Continuum – Episode Twenty-One: Prisoners

In the last episode:

After a night in her friend’s apartment, Alanee still cannot prove to Sala that Celeris, her diffident and secretive lover in The City, exists.  Frustrated by her friend’s doubts, Alanee returns to her own apartment to find some leaves intrinsic to a dream of the previous day await her.  When she grasps them she is wracked with pain which she attributes to healing, though she does not know it is Dag Swenner, critically injured in a far-off forest, she heals.

Meanwhile, Sala has obeyed a call to meet Ellar, her patron, who prepares her for a greater weight of responsibility by emphasizing Alanee’s importance to The City.

In the evening, Hasuga summons Alanee.  He seems excited and unstable, urging her to evade the council’s spy cameras and accompany him to a summer house trysting place in his gardens.  Too late, Alanee sees the danger and tries to leave but he forcibly prevents her…

She is sprawled on the hard wooden bench of the summer house, Hasuga’s hideously distended cranium a dark moon looming over her, his hand on her chest, with all of his weight behind it, pinning her down.  She struggles for breath.

“Is this how you think of me?  Do I repel you so much?”  His tone is fierce.

She spits out a riposte; “After what you did to me?  Remember your little floor show last time we met?  Do you?  Am I supposed to forget that?   Let me go, Hasuga.  Let me go!  Out of this squalid little hut, out of your pathetic life, out of The City.  I don’t belong here!”  Her unmitigated fury so surprises him that he eases his grip somewhat, enough to allow her to add, in a more moderate tone, “Let me return to the Hakaan. That’s my home.”

“You can never go back.   Do not hold out any hope.  You can never go back.”  He draws breath, as though he wants those words to sink in.  She, gasping for air, has not the wind to snap back at him, so after a space he asks her; “Who am I, Lady Alanee?”

She scowls, “Hasuga.  You’re Hasuga, I’m Alanee – we both know who we are.  And for Habbach’s sake forget all this ‘Lady’ stuff, because we both know why I’m here.  You wanted a new ‘Mother’ who could double up as your concubine – and I’m it.  Very well, so I’m destined to remain your prisoner, for the time being, at least.  But I’m not going to share a bed with you, Hasuga.  Do you understand?”

“Am I not a prisoner too?”  In the darkness she may not see his expression, and the renewed calm in his voice gives nothing away. “Have you thought of that?  I have never left this palace.  Only courtiers and the High Council are allowed to look upon me.  For me this is the most oppressive of prisons.”

“Nonsense!”  She makes a determined attempt to remove his hand from her chest, “You’re the supreme being!  If you wanted, you could just walk out of here; commandeer an aerotran, or something.  Who could stop you?”

“Where would I go?  On the outside no-one even knows I exist.  Can you picture me among normal men?  Imagine what they would do to me – what I would have to do to dissuade them.”  He relinquishes his grip on her, slumping onto the seat at her side as if he is suddenly exhausted by his efforts.  “This is the Consensual City and its stability depends upon my remaining invisible.  It depends upon their ignorance of the truth!”

“So these people, the Councillors, are your gaolers, then?  They really do control you.”

“We have a consensual relationship.  Alanee, I have been a child since beyond memory.  Children learn everything and reason nothing.  They learn how to play and they learn the norms of human behaviour without estimating the worth of the things they learn.  Now, unwillingly, the Council has given me the keys to a part of its wisdom:  it has allowed me to grow – opened a door for me it wished would remain closed, so I have to learn afresh what I may or may not do.  I am at the dawn of my understanding.”

Alanee rearranges herself,  “The High Council can see how fast you’re learning, and it fears what you may become.  I’m meant to stop you.”

“The hope is that you will help the Council to control me, not teach me.  They see that as their prerogative, not yours.”

“Yes, well!”  Feeling she has a better grasp on the situation, she admonishes him:  “You can control yourself.  Isn’t that what you are learning?  Isn’t that what you should be  learning?”

“Because of the way I am made, I am fearful that may not be so.”

Alanee decides it is safer to change tack.  “Ellar believes you can’t direct my thoughts.  Is that true?”

