Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-five

Among Stones

Morning had advanced some few hours: the sky, which promised much at first light, now contained a threat of dreadfulness to come.   Melanie, who had worn no coat when she set out to explore the seafront at Seaborough the previous morning, struggled with oilskins twice her size as the plucky little trawler thrashed into a mounting sea.   Despite the restrictions of those clumsy garments it was good to be topsides now, safety line clipped to the rail, spray misting and spattering her face:  nobody seemed concerned that she should stay there, braced against the starboard thwart, as long as her companion stood with her.   This the boy seemed happy to do, as if she were in his personal charge.

“Would you call this a storm?”  She asked, lifting her voice above the wind.

“Nah, noothin’ this.   Not yet.   Be fierce later, though, I reckon.  The’s looky we’s pottin’ the’ ashore, lass.”

A headland loomed large, a backcloth of gaunt cliffs almost black against the chopping grey water.   They seemed to be heading into a small bay or river- mouth, Melanie could not tell which.  “What’s your name?”   She asked the boy, aware their time together was almost over: she would miss his reassurance.

“Daniel.  I’m Dan’l.”   The boy shouted back.

“Pleased to meet you, Daniel!”  And she was.  There was no anger, no resentment in her heart for being stripped of her possessions and plucked from the quayside at Seaborough:  it was almost as though she had expected, even hoped it would happen.   Wherever this was, this tiny cove, her music was telling her she was meant to be here.

Both watched in silence as the cliff-face became closer, ever higher.   Gradually the fervour of the open sea subsided, until their vessel chugged against no more than a light swell, its engine echoing against the bare stone.   Rounding an outcrop, the inlet became a tiny harbour, part natural, part man-made, hewn from the rocks.   The faceless figure in the wheelhouse reversed the little boat’s propeller to deaden all speed before a burst of throttle pivoted it almost ninety degrees into its narrow mouth.   Daniel leapt from stern to shore, then shore to prow and back again, tying off lines to rusted iron rings set in the wall.  He grinned down at Melanie, proffering a hand to help her from the boat.

“The’ll be glad o’ this, I reckon!”

After such time on a pitching deck, Melanie nearly fell over as her feet refused to accept the unmoving concrete jetty.  Daniel held her arm while she found her balance.

“Foony feelin’ tha, the foorst time.  Soon passes.”

She had never seen a harbour this small.   They had come ashore in a refuge sandwiched between dark and oppressive cliffs so restrictive there could be room to berth no more than three small boats. Grey was the colour of everything, fading to black in those large expanses of cliff-face where no light penetrated or would ever penetrate.  Crumbling paths and crazed concrete in the wall seemed to suggest that the harbour had been unused for many years.  No other boats were moored here, the only evidence of previous occupation being a stack or two of rotted lobster before a rough stone cottage built against the cliff, beside which a rotten row-boat, its name still readable as Daisy-May, languished.  The hovel, the harbour, the whole place reeked of abandonment and decay.

“Oh, my god!”  Melanie groaned.

It began to rain.

“’Tis a special place, this.”  Daniel said quietly:  “There’s not many as cooms here, now.”

Stamping against the cold, Melanie searched about her for a reason why she should be one of the few who did. “So what do we do now?”

“The’ll be met.  Oop there.”  The boy waved towards a set of stone steps that had been carved into the cliff face. Below them the boat’s engine revved impatiently. “Sorry lass, but us’ll need the’ skins: us can’t afford te lose ‘em, like?”

“You’re just going to leave me here?” She protested.

“You’ll be met.”   Daniel repeated. “This ‘ere’s a tidal harbour, see?  An’ we’re right close to the end o‘t tide?   Now lass….”

Meekly, she complied, dragging the stiff, oilskin cape over her head.   It had not been a warm garment, but she felt its absence instantly and keenly.   Left with just a thin sweater which fell fashionably short of her jeans, the chill on her bare midriff was like an electric shock.  

Daniel grinned apologetically: “Good luck, eh?”

He loosed the lines from their rusty hold, tossing them onto the trawler’s already cluttered deck.    Then he moved from shore to ship as the trawler instantly backed out of harbour.   Minutes and a final wave later it was gone, passing from sight beyond the outcrop,.   leaving Melanie to face a loneliness so frigid and profound it settled upon her like an icy cloak.

Heavy with ice, raindrops spattered onto the stone jetty where they refused to melt, but lay in a carpet of half-hail ready to hurl her from her feet.   These same raindrops ignored the thin cloth of her sweater and bombarded mercilessly straight through to her skin.   A swirling gale was driving, moaning among the rocks like a banshee chorus.

