, and when he could stand he beat Meg until she bled, poor woman.  He didn’t hardly never work, an’ she couldn’t, so they never had nothing.  They was so poor they did eat grass from the hill from time to time, until one day Ben went out and sold Meg’s house from under her.  It were hers and her father before ‘er.  Meg couldn’t stand no more.

“When she found out, crippled as she was, demented as she was, poor screaming soul, she tore that house apart, stone by stone, timber by timber; and when Ben come’d home, roaring drunk having poured the money he’d got for the ‘ouse down he’s throat, she picked up the heaviest stone and she crushed he’s skull.   That’s where they found ‘er next morning, still sitting on Ben’s body and shouting out like the spirits of the moor were a-hunting in her head.”

“Dear Lord!  Whatever happened to her?” 

“No-one rightly knows.  Some said she was took to ‘Sessions and hanged, some that she were put in an asylum, because her madness wouldn’t ever free her.  But there was some….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”

Jacintha was ashen.  “No, please, you must.  Go on.”

“Well, some say the Stokesley family came affer ‘er before no law could have her.  Some say they did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch.  Them as says those things believe she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn.  Ever’one agrees though – ask anyone here – that they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year heard her screams jus’ at sunrise, just afore the day comes.  Her house was razed to the ground, you see, nothin’ left.  But it was her home, and she don’t take kindly to anyone else living there, even with their fancy porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Some say she’s lookin’ for revenge, but them’s just tales. I don’t want you to worry none, now.”

“Not worry!” Exclaimed Martin, aghast.

“Didn’t you wonder how ‘twas such a grand ‘ouse stands empty?  For more ‘n two hundred years no-one dared build on that land for fear of offendin’ Meg.  But there ‘tis.”   Abe sighed.  “There ‘tis.”

 “Oh, Darling, this is awful!”  Jacintha might have been referring to Abe’s pat on her thigh, which she took to be a warning of renewed assault; Martin interpreted her otherwise.

“Yes, well.  Yes.”  He decided.  “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!” 

His wife attempted a delicate manoeuvre that would allow her to rise from the table without closer, and more intimate, contact with Abe.  In this she failed.   Her face passed within inches of his flint-sharp features as he murmured.   “Pity!   Still, us being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?”  He turned to Martin, whose pale countenance might equally be expressive of fear or anger,  “You’ll be quick to put that offer in, now, will ‘ee?”

Martin stumbled. “Yes.  Well, no.  Perhaps not yet.   We may take a little longer to consider it.” 

“We do have one or two other properties to look at.”  Jacintha explained hastily.  

Abe watched his two drinking companions scuttle from the dark mood of the public bar into bright forenoon sunshine.  The Landlord called over:   “They was in a bit of a hurry, weren’t they, Mr Abrahams?”

“Yes George.  Yes, they were.”   Abe agreed, as he ferreted for his mobile ‘phone.  Holding it beneath the light from the pub window, he tapped out a number.  “Marcus!”  He hailed, in a voice that had lost all of its rustic burr:  “It’s Jocelyn, dear boy; Jocelyn Abrahams.  Marcus;  that house on the High Croft estate – ‘Woodlands’?   It’s been empty for a year now – if you remember, I told you at the time no-one would pay three hundred and fifty thou for it.   A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I?  Anyway, I’m on something of a buying spree at the moment, so have you thought any more about my offer?  Two-seven-five, yes.   Oh, you’ve got a view, have you?  Well, if they don’t bite, you just call me and I’ll be in your office in the morning.  Close it straight away!  Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better.   Of course,  you can rely on me.  I’ll look forward to 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.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Nine

The Coming of Howard

Morning was slow to discover Francine’s recumbent form, the sunlight needing to creep over the bole of the uprooted tree before it could find its way into the pit that forest giant had created; lighting first upon her back, then, when it had enough warmth to offer, bringing a gentle glow to her cheek which caused her to stir.  Had she slept?    Had she fallen?

The blessing of the sun was welcome, for the rock beneath her, so possessive of her whole being the night gone, was warm no longer.  It was merely stone now, and whatever mystic properties it might have harboured to entice her had fled, leaving her with a sense of loss so intense it brought her near to tears.  There would be precious little time to grieve, however, because she was not alone.  Footsteps were shuffling behind her, and the sound that roused her to complete wakefulness that of heavy breathing, loud enough to all but eclipse the gentle rustling of the wind.

“Here!”  A man’s voice thick with accent, a foreign burr, although of what origin she could not tell,  “It is her!  It is the woman!”