“You doubt it, don’t you?  So do I.”  Hasuga raises his hands to his immense bowl of a head, as if he needs their support to keep the weight that bears down upon his body from crushing him.  “I wish it was otherwise, but I am able to read them, at least.”

“I thought as much.  Alright: if I can get over how intrusive that is; and, yes, come to think of it, how insulting that is; it must seem pretty good to you.  Why do you wish it was otherwise?”

“Because of who you are.  I do not want to manipulate you, although I need to learn about you.  Cassix believes he knows who he has brought to me, I do not – not yet.  It was so easy to give you power, Alanee – too easy.  It was no trouble at all.”

 “What you want from me doesn’t tally with the High Council’s idea of my role, either, does it?”  Alanee reasons.  “This is beginning to sound as though you want me to conspire with you against the Council.  They wouldn’t let that happen.”

“We are already conspiring.  They can’t stop it.  Can you not sense that?”

She shakes her head.  “I can understand how you must hate them, keeping you cooped up here for longer than I can even conceive, but…”

“Hate is a human frailty.  I do not hate.”  Hasuga grips her hand, and she because she no longer feels threatened by him, she does not resist; “Your psyche compliments mine –  if we worked together our collective will would be insuperable.  This is more exciting than any game!”

 “The Council might not be able to stop our collusion, Hasuga, but they can stop me.  I’m only flesh – I don’t have your gifts.  A knife-stroke will be all it takes, believe me.”

“And so you must be careful, for a while.  Until, perhaps, you grow stronger.  But what an adventure, Alanee!”  He slaps his elongated palm on his knee.  “We must make a start.  Now you know of The Book, I want you to get it for me.”

Get it for you?

“Steal it.”

“Habbach, no!  The Book of Lore?  You can’t want me to risk that!”

“No, not the Lore Book, I learned every sentence of that before I was two hundred.  The book I mean is one you have only seen in your mind.  This book has no name.”

“With a red cover, locked so I may not open it?  Yes, I have seen it.  You want me to steal that?  Where is it kept?”

“Where could it be but in the Council’s Inner Library; where they have tried for years to x-ray it, to rifle it, to persuade it to open, but never succeeded?  I will succeed.  But first I must have it in my hands.  Bring it to me.”

“Oh Hasuga, how?  I won’t be allowed anywhere near the High Council’s library.  Sire Portis even stopped me from taking a peek at the Book of Lore, and that wasn’t the original, either.  How will I do it?  I can’t do it.”  Alanee decides.  “Ask me something else.”

“You will not try?”

“No!   I’ve no appetite for conspiracy!”  She may not mean to snap back at him again, yet the anger inside her must express itself.  “Hasuga, you are using me. You say you learn from me, you don’t want to manipulate me?  But you don’t care how much you hurt me, how deeply you humiliate me, how small and wretched you make me feel.  Collusion, deception; danger, it’s all a game to you:  why should I put myself at hazard for that?  The High Council have given me my duties, I am here to look after you.  If I do that as they wish, even though it tears them in half, they will have no excuse to dispense with me.  You want me to steal from them?  I won’t do that – I won’t!”

 “Very well.”  Hasuga has studied her curiously throughout this tirade.  Now he nods.  “You agree I am to some extent inside your mind and your thinking, and you will remember that I am unwilling to manipulate your thoughts, although I could.  I would rather you reconsidered, and for that you will require time.  Time is limited, Alanee.  Do not take more than is due.”

He stands.  “Come, we should return before our absence gives concern.  When you are ready to speak of this again, we will meet.  I will be waiting.”

Alighting from the elevator on the ground floor of the Palace, Alanee nearly collides with Ellar, who is obviously on her way to Hasuga’s apartments. 

“Lady Alanee!”  the Mediant’s voice sounds starched.

“Lady Ellar, greet you.  Were you missing me?”

“Perhaps.  Lord Valtor claims he summoned you several hours ago.”

“Hasuga needs someone to look after him.  That’s not me, at least for the moment.  Why does his ‘Mother’ not attend him?”

Sire Hasuga is in your charge, Lady.”  Ellar reminds her, dryly.  “You can cook, can you not?”