Quitting the harbour wall was not a difficult decision:  sandwiched between those frowning cliffs, moving as briskly as she dared in  inappropriate shoes she made, slipping and gripping, for the comparative shelter of the cliff.   If shelter was what she craved, the cottage seemed a logical choice.   She headed there first, but there was, she quickly realised, no ‘welcome’ mat.   The window-glass, though intact, was crusted with age-old grime and the plank door weathered clean of paint.   A red-rusted padlock held it shut.   Peering inside yielded only bleary darkness.   Nothing human lived in there, though she feared other things might.

A voice.  She was sure she heard a voice, mournfully intoned in the gale.   There was an incentive, if no other existed!  Weather or no weather, she had to find a way out of this place.

A narrow track followed the foot of the cliff toward the stairway Daniel had indicated.   Obviously the fisherman or men who had used this refuge must have had access to the outside world:  this track was apparently  their only means of escape and now hers, therefore she should follow it to its conclusion; but the closer to it she became the more it convinced her it was a stairway to certain death.   Melanie who we have already seen was an adept and relatively fearless climber knew her limitations, and this was far beyond acceptable risk.  Some steps had completely crumbled away, others were worn steeper by the boots of generations, all were coated with hailstones willingly coagulating into sheet ice.  No handrail existed, or ever had, and no grips or stages in the sheer cliff wall offered to steady her slight frame against the ravages of that gusting wind.

So intense was the storm’s bombardment she might have missed it.   The path did not end at these steps:  a narrow ledge, battered by the sea, passed them by.  It might lead nowhere, it was perilously thin yet almost welcoming as an alternative so she accepted it gladly. 

Fifty or so metres from the harbour, this track turned a corner to the left, disappearing into a natural fissure in the cliff.   With high grey walls to each side this seemed as though it must be its finality.   She prepared herself to accept failure, but the track did not end there.   It became a tunnel, short and unlined, which plunged straight through the cliff into daylight at its further end: and standing at the further end was a tall, broad figure.  

 “Now here you are!”   The figure cried in a hearty, indisputably feminine voice.  “And I was thinking you might have missed the tide!”

 “You can call me Agnes.”   Said Agnes, striding forward through the tunnel to identify herself.   “Save us, child, you’re soaked through!   Did they not give you a coat, at least?”

“I’m glad to meet you,” Melanie returned the introduction politely, “I’m Melanie Fenton.”

“Yes, my dear.  I already know that.  Why, you’re shaking!  You must be frozen!”

“I thought I was going to have to climb those steps.”

Agnes to boomed with laughter, a loud,  pleasant, unthreatening sound.  “Save us, Melanie, I’m really glad you didn’t.  I’ve never had the courage to go up or down those.  They would kill me, I should think!”

There was little to see of Agnes, Rain-washed spectacles protruded from a bundle of protective scarf topped by a sou’wester hat.   A massive waxed coat, layered over who could tell how many sundry jackets and cardigans cocooned the remainder of her, with only Wellington boots showing beneath its dripping hem.

“Come along, dear.  We have to get you inside.”  She encompassed Melanie’s shoulder with a huge gloved hand, ushering her roughly into the hole through the rock.   But the gesture was not violent or ill-meaning:  there was a kindness about the muffled Agnes, Melanie thought.  Anyway, she had no alternatives in mind – once again, that inexplicable sense of mission prevented her from offering resistance to whatever befell her; this seemed to be the way fate intended.

Elsewhere…

The cathedral cloister was a cool and quiet place to walk, or to contemplate, on a hot September afternoon.   Other than an occasional marauding crow, the bird sound from the green was of blackbirds, of finches and sparrows.   Water poured in plainsong over a central fountain.  An odd tourist or two, meandering between photographs, struggled by on a guidebook and a prayer.   A well-furbished middle-aged woman rubbed at an interesting brass.

Two men of God strolled here, although only one, a Bishop, wore The Cloth.   Ronald Harkness was he.  The spry tee-shirt and jeans guy on his left, although appearances would have deceived, was a Franciscan monk.  Neither, in appearance, represented the most acceptable face of their shared faith.  They looked like a pair of bedraggled crows.

“If your information is accurate,” The monk was saying; “We must move quickly.”

They came to a place where a wooden bench faced the quadrangle.  “I do not think we should act in haste:” Bishop Harkness said, seating himself.  “Essentially, we have matters under control.”

A chaffinch which had been feasting a few meters away upon some seed scattered by a tourist, edged carefully back for a venturesome peck or two, one wary eye on the newcomers. 