Another voice  answered.  Someone not yet sharing his companion’s position in the pit yet, possibly not even in view.  “You’re certain?”

“Yes, certain!  Yes!  Come, help me – we must get her out of here!”

The other voice’s owner, making complicit sounds, was drawing nearer.  Hands that were not gentle closed about her shoulder.   “You, woman!  You must come with us!  Get up!”

Francine tried to shake herself free.  The rough hand grabbed her wounded arm from under her  and she screamed at the pain.  “Sir!  I beg you…”  She twisted her head angrily, to find herself looking into eyes so cold they conveyed the utter futility of begging.  He was as bronzed, this man, as he was lean – as he was strong, but there was no mercy in him; no kindness.  He began dragging her, half-carrying her because her feet would not, to the side of the pit where his companion stood watching dispassionately.

“Help me here!”  Francine’s captor snarled.  “Take her arms!”

But now there were – were there not – other voices.  English voices raised in a hue and cry.   Desperate to resist this man, Francine wrenched herself away, shouting,  “help me!  A rescue!”  As loudly as she could.

With muted expletives the bronzed man caught her again by that painful arm,  clamping a hand across her mouth and she bit down upon a finger, or maybe two, as hard as she could.

“This way!”  A voice she knew;  “See him?  Take him down!   Shoot, man!”

In immediate answer the lusty thunderclap of a fowling piece echoed in the cold air and the man who had been reaching down to hoist her from the pit rocked backwards with an agonized yell.    New voices were all about Francine now, gaining substance in the shapes of men – two at least of whom had guns.

With their appearance her captor became the captured; the pit a bear trap in which he was the wild creature, snarling his fury.   He clutched Francine to his chest, shielding himself as he backed towards a trodden ramp of mud that seemed his easiest ascent. 

“You, fellow!  Give yourself up!”   Arthur!   Arthur was there, standing at the lip of the depression with a duelling pistol.  “You have no means of escape, sir!  Release the lady now, do you understand?”

It occurred to Francine at that precise moment that her captor was unarmed.  Had he been in possession of even a knife this was the moment he might be most expected to have it in his hand.  It occurred to her also, as it probably already had to those assembled, that without help from the top of the slope this creature would be hard put to keep her between him and Arthur’s party when he attempted to climb from the pit.  His companion was no longer in evidence –  she judged that he had either fallen or fled.    Francine was not a great burden but she could be an awkward one, and if she were a dead weight…

Francine fainted – or at least, she appeared to do so.

She heard the shot, felt the arms that clawed at her jerk as she fell,  and the body that she was pinned against become as limp as she.   Then there were other arms, many arms to raise her up, cradle her and carry her.   And the only arms she wanted to carry her were there, and they were Arthur’s.

#

It was a parched springtime, that year.   Day followed day, week followed week with little rain. Late April was hot: lengthening days, longer and longer hours of sun. In early May the first storms began.

Peter, who loved fierce weather, walked Levenport Esplanade en route to his lectures many times with thick mists of cloud overlaying the town and rain lashing the pavements in untamed percussion.  On such days The Devil’s Rock was a grey shadow, Saint Benedict’s House a shrouded Valhalla barely visible at its peak.    When lightning flickered behind them rock and house were silhouetted like some great behemoth from the mythology of the sea: if the lightning struck, as it sometimes did, a white trace joined house to sky for a telling moment, a brief pathway between earth and heaven.   Then the thunder banged so loudly it seemed the basalt itself would split, and dry echoes crackled around Levenport’s sheltering cliffs.  At times like these Peter could easily imagine he was listening to a conversation of the gods.

Melanie rarely joined Peter on such tempestuous journeys, she being deterred by such practical difficulties as hair, wet clothes, and a nervousness of thunderstorms.    On finer days, though, she often met him on the Esplanade, and as the summer became ever wetter and less welcoming, spent more and more of her evenings wandering the Arcades with Peter, or ‘hanging’ with him in his room.  The reasons for the growing closeness of their companionship were defined one evening at the beginning of May. Their conversation was drawing to a close upon a reflective note.

Melanie asked,  “Did you ever hear from Vincent again?”

Peter shook his head,  “No, not after that phone call.   It’s really strange, thinking back to all that.  I suppose everything was OK, though.  I mean, that guy didn’t get shot, did he?”