“I can, but I’m sure his drabs are feeding him sufficiently well.  I asked to see Sire Cassix:  did you relay my request, Lady?”

And Ellar replies, shortly:  “No.”  then steps into the elevator, returning Alanee’s questioning look with a stony stare, until the doors close.

Outside the palace, is the evening breeze in the courtyard suddenly a little stronger, a little colder?  If not, why does Alanee feel a prickle of winter on her neck?  Around her, courtiers and servants wander in couples and threes, taking in the spring air.   Many wear robes of a lighter fabric, socialites intent upon an evening in the city dressed as gaily and as briefly as the season permits.  In those islands of greenery the drabs have created, ornate stone troughs and planters that break up the void of the yard, are early flowers, buds, promises of growth.

Alanee badly needs someone with whom to share her concerns, someone untouched by the fears and jealousies of those around her, yet the buttons on her summoner provide no answer, even though, mysteriously, Celeris’s name has reappeared; why could she not find it before?

As she walks back towards the city, preoccupied with her thoughts, she pays no heed to the young man who cuts through the sprinkling of late promenaders with determined stride.  She does not see how unerringly he heads in her direction, how his hand is now reaching, gripping, beneath his robe.  At the last, the very last second she looks up – is faced with the cold intent in his eyes, the hand that has found what it seeks and is returning to view, clasping something, turning it in her direction and she almost screams…

And he has passed her, a file of papers filling his hand and now pressed against his chest.  In his wake, Alanee’s knees come near to failing her.  Her lungs once again are forced to gasp for air, a tear finds its way to her cheek.  She snatches up her summoner, stabbing upon Sala’s name.  This time Sala answers.

Tocatta is effusive:  “Darling Lady Alanee; so gorgeous you look!  Such radiance!”

Before visiting Tocatta’s intimate café, Sala’s favourite haunt, Alanee has stopped briefly at her apartment to change into one of the outfits she had made for her in the city; a well cut, svelte version of a side-laced Hakaani tabard in white shot silk with an emerald braid.  Sala eyes her a little enviously.

“For once the old fraud isn’t exaggerating.  My Habmenach, Alanee!”

They wait until Toccata has brought Tsakal with the perl chasers Celeris taught Alanee to enjoy.  When he has withdrawn and in the protection of the sound-deadening hangings, Alanee at last feels she can speak.  With her gaze firmly fixed upon their reflections in the glass of the big window (for the blackness of the night beyond is impenetrable) she says:  “I need a friend.”

She feels Sala’s hand on hers.  “You know you have that.”

“There are things I have to tell that friend, things she might get into trouble for.”

Sala does not say anything for a while.  They sip at the heat of their drinks in desultory fashion until they are ready to look at one another.  When Alanee meets Sala’s eyes they are solemn.

“There are friends, if they are true friends, who will take that risk.”  Sala says.

“Can we be overheard?”

“Perhaps.”  Sala presses the buzzer that will summon Toccata.  When he appears, she asks:  “Are there cameras here?”

Toccata smiles his understanding.  “No, Lady Sala, I clean these curtains daily.”  He withdraws.

So, with hesitant beginnings, and always watching Sala’s face for an expression that might deter her, Alanee tells her tale.  She tells Sala of Hasuga, all she knows about the reasons she was brought to the city and her relationships with Hasuga and the High Council.  Only the mission Hasuga has set her escapes mention, not because she mistrusts her friend, but for fear of the danger that knowledge may bring her.  Sala doubts at first – this, after all, is a Hakaani girl she has known scarcely longer than a cycle: a girl with an imaginary man-friend:  yet she has long suspected the existence of an entity like the one Alanee describes, and now, as the explanation develops, Sala finds the pieces and clues of a puzzle that has thwarted her all her life falling into place.  When Alanee concludes her account she cannot find words for a while, but stares into her tsakal as she assembles the finished image in her mind.

Finally she breaks her silence.  “As it appears to me, you walk a very thin line indeed.  Nobody knew what to expect when Sire Cassix brought you to the City, and now they are finding out. 

“Alanee-ba, not everyone likes Cassix.  Seers are never popular, though they are very powerful and their will is respected.  Right now it seems there is a faction, Cassix’s faction, who would let matters proceed naturally, and there is everyone else.  Everyone else probably subscribes to my patron’s opinion.”