“My Lord Bishop, never was there a time when it was more vital that we act, and act with speed.”   The monk perched beside Harkness, on the edge of the wood:  “This boy is a wild card.  If he is what our people say he is, who can imagine what his capabilities are!”

“No.”  Harkness shook his head.  “I am not inclined to think he will interfere with our plans. I do believe to restrain him now will stir up too much unwanted silt.   Too many others are interested in him and he is young, untried in his arts – if art he has.”

“You seem doubtful about the boy.   I am not sure I share your doubt.”

“I met him.  He seems very ordinary to me – and very young.”

“He found the vault at Crowley.”

The Bishop shrugged.  “There was nothing to find, surely – we sanitized that site two years ago, didn’t we?”

“We are in no way certain,” The monk replied:  “Yet if they are what we believe they just might be, this young couple, how can we be complacent?”

Frowning, the Bishop flicked with his foot, putting the chaffinch to flight.  “If, and it is a very big ‘if’, they get together.   Even then, I wonder whether these old legends have any credibility in a modern world…”

“We have old legends of our own.”  The monk reminded.  “Some of those are true, are they not?  You are watching the boy?”

Harkness nodded.  “We are.   The girl has dropped from sight, but I have no doubt she will turn up again.   However, without each other they are nothing more than the nuisance we have had to endure for years.  Divide and subdue?”

“But the boy has dropped from sight, too, has he not?”  The monk asked.

The Bishop registered mild surprise.  “Now, how did you know that?”

“We have our sources.”

“Ah, your ‘sources’.  So I have to terminate the employment of another perfectly good secretary.  Very well, yes, you are right, he has gone off the radar for a day or so; but we shall get him back.   Our girl picked up with him in Manchester, but then he performed some sort of Houdini trick.  My guess is they have him and he is being briefed.   We couldn’t stop that if we tried.”

The monk raised an eyebrow:  “And by ‘they’ you mean….so you do think he is Toa?”

“I did not say so.  They may think he is, and I intend to find out.  The Toa are interested in him, which is all I know.”    Harkness shrugged.

The monk spread his hands.  “You see?  My Lord Bishop, we cannot know.  We tacitly acknowledge that there are rats in our basement which need extermination, but we also favour improvements to our hygiene that are taken delicately and at our own pace.”   His voice dropped, his intensity increased.  “If these people are given rein that could be out of our hands; things are moving towards a crisis.   In my view we have to take positive action.   We have to stop the boy, and to stop him now.”

“I cannot agree.  Just suppose what you say was true:  we have always been able to talk to the Toa.  We have always negotiated.  If we declare war, as you suggest, we only exacerbate the problem.  Leave us to handle the boy, and to find his girl-friend.   This is our mission, after all?”

The monk considered this.   “You might negotiate with them in their weakness, certainly.  But if they find their strength?”

“I do not see it as a problem – you do.  We must agree to differ.”

Conversation lapsed, as conversation will on such sunny days, into silence.  At length the men went their separate ways; Bishop returning to his See, the monk to his monastic duties.  But the subject would not end there.   Later that day, the monk made some calls.  A meeting was arranged.

#

Fortified with hot coffee and some of Estelle’s special pancakes (“We have to fill you up, you need your strength”) Peter stood on Vincent’s pea-beach drive, waiting for the car which would transport him back to Manchester.   His hosts waited with him, huddled in coats against a fresh morning breeze.

Since parting with the one he knew as Simeon, he had struggled in his private thoughts.   Supposing, he reasoned with himself, all the conversation, the manipulation and hallucination of the last twelve hours were true?   Suppose he and Melanie really were all that stood between the world and a fatal error – what  –  a nuclear war, famine, some kind of plague?  The permutations were endless.

He knew with certainty now that, however much he might wish it, there was no turning back.  Promises that he would be able to live comfortably in the care of Simeon’s cult while he shared with Melanie the care of the ultimate computer hung around his head like the corpses in a game-keeper’s parlour: so much less desirable than the things he must leave behind.  This so-called ‘gift’ was always going to take more from him than it gave – Melanie’s friendship, already gone;  Lesley’s love, Lesley’s gentleness, Lesley’s sweet voice, her bright, clowning smile – they would be next.   He was marked and almost certainly his fate was decided not just for now but for all his years.

Peter’s miasma was dispelled by a crunch of tyres on gravel and the toot of an impatient horn.    Parting with Vincent contained an implicit promise: that their next meeting was not far away.

“We’re close, Pete, man, OK?  If we’re needed, we’ll be there.   Watch your mail now, and try to be comfortable with yourself.   We’ll see you soon.”