When the attempt on Senator Goodridge’s life was broadcast on the television news its effect on the pair was sensational:  yet neither Melanie nor Peter knew how Goodridge’s life was saved because the details were never announced.   Peter had managed to persuade Melanie that his piece of clairvoyance was a one-off: some kind of anomaly or trick which they should keep as a confidence between themselves.  He had his own reasons for this as we shall relate, but it was true that he had not been contacted by anyone, and assumed that the mysterious purpose of his visit to St. Benedict’s House had been met.

Melanie did not disguise her jealousy.  “Shame.  You get to go to all the interesting places.  I should like to see that house, and your tablet of stone.  I wonder what would happen if I touched it?”

“Probably nothing.”  Peter shrugged,  “I think the things I saw had more to do with those iffy cakes of Alice’s than any stone.”

(But this was a lie.  He still dreamed those images, and one of them in particular haunted him.  He feared, really feared, that in some way and for some reason Melanie might one day get to touch the rock, to see the things he had seen)

“Alright,”  Melanie said,  “play it down if you want to.  Me, I think you’re a great seer – which, incidentally, makes you just a little bit creepy….”

“You speak truth.  As for creepy, I do occasionally get an urge to read the thoughts of your innermost mind.  Isn’t that normal?”

“Normal?   Lol.   Speaking of creepy (which you are) do you know my beloved mother has gone out tonight?   I am alone in that big dark house?   Don’t wait up for me, that’s what she said!”

Peter smirked,  “Do you want me to come over and look after you?”

“What,expose myself alone to the tender care of a letch like you?  Er….no!”

“Letch, now! Better dust off the garlic then.”

“Yeah, cheers.   Night babes!”

The next morning was a wind-blown and rainy one.   The more surprising for Peter, then, that he found Melanie waiting for him, sitting huddled in one of the shelters on the Esplanade.   Her face was traced from recent tears.

“Hey, “He greeted her, “Whassup Mel?”     Peter could not remember seeing Melanie cry.

 “I had to get out of the house.”  She said miserably.

“Why?”

“This morning I came downstairs and there was a man I’ve never seen before in the kitchen.   He was just, like, wearing underpants or something. It was horrible!”

“Ah!”   Said Peter.

“Alright, go on; tell me it had to happen.  I know – I knew it.   Mum’s a good looking woman, entitled to a life and all that….stuff.   It still doesn’t help when it does happen.  She’s my bloody mother!”

“It may not have happened;” Peter suggested gently: “I mean, he may just have slept on the couch, or something?”

“Oh, it did!   You should have seen her when she came down.   She was drooling all over him…it was just sick!”     Melanie wiped her hands across her face. “Oh!  Oh, and his name’s Howard, she insisted on telling me!   Howard!  As if I wanted to know his bloody name!”

“You’re upset.”  Peter sympathised, putting his arm around Melanie’s shoulders.        Truthfully, he had known that Karen, Melanie’s mother, would find a new companion.   His mother, Karen’s friend, who was expert in divining the nature of people, had told him so.  “She’s not a woman who likes being single” she had warned.   “Melanie is going to have to come to terms with that.”  Well, the prophesy had proved to be right – rather sooner than anyone (except maybe Karen) would have wished.

Even so it was difficult to accept, not just for Melanie, but for Peter too.   His own family lived in an oasis of calm amid troubled seas; for whatever you could imagine Bob and Lena to be, they were metaphorically joined at the hip.  You could not imagine them as separate from each other.   Once, in the days when he first knew her, Karen had appeared to Peter to have something of this same unity with her first husband, Marco, because children of the age he was then do not enquire into the stability of relationships, and his friendship with Mel had not deepened enough for her to trust him with tales of late night arguments, long absences, icy silences.   But whatever Karen was as a person then, she was very different now.

“Maybe he’s not….well, you know, permanent?”   Peter suggested lamely, aware even as he said it that his thoughts had led him in the wrong direction.

“Oh!   So my mother sleeps around now, does she!”   Melanie grinned at him weakly.  “Peter, will you come home with me tonight?  I mean, I don’t want him to be there again and me to be on my own, yeah?”

Peter hugged her shoulder: “Sure Mel, ‘course I will.”

And, after college that evening, Peter did as he promised.

Thus began a routine which developed:  before long Peter was walking Melanie home on a regular basis, and soon he was staying for half an hour, or an hour, in which the pair might go through their college work together or play video games.