“Which is?”

“You will get this list of targets she has promised you which I’m sure will clarify the picture, if clarification is what it needs.”

“Feed him, flatter him, fuck him.”

“In essence.”

Alanee puts her head in her hands.  “And what if the worst should happen?  It’s unthinkable!”

“There are measures…”

“Of course there are.  I like him, I really do.  I can’t exactly explain why, after everything he’s done, but sleep with him?   Oh, Sala-ba, you haven’t seen him.  I can’t do that.  I just can’t!”

Sala nods, and her face is pale.  “Then, oh my darling, you had better be ready to run.  You were probably an experiment very few of them wanted to try in the first place.  It would be good to know where the Domo stands in this, but I imagine everyone is thinking of damage limitation, and only the Cassix faction preserves you.  I suppose the real issue is how your presence affects Sire Hasuga’s ability to rule, if that is really what he does.  It’s such a pity Sire Cassix is so ill…”

“Ill?  Is he?   Oh Habbach!  Now I have to get to see him!  What do you mean ‘if that is really what Hasuga does’?”

“Well, from your description it sounds as though the High Council use Hasuga’s telepathic strength to keep order.  That’s rather different from ‘ruling’ in the regal sense.”

“But he sees, he hears.  From that apartment up there on the top of the Palace, (and he never leaves it) he can see and hear the whole city.”

“Including ourselves then?”  Sala says seriously.  “Bless you, Alanee, for that.”

“He will be listening, I suppose.  Somehow though, I don’t think he could object.  He seems to want to gain my trust.  And if they were able to use him before, I don’t think they will for much longer.  Every time I meet him he has grown in power.  Today he seemed so confident, so self-assured:  a young man, in fact.  I don’t know who I will meet tomorrow.”

“Alanee…”  Sala collects herself.  “Alright, look: you were brought here; why?  Because the High council saw what was happening to Hasuga and they knew they couldn’t control it.  What did they think you would do?  Because of this gift of yours to resist telepathy and because you’re such a nice, undemanding sort of girl they believed you would calm him down, help him to a maturity he does not yet have.

“All they want is for Hasuga to continue to rule as he has before.  Show them you are doing the job they selected you to do, and they’ll leave you alone.  Persuade Hasuga to resume his old role – see if you can placate him?”

“I’ve already tried.  I can’t see it happening.  He’s rampant.  He has schemes, dreams of change, and all the time I am with him I can see those schemes take shape. They’re right, Sala, I am part of the problem.  I fuel him.  I make him grow.”

The pair talk this through for a while, turning over the same essential issues.  In the end, as Alanee perceives, their discussion has no merit; for Sala does not have any more answers than she.  With resignation in her heart she bids her friend goodnight and wends her way to home and bed.  She will not have long to sleep.

The hectoring of the summoner is like a blare of a bugles lashing through the early morning stillness.  Alanee gropes for it, swears at it, slaps it down in front of her on a pillow she has not bothered to scrutinize, intent upon switching it off.  The name that flickers green on its display stops her.  ‘Cassix’.

“Sire?”  She offers little more than a sleepy murmur.

“Lady Alanee?  Come to the watchtower.  Come now.  Tell no-one you are coming.”

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

Continuum – Episode Ten Experiments in Fear

The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Alanee?”  He must wake her.

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

“I have to wake up, ba.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

“Habbach!  Be careful!”

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

Dag calls out:  “What’s your name?”

“Ripero.  Is that important right now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes I can walk!”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trebec nods.  “Then you have your order.”

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

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

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

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

“No survivors, Zess.  None.”

“Then all these men are….?”

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Six The Vale

“Ciggy?”  Bea Ferguson waved an open pack of Rothmans towards Patrick.  “Oh, you don’t, do you?  Do you mind if I do?  I’m absolutely gasping.”

Bea had once pronounced herself deeply impressed with Patrick Hallcroft.  When her best friend Karen Eversley had told her she was dating him, she might even have felt a little jealous (had she been unmarried, of course).  Patrick Hallcroft?  He had to be the most eligible male in Caleybridge, no joking!  But now?