Stepping into the car, Peter looked up to see a seagull perched upon the ridge tiles of Vincent’s house roof.   Even at that distance, he was able to pick out the yellow diamond mark on its neck.

He spoke inside his head, knowing his words would find their target.  ‘If I can get the Truth Stone to reply to me,’  he asked,  “How do I perform the reset?”

‘I was hoping you would work that out, Petie-Pooh,’ the seagull replied.  ‘Personally, I don’t have a clue.’       For a split instant, the gull became Simeon again; then it reformed into a gull and flew away.

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

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Freefoto from Pixabay
Trawler: Andre Costargent from Pixabay
Cloister: Peter H. from Pixabay

.          

Cathedral Close

It is eight o’clock.  From the great Gothic mass of the cathedral a tintinnabulation of bells proclaims the hour.

Skies of grey:  footsteps echo on the cobbles of the Close, and birch trees that line Cathedral Green’s flat acres of grass drip solemnly, the rain’s history whispered among their leaves. The shower has passed, they say.   Yes, but autumn remains.

The Close is wide, a mediaeval thoroughfare of heraldic grandeur beside Cathedral Green.  Birches stand like a guard of honor along one side, while little crooked shops built of tortured black timbers and white stucco bark and snap at the cathedral’s towering presence from the other.  They ogle passers-by through bottle-glass windows, do these emporia, their opened doorways lined with racks of postcards and souvenirs.  But a chill breeze plays in the alleys, and damp hangs pungently on the air.  There are few abroad today who might yield to such temptations.

I for one am in no mood to be tempted.  I walk this path each day on my way to work, and work, with the changes the last few years have wrought, is no longer the pleasure it once was.  I am a carver.  There was a time, not so long ago, when I took pride in my craftsmanship, when I was judged by the beauty of the finished piece, the quality and integrity of my art.  But this is no longer so.   Now, my day is punctuated by my manager’s repeated insistence that I finish faster, do more, simplify those details that require precious time.  Soon there will be no space for my art upon the wood; the furniture my Company makes will be faceless and bland, thrust into the world by jigs and machines that concede not a second to beauty.  Last week my lifetime’s occupation was threatened by a letter.  My ‘productivity’ was questioned.  My work rate must be ‘improved’.

This morning my wife, Renee, added her voice to the critical accord by telling me I am too timid – I should leave the Company, set up on my own.  I try to make her understand that it is not that simple, that I have no money to begin such an enterprise.  She calls me spineless.  With no bonuses to spend I know the privations of our poor condition hurt her terribly, and I understand why she strikes out.  But I hurt.  Deep inside me I hurt, and I do earnestly long for change.

There are others, though few, braving the weather this morning.  Amongst them one man stands out.  Marching towards me he is tall, with a determined stride and heavy hikers’ shoes which snatch at the cobbles.  He wears a blue jacket slightly darkened by the rain and on his back, beating against him with each step, is a red rucksack so well filled a lesser man might be borne down by its weight, but not he.   His lightly–bearded chin juts forward, his bright blue eyes stare past me undimmed by the chill, and his wide mouth is drawn back in determination.  He walks rapidly, closing the distance between us in seconds, and his very presence offends me, forcing the bitter gall of my own inadequacy up into my throat.

I am angry.  For a few delusional moments this man becomes the epitome of all I envy, all I hate; his commitment, his focused intent, his strength.  He is all that I am not and I see it in his eyes.  He knows my weakness.

Deliberately – I do it deliberately.  I step a little to one side, setting myself in this man’s path.  As we pass, I lean in.  My shoulder buffets his; his rucksack swings aside and I know the jolt must have hurt his arm at least as much as it hurt mine.   Instantly I am consumed with guilt.  My anger is vented and sorrow, apprehension, even fear take its place.  For me the encounter is over but somehow I feel his eyes on my back, demanding that I turn.

So I do.

I look around to find he has stopped.   He is looking at me with a challenge in his eyes.  I mutter an apology but he shakes his head.  The word is not enough, the offence was too calculated, too severe to be allowed to pass.  He has started walking back in my direction, his eyes never leaving mine.

Two paces away he stops to face me, and this time his expression is questioning: is this the fight I wanted?  Is this the expiation I seek?  Frightened now, for I am not a fighter by nature, I glance around in hope of escape but he moves as my eyes move, stepping before my gaze, his body wound up like a spring, his hands half-raised and spread in an unspoken invitation.

“Sorry – I’m sorry.”  I repeat those meaningless words.  Really, my mind is travelling:  why am I here?  How have I got myself into this position, a poor, frustrated loser on a cold autumn morning, marching forward into nothing when I know – my very soul knows – the time for change has come.  I could, I should take Renee’s advice.  I should make my living by carving and selling my own work, I should take her away from this.