Peter became an accepted visitor at Melanie’s house.   Karen seemed to see the value of his companionship.   She was not unaware of the tumult that a new man’s presence in her life would cause, or so determined as to ignore her daughter’s feelings; and if Peter, who was mature for his years, might buffer the effects of this collision she was thankful enough.   After that first ill-judged night when she had let passion overcome discretion and then seen the gravity of her error in Melanie’s face, Karen kept her relationship with Howard at arms length for a while.  But she knew where it was leading: and certainly Melanie would have to live with this.   Then, on a more practical level, as Mel spent a greater and greater proportion of her life with Peter, visiting him in the evenings, spending time with him at weekends, she was able to devote more of her own time to Howard.

Nevertheless, Karen trod carefully.   She made certain Howard was never there when Melanie returned from college, and she always told her daughter when he was to visit.   If she planned time away, she took care to involve Melanie, no matter how grudging the response.   With a delicate balancing act always in her mind, she juggled the lives of the people she loved (or was growing to love) in such fashion for a while: and, for a while, it seemed that things might be working out.

#         

When the hot summer northerly is blowing, an aircraft landing at Al Khubar must approach from the sea, where the runway is built out upon a man-made peninsula into the Bay of Ulman, or as it was known in early pirating days, the Sea of Thieves.

On such a summer day an airliner, heading first out to sea, will drop steeply as a stairway from the clear, azure sky and, as it passes below two thousand feet, turn tightly eastward for its final approach.   The cabin has been made quiet by the precipitous descent, until that banking turn.   Then it is common for an almost unanimous gasp of admiration to be drawn from strangers’ lips, as they get their first view of the miracle that man has worked upon the shore of the bay.   For the city of Al Khubar is such a testament to the capability of man to create beauty, that all those who have not seen it before, and many, too, who have, will be awestruck at the sight.  The graceful arch of the Sharm-Ayah suspension bridge which spans the whole bay stands so high you feel the plane might easily fly beneath it: then beyond, in the marinas of the western shore, line upon line of the most elegant yachts that were ever built lie at anchor.   But it is not these which draw the stranger’s eye; nor is it the smooth half-moon of verdant green grasses and trees which follows the shoreline so precisely from West to East.  No, all this is lost; for beyond the bay, beyond the green park-land which consumes two and a half hundred thousand precious gallons of water a day; beyond even the eight-lane highway which skirts the Park’s northern rim, stands such a city as western eyes have never seen.   Towers of tinted steel and white concrete rise in perfect symmetry.   Where there is a sickle-shaped skyscraper rising a thousand feet to the east, another to the west must be just the same.  Galleried glass tiers of shops and offices rise in steps, their profile clover-leafed into courtyards, storey upon storey.   Each courtyard is a space with trees and grass to sit, or stroll, or meet with the trams which network the city at every level.  The dome of the Great Mosque is the hub of lawns and hedged gardens which spread from it like a wheel, two great fountains behind it firing jets like crossed swords into the sky.   In a land where water is wealth there are even canals here, bisecting the new city with Venetian roads.   Amidst all of this the old town of Al Khubar sits, antiseptically white, within its defensive walls.   And amidst the old town, its walls even higher, stands the mighty palace of His Majesty King Assan.

Salaiman Yahedi had seen this sight so often down the years, yet it surprised him each time with its capacity to rob the body of breath.   As one who had long been stateless, Yahedi had no particular preference for any of the great cities of the world:  each was an interlude, a brief stop-over, a job to be done.  Yet, for all that, Al Khubar and its people drew him as certainly as any homecoming could.   He always felt a tinge of regret that he could not rest longer here.

After the air-conditioned plane had delivered him through the air-conditioned gate to Arrivals, and he had collected his minimal suitcase, Salaiman scanned the busy air-conditioned terminal for faces that he knew.   Mahennis Bourta stood out easily from the crowd.  The big Moroccan was at least half-a-head taller than most: his face, a tight, muscular mask of sinew and flesh, was split by a horizontal gash of a smile.

“Yahedi my friend!    Allah be praised!   Why, you look so well!”

The wide, slashing grin vanished as the pair made their way through the throng.  “I have a car for you.   I am to take you to the Hyatt, where you are booked in under this name.”   Bourta slipped a passport into Yahedi’s hand.  “Sleep Salaiman. We are to meet tomorrow at the usual place.”

“Really, so soon?   What is the mood, Bourta?”

“The mood, my friend, is that London did not go well.   The mood is not good.”

“There were reasons – not of my doing.  These things happen.”

“Ah!”  Bourta said, expressionless.  “There were bigger reasons, Yahedi, bigger than you know.   Here is the car.  We will talk in the morning, and |I urge you.”  He rested his hand on the assassin’s arm, “To prepare yourself.”

   © 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:     Harry Grout on Unsplah

 Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

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