Seeing him slumped in his chair she even wondered if he was on her side anymore?  He seemed to her defeated, lessened, weary.  His eyes lacked that infectious energy that had warmed her the first time they met and talked.  Now, the morning life of the Trocadero coffee bar jostled about him unheeded – one or two of the lads, one or two of the girls who circulated dropped a word of greeting to him but he gave them little sign of recognition in return.  Around the tables there were those who, throwing covert glances in his direction talked behind their hands, and they clearly troubled him.

“You saw the Sunday ‘Paper?”  He asked.

“Everyone has, darling.  At least you got demoted to an inside page.”

“’Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’?  It’s hardly going to help us find Karen, is it?”

Bea shrugged.  “It’s the Sunday Record, what did you expect?  That grotty little Leathers man’s stuff is always like that.  I’m surprised the story got in at all, considering.  The editor must have had a nice holiday in Beaconshire, or something.  ‘Harterport Riots’ and a jilted millionaire all in one issue?  It’s better than the ‘Herald’.”

“Anything’s better than the ‘Herald’ – though they didn’t run our story at all.”

“At least you tried.  Come on then, you promised to update me and you’re also buying me lunch.  Technically that means you’re dating a married woman, Patrick.  So the least you can do…”

“Would a timeline help?”

“Timelines are always good.”

“Right; Saturday morning.  I already told you I was there when the Harterport fight kicked off, and what I saw on the way back to pick up Amanda.”

“Your ‘Sprog’, as you call the poor mite. Just nourish my poor little brain for a minute.  Why didn’t you follow those three cars?  Karen would have.”

“Oh yes.  And I can imagine the thoughts that would have been going through Amanda’s mind as she waited at the school gates, watching three large black cars go past, with her brother’s car tanking after them!”  Patrick rejoined.  “Although,” he admitted to himself, “I did think about it.”

“But you didn’t.  You collected your Sprog, then you took her back to that boathouse thingy. You looked inside, and you thought you saw Karen’s car…”

“No ‘thought’ about it!  At least give me a hearing!”

“Where next?”

“I didn’t want to go to the police.  All I would get from them would be a warning about wasting police time or something and anyway.  I wanted someone to believe me when I told them what I saw.”  Patrick thought for a second.  “No, wait.  That isn’t what I wanted.  I needed my father, specifically my father, to believe what I saw.”

“Why?  Does he have his doubts?  More to the point, do you?  My god, Patrick!”

“Yes, he’s been wary of the kidnapping story from the start.  And Dad, he’s kind of the voice of logic in my life, you know?  I needed him to believe in me, so I went directly to him.  I didn’t even take Sprog home first, because his office is nearer – he works Saturdays, of course.  It was a struggle, but I got him to return with me to see the boathouse for himself.  Dad had a job to get out, some kind of contract up north.  It wasn’t much of a delay though.  We were there by one-thirty.”

“No car?”

“How did you know that?”

“I didn’t.  I guessed.  By the time you got your Dad to look into the boathouse Karen’s car was gone.  It seems to be the way your luck is running, Patrick.  Bad karma!”

“Not only Karen’s car; there was an old Riley in there and the four motorbikes I saw on the Harterport Esplanade – all gone!  The double doors of the place were open like they hadn’t been closed in years, and – I don’t know – it looked like the floor had been swept, or something.  A neglected Pathfinder wouldn’t be that easy to move, they must have trailed it, so someone had been very busy.  Anyway, that was when the recriminations started.”

“Your old man didn’t believe you?  No, wait – brains, Bea!  He must have done – Amanda saw the car too, yeah?”

“Our little snake!  Oh, it was my fault, I suppose.  When I initially broke the boathouse window to see inside she was demanding to be lifted so she could also see, but I was scared we’d be caught.  I didn’t want to put her at risk, so I didn’t actually help her see for herself.  ‘I didn’t see any cars’ was the exact phrasing the little bigot used, and she stuck to it, too.  All the way home she was delicately suggesting I was under stress and I might need medical attention.” Patrick sighed heavily, “Maybe she’s right; that’s what Dad thinks.”