Yet here I am, and in a minute or less I am going to get floored by this powerful, righteous figure of a man who I challenged for no reason other than my own pain.

I move to resume my journey but he steps before me, cuts me off.  As I turn to retreat, he blocks me again.  Unspeaking, yet unyielding, he is too formidable for my defeated mind.  In the final humiliation that must visit all who are as cowardly as I, I drop my shoulders, feeling the tears come.   He nods, stepping towards me, that final pace.  I cringe from him, I am shaking.

But then he smiles.  He smiles and with one gentle hand he reaches out to me, gesturing with the other that I am free to pass.  Stepping aside, he takes my elbow to guide me that first step or two; then he is gone.

Renee’s face is smiling, staring down at me, and there are tears on her cheek, too.

A quiet male voice says:  “He’s back.”

Renee nods, acknowledges the voice with a sob.  Her hand finds my arm and strokes it softly.  “Thank God!”  She murmurs.

There are white walls, clacking heels; there are girls in nursing blue and the steady beep of a machine.  Tubes spring from my flesh in a dozen different directions.  The owner of the quiet male voice comes into view.  He is dark-haired, with frank brown eyes, and he seems too impossibly young to support the lab. coat he wears.

“You’ve had a cardiac arrest, Mr. Frobisher.  We thought we were going to lose you for a while.”

I feel a salt splash as Renee bends to kiss my forehead, saying:  “We have to leave you now, so you can rest.  You’re safe now.  What would I do if I lost you, my darling?”

The faces leave, the screens are drawn.  Alone, with only the beeping machine for company, I have time to think; and in that blessed peace at last I understand.

For a while I was, truly, lost.  I have been allowed back, given a second chance, but on one condition – that my life will have to change.   The bearded man who had seemed a complete stranger is no stranger to me now, though I have been more accustomed to imagine him dressed in black.

One day I will meet him again; and next time, I will know his name.

© 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: Chris Santilli from Unsplash

Continuum – Episode Four Altered Circumstances

 

The story so far:

Alanee’s transportation in the aerotran has reached a conclusion.  She faces the immediate prospect of landing she knows not where.  Dag, her pilot, although kind and understanding, can offer no information about her future.

Alanee stirs blearily back to wakefulness, admitting to herself that the stresses of the day must have told upon her.  Far from refreshed by slumber, she feels exhausted.

The eyes in the mirror watch her:  “Now there’s a real morning person!”  Dag says.

The aerotran’s engines are different, they run in surges of sound.  Alanee feels that they are descending but by stages, as though dropping over a series of downward sills.  Dag is talking to someone on a communicator, being given instructions, she thinks.  Below the window and rushing past there is a bright tapestry, an almost distinguishable pattern although she cannot discern details; houses, maybe: or larger buildings – factories or offices.  Then suddenly all this is lost in darkness, and the sound of the engines is an echo, while the aerotran tracks a line of red lights which pass beneath it one by one.  It is difficult to guess its speed, but the nose is up and in another second there is light ahead, bright blue light that grows from distant dot to shining arc.  Almost immediately the aerotran is in the midst of that light, and forward motion has ceased.

“There we go!”  Dag says cheerfully.  “We’ve arrived!”

Arrived where?  From the window, Alanee sees only a solid grey wall.

“We’re on a lift-deck.”  Her young pilot explains.  “It’s a sort of elevator.  You are bound for…”  He glances at his console “….My, level five!  You must be quite important!”

Dumbstruck, Alanee stares at the grim, uncompromising wall as the aerotran ascends.  For a brief while she actually entertains an idea of diving back into the rest-place and locking herself inside.  Within this aerotran, this womb, within the care of the gentle Dag with his soft, deep voice she has gained solace to such a degree she now fears what may happen when she steps outside it:  after all, she has only the pilot’s opinion that she is not to face some form of punishment for being who she is. What if he is wrong?

Dag explains:  “The docks are all inside the hill.  The place they serve is built on the plateau above. So the lift-deck is taking us up to it.  We’re just about there now.”

As if at his prompting, a black number ‘one’ scribed on the wall slips into Alanee’s view, then passes beneath them, swiftly followed by numbers in sequence.  At ‘five’ the lift-deck’s upward motion stops.  There is a sensation of moving rearwards, a sudden emerge from entombment into soft ambiance.  She finds herself looking at a chamber as large, though more sumptuous by far than the ‘best room’ of her own house, with foam-carpeted floor, couches upholstered in red satin, a table and flowers.