His hand was resting on the table.  Bea squeezed it consolingly.  “No, mate, she isn’t right.  Go on, fill in the rest.”

“My mother lived up to her promise.  She tried to get me an appointment with Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant?  She knows him, of course. Who doesn’t she know?”

“Isn’t he supposed to be ill?  It was on the local news.  He had a heart attack or something.”

“He’s had about five, as far as I can gather.  You’re right, though.  His secretary fixed me up to see his deputy, Norman Wilson.   That was yesterday, and it was why I ‘phoned you.  Because I hoped I’d have some news for us this morning.”

“And..”

“And I saw him.”  Patrick was studying his hands, avoiding Bea’s eyes.  “I wanted you to keep some faith in me.  I haven’t been kicking my heels all this time, I’ve been back to Nowhere Lane again this weekend, and ‘phoning anyone who might know something, like the farmer who owns the land next to Boulter’s Green, and the Driscombes; I tried them. Not with any success, but I tried.”

Bea took a firmer grip on Patrick’s hand.  “Pat!  Avoiding the question, yeah?  What happened with Wilson?”

“He’s a strange guy.  Enigmatic, I think that’s the word.  Has a big house just outside Upcote, he dresses a bit like my Dad when he’s home;  corduroys, sandals, t-shirt, that sort of thing.  I didn’t have to tell him who I was or why I’d come, he already knew.  Much more than my mother told him.  He already knew.”

“Well, what did he say?  Can he do anything?”

“It wasn’t that kind of an interview, Bea.”

#

The Wilson residence exuded an atmosphere of quiet, unassuming wealth.   Red brick for a first storey, hung tiles for a second, its small sashed windows allowed no glimpse of the home they concealed.  The long façade had about it the fade of sanguinity, the blush of years; the cars parked in its courtyard, a Lanchester and a Bentley, reflected a required perfection that never needed to consider pennies counted, or pounds earned.

All the more surprising, then, when Patrick met its shuffling owner.  Karen, who had met with Wilson, had little prepared him with her description because she had paid scant attention to it, dismissing him as a nervous man of no great age, and under-confident.  The man who opened his front door to Patrick was someone much older than this description, and altogether more self-assured.

“Hallcroft, isn’t it?  Come in, young man.”

There were further surprises to come.  Patrick was shown into a warmly panelled room with old leather-covered furniture and many shelves of books, all professionally bound and uniformly severe.  A pair of green chesterfields dominated the centre of the room, seated upon one of which was as large and overstuffed a man as Patrick had ever seen.

“This is Chief Constable Vincent Carmody, Hallcroft.”  And Wilson added, pointedly,  “Who is, as I’m sure you know, Superintendent of Police in Beaconshire.”  Patrick moved forward to extend his hand, but Carmody neither moved nor spoke.   “Now, why did you want to see me?  Your mother was most insistent.”

Patrick instantly identified the intent to intimidate him but was nonetheless taken aback by it. Was Carmody present by chance or design?  He had to clear his throat before he responded.   “I wanted to see you concerning the disappearance of Karen Eversley.  I believe you met her.”

Wilson raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

“Well, she was working on a case you presented to her.  A missing persons enquiry, into someone called Gasser – I’m sorry – Gavin Woodgate.  Miss Eversley recounted your meeting in some detail, Mr Wilson.  I am sure you remember.”

Wilson and Carmody exchanged glances.  “And if I assure you I don’t remember?”

“Then I would have to ask you why your memory is so selective?”

Carmody’s voice was like the rumble of distant thunder.  “Impudent whelp, aren’t you?  Why are you here, boy?”

“To find Karen,”  Patrick retorted.  “I was hoping to enlist Mr Wilson’s help. but since you are here, sir, to ask why the police under your command seem so uncooperative in securing her return.  They’ve done precisely nothing, and they seem intent upon impeding me!”

Wilson cut back in, allaying or delaying an explosion from Carmody;  “I gave no such instructions, Hallcroft.  If Miss Eversley was asked to pursue an enquiry it was extremely confidential in nature.  It seems that she chose to betray our confidence, doesn’t it, in sharing details with you and with others.”

“If she did it was only to defend herself against heavy-handed tactics from your friend Frank Purton.  Now you’re trying the same heavy-handedness on me – for what reason, I wonder?  Somebody has Karen Eversley, Mr Wilson.  I will find out who.”

“Whilst I am sympathetic to your emotional involvement, young man, I assure you that you are mistaken.  Certain persons – I shan’t say name them – and I are very disappointed in Miss Eversley’s behaviour.  She is not ‘missing’, she has simply gone.  She betrayed our confidence, dropped our case into the mess she had made, then moved away, possibly to the Continent, to escape the repercussions.  She sent a letter to that effect to her parents.  I take it you have read that?  After all, she dropped you too, did she not?”

Carmody’s eruption happened.  “I won’t stand for any more of this!  See here, Hallcroft:  the woman’s made a bolt for it; there’s no better explanation.  Nor is there any evidence to the contrary, so I’m giving you a warning.  My force is facing a lot of challenges at the moment, not least of which is greater intervention from a larger, regional authority.  The last thing we need is a public nuisance and we will have you off the streets if you try to create one.  Is that understood?  Is that final enough for you?”

“Public nuisance?”

“You’re persistently wasting police time, calling the integrity of my officers into question, and harassing innocent citizens.  Your activities have entailed a number of petty crimes, of which threatening behaviour is one.  If my officers hear one more peep out of you, if they get one more complaint, you’ll be up before the Magistrates so fast those clumsy feet of yours will barely touch the ground.  For heaven’s sake show him out, Norman.  I‘m sick of the sight of him!”

#

“Unbelievable!”  Bea shook a troubled head.  “And that was it?”

“Not quite.”  As he – what would you say – showed me out?  Chucked me out? – Wilson said I should ‘think of my career’.  A police record wouldn’t go down well with the local authority; not his exact words, but close enough.”

“It’s not good, yeah?”  Bea murmured, and if Patrick had observed his companion more closely, he would have noticed how close she was to tears.  “Poor Karen.”

“They’re very sure of themselves, aren’t they?”  Patrick said, tight-lipped,  “Very professional.  They recognised me, or my car, when they passed me on Quays Lane and within an hour, probably, they’d cleaned that boathouse out; just like they cleared Karen’s apartment, just like they got to her mother and frightened her off.   And then, finally, last night…”  He broke off, alarming Bea, who could see the colour draining from his face.  For a moment she feared that he, not she, would break down.  But he took a breath, gathered himself, and resumed.

“I dropped into the Council offices because in the end I do have to go back to work, and I needed a little encouragement, I guess.  A few of us went on to The Hunters for a drink or two, then a meal, so it was quite late before I headed home.  I saw the red glow against the sky.  Oh, Bea, you’ve no idea what that’s like, the nagging fear that gets more certain with every turn in the road!    From telling yourself it can’t be, to the inescapable conclusion that it is – then the commotion in the drive, the blue flashing lights.”  Patrick took a deep breath; “Then seeing my Dad broken, his shoulders slumped and his expression, oh God his face!  Everything that inspired love in him was in that barn, his precious cars, tools, even his bloody lawnmower!  All gone.   I’ve never seen a fire that fierce before.  I never want to see its like again.”

“You think?”

“Of course I think!  I was warned, wasn’t I?  Stay away from Karen Eversley; I was warned. Do you know what will always stick in my memory?   There were three fire engines there, and there were three crews doing their bloody damnedest to protect the house (because that could have gone up too), to rescue something from the wreckage.  One police car turned up – one!  A panda car with two coppers in it who spent their time leaning against their car bonnet looking at me and sniggering like frigging school kids!  I doubt if they’ll even bother to file a report!”

Patrick drew himself up.  “Anyway, nobody slept last night.  It was sunrise before they got the fire out.  It’s early days yet, but the fire guys found remains of a device with a timer.  It was placed under the fuel tank Dad kept in there, so they think that started the fire.  Heaven knows when it was planted; yesterday, probably, maybe before.

“Bea, I spoke to my Dad this morning…”

Bea interrupted him,  “You think she’s dead, don’t you?”