A wood-panelled door on the further side of this space opens.  A woman of near her own age or a little older steps into view, a woman whose poise and elegance takes her breath away.

“Time for us to part,” Dag rises easily from his cockpit seat.  “Alanee-mer, can I say it has been a privilege to have met you?”

He is tall, so very, very tall.  She feels intense regret.  “Shall I not see you again?”  She asks.

He shrugs.  “If you need a pilot you might get me.  You might even ask for me.  If I am available I’m sure I would be permitted to fly you.”

Wondering at these words (why would she need a pilot?) Alanee nonetheless has presence of mind to say:  “You may be sure I shall.  Dag-meh, would you take your helmet off for me?”

Dag’s eyes give that smile again.  He removes the golden dome that has concealed his face, and what she sees makes Alanee’s heart shine.  Yes, she will remember this man.

“Thank you, Dag-meh, for looking after me.”  She leans forward on an impulse to kiss his cheek.

Dag slides back the door and the aerotran depressurizes noisily.  “Thank you for being such an unusually lovely passenger.  Be lucky, Alanee-mer.”

With reluctance Alanee steps out of the aerotran, leaving Dag behind in the cocoon that has been her sanctuary for a few precious hours.  Her feet are greeted by the soft warmth of deep carpet, and there is a scent of roses.  What sort of a world is she entering?

“You find all this awfully confusing, don’t you?”  The woman, a slender, dark-haired creature with large green eyes and the bronze pallor of a Mansuvine, a race of seafaring people from Eastern Oceana,  steps forward to greet her.  Her resplendent gold and burgundy tunic drapes over her body so perfectly it must surely have been made especially for her, and she moves languidly within it as only one with the absolute confidence of privilege can move.  The ring upon her finger bears a large emerald that speaks of wealth, yet her smile is open, her greeting sincere. She clasps Alanee’s hands in hers.

“Come!  You are Alanee, are you not; from Balkinvel on the Hakaan?  Is it very hot there at this time of year?  My name is Sala, Alanee my dear.  We are to be companions, you and I.”

Alanee does not answer, fearing any reply she makes to that kindly smile will reduce her to tears.  Behind her, the aerotran has slipped quietly away, taking Dag and her last contact with any part of a world she knows with it.  Sala understands at once.

“You must be so tired!  Come, we can talk tomorrow.”

She leads Alanee through that paneled door into a brightly lit passage lined by graphics of aerotrans along each wall; then beyond that to join a wide, green-carpeted walkway with high walls of waxen cream bathed by concealed, gentle light.  They are amongst people now, some introspective and hurried, some entering or leaving doors of richly polished wood which are the only features of this thoroughfare, others idling or talking among themselves, men and women in equal measure.  Sala exchanges casual greetings with some as they pass.

“Good even, Sala-mer!”

“Greet-you, Fra Perris.”

Alanee is used to walking amongst Hakaani, but there are all races here, light-framed, bird-like Oceanics, swarthy Braillecci, taciturn Proteians, dark mysterious Mansuvene.  All, or nearly all, are richly dressed, and many wear Sala’s colour scheme of burgundy and gold.  The exceptions, dressed in fatigues of grey drab, seem subservient and rarely speak other than among themselves.  Alanee, feeling shoddily-dressed and unkempt, aligns herself with the grey ‘drabs’.

They walk a long way for weary legs, passing row after row of doors and arches for the most part in silence because Alanee is intimidated by Sala’s splendour, and overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of this place.  She has simply never imagined anything like it could exist.  What is waiting for her at the end of this walk?

“Where are we?  What is this place?”  She ventures at last.

“Oh Habmena!  Of course, they haven’t told you!  They couldn’t.  No-one may speak the name of the City outside its walls.  Such a stupid conceit!”  Sala chuckles sympathetically.  “My dear, this is the Consensual City, the seat of the High Council!  Not far now – see?  This is our door.”

At another anonymous doorway (Alanee is sure they must have passed a hundred), Sala touches a circular plate that exactly matches the size of her hand.  The door opens instantly, sliding back into a recess in the wall.

“Come!  You’ll be able to rest now, I promise.”

They enter a lobby area about ten feet square, impersonally decorated and furnished with full-length closets, a small table.  To their left a further door stands open, and beyond it a large room sumptuous in the extreme, high-ceilinged, its three inner walls hung with brightly-coloured tapestries and silks.    The fourth wall is wholly dominated by a vast, undraped window overlooking a courtyard some sixty feet below, and faces the front elevation of a great building which, lit by blue iridescence, seems to float in the darkness.

“Don’t be concerned,”  Sala reassures;  “It is one-way glass.  You can see out, but…”

Alanee feels her feet cosseted by thick floor-foam and her weary limbs tempted by long, low couches of soft hide.  A central table, edged by an ebony rail, is a fish tank filled with illuminated blue liquid.  Brightly colored Dap fish swim in the soft light that precisely reflects that of the stately mansion across the courtyard.   Alanee is dumbstruck at such opulence.   All this:  is this how people live in the Consensual City?

“This must belong to someone very important!”

Laughing, Sala acknowledges:  “Yes, I suppose one would think that.”  Then quickly sees how Alanee is overcome.  “Let me show you somewhere you can sleep.”

By another door then, to a bedroom, or at least a room with a bed, which by now is all Alanee can or would wish to see.  She is too tired to take in any more of her surroundings.  It is a wide bed – very wide – and comfortable enough: Sala leaves her to stretch upon it with the briefest of instructions:  “There’s a summoner” (a touch-panel on the wall) “if you need anything.  Call me on it tomorrow, when you’re ready.  There is no rush.  And that…”  She points to a pen-sized object which lies on a table beside the bed; “Is a homer.  If you go out exploring and are lost, activate this and it will guide you back here.  The door will know you, so never worry about getting locked out.  Sleep well and long, my dear.”

“I may go outside?”

“Of course; if your legs will carry you.  But first you should sleep, Alanee-mer.  You look completely worn out!”

So Alanee sleeps. And deep in dreams she is flying once more with Dag strong and safe at her side.  Below is the sun-mist on the Hakaan, and the plains stretch away on every side forever.  Together with the wild birds they swoop, hover, turn, climb and dive, companions upon the long, long journey into the mountains of morning.

When she opens her eyes again there is music somewhere, honey-sweet music.  Though she has slept fully clothed she cannot recall a time when sleep has been sweeter, or when she has felt more refreshed.  Poised on the edge of slumber she almost believes everything was a dream, that she will find herself back home again and making ready for work, in her own village, among the people she has known since she was born.

But no.

The air is sweet and vital.  She has woken in a bedroom with no windows to an outer world, that is yet filled with mellow daylight:  the décor that surrounds her is intensely feminine; smooth curves of furniture, tints of apple and white.  Her feet find soft rugs, that same deep floor-foam.  She is shocked that the rest-place, beyond an elliptical arch, is otherwise unprotected by any door – what if someone should see? She uses it quickly, shy of discovery; but then spies the pressure bath with its scents and toiletries, whereupon she reasons with herself that people rich enough to own a bedroom like this would not be so crass as to spy upon her, would they?  So she bathes for almost an hour, much longer than she intends, seduced by that unobtrusive music, drifting close to sleep.

At last she must rise from the water, throw a robe about her and venture out.  She puts a head shyly around the bedroom door: “Greet you?”

No-one answers.  She is alone.  Assuming her host must be otherwise employed, she slips hesitantly from the bedroom into the living area’s sumptuous space.    Here she must pause, losing all sense of herself, for the view through that transparent wall is beyond believing.  The mansion which was bathed last night in phantom blue is, by the light of day, an ornate building of great and blackened age with doors and walkways between forests of pillars at its lowest level. Two further storeys are punctuated by high, arched windows, balconies and statues of dignified pedagogues who pose in alcoves, impervious to the snow.  One of these (she cannot tear her eyes away) glares censoriously back at her, as though she was his reluctant pupil.  He carries a book beneath his arm and where his fingers clasp around it huddles a bird, tiny and forlorn, sheltering from the winter chill.  Alanee’s heart goes out to this little creature.  For all her uncertainty about her own future, his is no more certain.

Courtyard and walkways are busy with hurrying figures, clad in the same dark red robes so much in evidence last night.  Although Alanee can see that greetings are being exchanged no-one dallies, everyone has a purpose.  They move with an air of business to be done, importance, almost arrogance.

She has heard of The City, of course.  Throughout her growing up it has been the stuff of legend and in her dreaming it has always featured as a faery castle somewhere on high, frozen in a land of ice.

“It is a city where the sun never shines, Alanee–tes!”  Her mother had said.  “There live the Wise Ones who rule us, and keep us from harm.”

“Can we go there, Mummy?”

“No.  Neither you nor I will ever see it.  Few people even know exactly where it is, it is so closely guarded.  Those who dwell there are apart from us.  Their emissaries visit us from time to time, and you may see one.  That is as close as you can hope to get.” 

Oh mother, remember your daughter?  I am here!  I am inside the Consensual City! 