“I can’t answer that…”

“You do!  You think this mad bastard took her and used her, and he’s left her in a ditch, somewhere!  And she’ll be cold, and alone, and it could be months, years before they find her, and he gets away with it!  He just huddles up in his spider-hole and waits for the next victim.  This will happen again, Patrick!  Again!”

“I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, Bea.  I’ve kept hoping, I’ve kept believing.  But there’s a family – my family – to consider.  You, too.  I might be putting you in danger just by being with you.”

“I don’t care.  She’s my friend,  she was always my friend.”

“But still; like I said, Dad’s always been the sober voice, you know?  Right from wrong, good from bad, all that?  This morning, though, he was very…I don’t know; humble, I suppose.  I’ve never seen him that way.  In spite of what he believed he stood back when I began this,.  He didn’t – he wouldn’t – hold me back.  This morning he begged me, there’s no other word for it.  He wanted me to admit this thing is too big to fight, and he’s right, it is.  He wanted me to think what might happen if I go on, to Gabby, to Amanda, to mother…”

“So you’re giving up.”

“In my heart, no.  Although to be honest, I’ve nowhere else to go, and no idea where to look, now.  I’ve asked everything of everyone everywhere.”   Patrick sighed.  “I haven’t stopped missing her and her image is as fresh in my head as it ever was.  I wish I knew a way to carry on with the search, Bea, but I don’t.   Not without causing more harm.”

Bea shook her head, her tears undeniable now.  “You are, you’re giving up!  Oh, I don’t blame you, I’d even do the same in your place, probably.  It’s like being so close to the truth and then…I mean, you drew the attention of the Chief Constable, for Pete’s sake!”

“I know,”  Patrick acknowledged miserably.  “I will try to find a way to do more, but not if it means putting someone else in danger.  Half my problem is knowing who to trust.”

“You can trust me, Patrick.  You can trust me.”’

#

There we must leave Patrick for a while, at the end of the most frenetic and tragic few weeks of his life, to try to resume the ordinary components of living, to return to his work, to his family, to his neglected friends.  It does not make a pretty picture for us, but life has so few masterpieces to admire, and no matter how painful it is to leave them, in the end we must pass them by.  Not without regret, however, and not without damage.

Patrick?  He experienced bitter rage at first, angered by the inviolability of the institutions he kicked at, violent at times when the cold draught of authority once more froze the blood in his veins.  All but a few truest friends deserted him; while those whose love he needed stepped back to allow him room to vent his feelings, which he often did, in diatribes against anyone who suggested acceptance.

Only his colleague Jacqui Greenway understood his agony enough to stand by him in these moods and soak up the blows.  It was Jacqui who wept, and not a little, when he announced he could not work for a local authority any more, that he was turning his back on his intended career.  She would miss him, miss working beside him, but that was not the reason for her tears:  it hurt to see someone destroying himself for a love that was no longer real, something that had become instead a vengeful obsession.

Throughout the winter of that year Patrick drank away his evenings at ‘The Huntsman’, always seated if he could at the table he and Karen had made their meeting place, becoming unjustifiably annoyed if it was taken by other customers.  Then, on a night in the icy January of the New Year, he drove home in a fury that had been building over the months.  He drove as a demon might, fast and then faster, with his eyes aflame and a knot of bitter despair in his heart, neither knowing nor caring how his night would end.  His senses re-tuned by drink had forgotten where the corners were on this stricture of a road, yet he somehow timed them all – all but the last.

Patrick’s precious silver Daimler died there in the cold moonlight; and Patrick, thrown clear as it leapt and turned, nearly died too.  Those who traced the string of wreckage to the place where he lay marvelled at the faint breath which still sustained his life – his wretched, unwanted life.  For three days that life hung by a thread, which, had he been conscious and able, Patrick might have finally cut: only coma prevented him.  But fate, in the hands of a team of medics with a mission to heal, somehow brought him back.

It would be easy to tell you that the tale ended there, and in many ways it did.   Yet the mystery of Karen Eversley’s disappearance remained unsolved and long before this story was drawing to its close a new one was beginning, with the curse of the dark man graven deeply in its pages, and there are things, many things, yet to learn.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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