When Alanee has had her fill of the ancient building’s glory there are more discoveries to be made: across the living space and through a portal at its further end she discovers another rest-place (this time dignified by a door) and opposite, joy of joys, a kitchen!  But such a kitchen!  Gleaming cabinets, basins and faucets, spicers and mixers all in matching metal, all spotlessly kept.  The opulence of this alone should sap her credulity, were it not for a single touch: neatly set out on a counter adjacent to the hot plate are a tube of tsakal leaf crystals, a drinks-maker, and a mug.  Next to these, a packet of xuss mix is propped against a pat of Hakaani sil butter.

At first she does not consider this too deeply, beyond gratitude for Sala’s thoughtfulness in providing her favourite breakfast.  But after baking a pancake, idling as her tsakal brews Alanee begins to wonder.  Her morning meal is not typical of all Hakaanis:  these provisions cannot have been selected by accident or good fortune; does Sala perhaps share her taste, or is that too great a stretch of coincidence?  And where in this lavishly appointed space is the chill room, or a slot that might accept a Mak-card?  That or any other sign of the world she has left?

Plate in hand she completes her exploration by returning to the lobby, where the small bag of her possessions that she packed so hurriedly the previous afternoon sits as she left it.  Unaccountably, the sight of it makes her burst into tears.

“You haven’t unpacked.”  The apartment door hisses and Sala enters, responding to Alanee’s call on the summoner.  Alanee expects her to be dressed differently but no, she still wears the same coloured tunic.

“I didn’t think it worthwhile,”  Alanee responds.  “Not until I know where I’m going to end up, at least.”

Sala’s laugh is musical, as much a delight as her speaking voice.  “Oh, come; don’t be so tragic!  There are drinks in this cabinet, have you found them yet?”    A disguised cupboard in a side unit opens.  Arrays of glasses and decanters wait inside.

“I’ve just had tsakal!”  Alanee protests.

“Not tsakal.  I mean drinks.  Try one of these.”  Sala pours two measures of a yellow liquid.  “Come, we have nothing to do today, either of us.  And I’m here to answer your questions.”

She sits opposite Alanee, surveying her approvingly.  “Isn’t it so refreshing to see someone dressed differently?  (Alanee has donned clothes from her bag;  a tabard, calf-laced sandals, a bangle she likes)  Have you ever considered laskali at all, my dear?”

“What is laskali?”

Sala smiles.  It is more than a smile; it is at once mysterious and a confidence, an intimation of friendship.  “No matter.  You will find out in time.  Now, questions!”

The sweet and instantly warming drink dispels some of that latent dread, even inspiring a certain bravado.

“All right.  I was tired yesterday and very frightened.  Now I’ve recovered, where am I to be taken?”

“Alanee-mer, I’m sure I told you!  Maybe you were too overcome to listen.  You are going nowhere.”

“Nowhere?”  The word’s sinister implications  bring an onset of trembling.

“My dear, dear Alanee, you have nothing to fear.”

“I fear a lack of answers…”

Sala bites her lip and nods.  “I tend to be indirect, sometimes.  I admit I like the drama.  It is, shall we say, to my taste?  I am being obtuse.  Console yourself, Alanee-mer, you are not here to be punished, at least as far as I know.  This is your new home.  This is your apartment.”

Alanee is incredulous.  “I stay – here?”

“Indeed.  Make it your own.  There are merchants, traders, vendors who will supply you with any little favours you like.  Re-furbish it completely if you wish, within your means of course.”

“But I have no means?  At home, at my village I had work: I have nothing here unless there is work for me.  Am I to work here?  What would they have me do?”

“Tomorrow you will learn more.  I cannot tell you I’m afraid, that is not for me to discuss.  You will have means, Alanee-mer.”

Alanee has the feeling of being surrounded by doors:  each time she opens one, she discovers two more inside.  “Why me?  Why have I been selected to do this – this work?”

“Nor can I answer that question.  I simply do not know.”  Sala sees the despondency return to Alanee’s face. She stretches forth a cool hand to cover Alanee’s own. “Let me see, what can I tell you?  Well, Alanee-mer, you must have been brought here for a reason.  Rarely are new people brought to the Consensual City.  Those who are usually come in grey drabs (that is the uniform of the court servants); only a very few are accorded the robe.”

“The robe?”

“The robe of court, like mine.  You will be a member of the Sanctum.  Your work will take you within the Palace, I understand, so you must wear one.”

“What Palace?”

Sala waves airily at the window.  “Over there.  That is the Palace.”

Alanee follows her gesture, to be transfixed by the sightless eyes of the stone pedagogue, whose scornful expression withers her inside.  She feels instant dread.  What could she possibly offer within those walls?

The little bird has gone.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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:  Aaron Munoz on Unsplash