Satan’s Rock

Part Two: The Cuckoo and the Nest

When Matthew Ballentine called upon Lady Crowley at the old general’s country estate,she rightly discerned that he had interests beyond the simple business of saving the house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  He would not have acquainted Lady Crowley with them, precisely, upon their first meeting, nor on subsequent occasions; but Elizabeth was a very perceptive woman so there is little doubt that she knew.  In the weeks before his first call upon her, Ballentine had inquired into Lord Crowley’s financial affairs, taking care to learn the devices by which his estate could function in his absence.   He had learned, for example, how attorney rested with a legal partnership who served the Crowley family, and how they had power in an emergency to raise revenue and settle debts:  unable to contact Lord Horace they had only to be persuaded by Lady Crowley that an emergency existed in order for them to take certain measures which he, Ballentine, hoped to play to advantage.  And so it proved.

As winter tightened its grip Crowley’s creditors organised themselves and sought a warrant for his arrest and imprisonment.  Whether they could have succeeded is in doubt, but the threat of scandal was enough.   Ballentine entered into a bond to settle the debts in return for some forgotten acres at the fringe of the Montingshire Estate.

Meanwhile, his influence was spreading through Levenport like a faery ring, with invisible roots reaching out to every wealthy townsperson or merchant in whose interest it would be to see the Great House completed.  Ballentine entered into private contracts with them all: his name was never mentioned but his money underpinned the syndicate which tied the ring together.  As a professed draughtsman, Ballentine busied himself with alterations and amendments to Quimple’s jumbled plans, and although he was often seen at the site, his financial involvement was not questioned.  Work on the Great House resumed  – the road that serviced what little housing adorned the Rock’s lower slopes was extended, by means of a tunnel, to the site, the scaffolds of which crawled with mason-ants as they hewed and crafted the stone walls, perched high above the bay.   Roof –beams that Quimple had planned to hoist from sea-level now slithered like starched worms on dollies across the causeway.   Drovers cursed and horses sweated.  Garden terraces began to form, the Bavarian towers inched upwards.

Peter was sure Elizabeth must have known what was happening.  Although Ballentine took care that she should never see the accounts, she would have reviewed them many times in her imagination;  yet she did nothing to stem a rising financial tide.   She left everything to her new-found draughtsman and manager, whose ‘syndicate’ continued to pay, and pay, and pay.

The veil of mystery surrounding Matthew Ballentine intrigued Lady Crowley;   so much so that she was almost constantly in his company:  sometimes he would call upon her at the Montingshire estate, at other times she would visit Roper’s in the town, to observe the progress of her husband’s amazing house, and to…well, let us say, although the proprieties were always punctiliously observed, it was generally agreed in the town, as well as in the Montingshire mansion’s servants’ hall, that ‘an arrangement’ existed.   This was gossip which suited Ballentine – he did nothing to promote it, but neither did he do anything to deny it.

In the autumn Crowley, a sick and broken man, returned to his Montingshire home.   Work upon the Great House on the Rock was completed in the winter of the year eighteen hundred and twenty six, and whilst it would never be beautiful or acknowledged as a great work of architecture, with Ballentine’s modifications it would at least stand up.  He had come to the work when it was too far advanced to do much about its extravagant towers or bulbous domes, or even the great Moorish Arch over its main doors, but he had curbed their excesses to some extent, to make a house which might not be greeted with outright laughter.

By this time Ballentine had become an established figure in the town, and a personage of some worth.   A member of the Chamber of Trades, he frequented town society, recognised by his affinity to Lady Crowley.   As arrangements began to install the ailing Lord Crowley in his new abode, Matthew Ballentine was at the forefront, organising furnishings, transport for staff, and so on.   He was unflagging too, in his attendance upon Lady Crowley, who now found for herself a new burden in the person of her returned husband.

Lord Horace Crowley was driven into the town quietly one October night to take up residence in his new home.   What he thought of the structure which was meant to be the realisation of a private dream, was never recorded. Quite possibly he was too ill, this pale, gasping shadow of a soldier, to really care:  he was scarcely well enough to travel, barely survived the slow, careful journey from his country estate.   He may only have been concerned with finding a quiet place to end his days.   Borne by a coach and pair, he entered his preposterous gates to be seen no more except by those immediates who attended him.   The town, or such proportion of it that realised he was there, watched with speculative curiosity. 

At some point between October and December of that year a syndicate representative must have presented Lord Crowley with an account of all the money it had spent in affecting completion of the great house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  Precisely how large a sum was involved is not known although it would have been considerable, well beyond the noble Lord’s reduced means to pay.   So it was that ownership of the last of his estates,  Montingshire, passed to the syndicate, then quietly on to Matthew Ballentine with an ease which may have seemed remarkable to some who witnessed it, but no surprise to those few who personally waited on the old man.

Crowley cannot have relished life, or had much interest in its continuance.  Cuckolded quite openly, he spent his last days struggling from one breath to the next, in the fright of a mansion his addled eye had imagined so differently when he first saw his rock, now so many years ago.  His only redress, as he saw it, was to sign away his treacherous wife’s future security:  he would leave no trust or allowance for her in his will (women were not allowed to inherit property as of right in those days), and with this stroke, no roof over her head.  That Ballentine seemed to be at the helm of the syndicate was a final act of treachery which very probably eluded him; he was certainly not intended to find out.   Would it have deceived the faithful manservant Toqus, whose silent wisdom had guided him so soundly down the years?   Ah, but Toqus was not there.  

No-one was watching when Toqus did reappear.  His dark shade must have wafted through the rain of some December evening:  how or when he gained entry to the great house was never known. He did not enter by the gates, for no-one remembered admitting him there – in fact the servants seemed vague in their recollection of the first time they chanced upon him in the corridors, or saw him at his master’s shoulder.   He arrived ‘sometime before Christmas’.   The servants of the Great House remembered Christmas well.

On Christmas Eve night came before its time.  Concerned mariners watched as the barometer glass dropped like a stone: boats crowded the town’s harbour, those merchants with premises along the seafront boarded up their windows and doors.    The first howling blast of wind fired from the sea like a cannon-shot, exploding against bluff stone walls and thrashing at window shutters as it tore a path through deserted streets.   Great grey ocean rollers in stately procession made their slow march into the bay where they fixed bayonets to charge, white-plumed, upon the sea-wall.   Quoins groaned, dogs howled, the gale grew to a hideous shriek. This, just the advance force, lashed spume across the foreshore, sent spray to the very roof of Roper’s Hotel. Then the main army advanced: walls of water in dress line, breaking disdainfully over the top of the harbour to crash and to crush the feeble wooden hulls inside.   They breached the sea-wall as though it were made of sticks, led forays well inshore to the heart of the town. By eight o’clock that night Levenport was in the grip of a hurricane.

In the black eye of this malevolent  invasion, the Great House was an unearthly thing of cries and groans – tiles flying from the yet-unbedded roof let in cataracts of rain to slough down newly-decorated walls; and wind-demons which, once inside, ricocheted from room to room, guttering candles, shattering window-glass, screeching their need to be free.   Papers flew, furniture was overset, doors blew in:   the mighty main gates themselves, left carelessly secured, broke free from their hinges to crash drunkenly against their gatehouse wall.  The newly planted gardens were stripped and levelled – bedding plants, bushes, infant trees all whisked away like chaff. So many of the household staff had been already sent home for Christmas (Toqus had insisted upon this) that no-one remained to secure that which had loosed, or resurrect that which had fallen.   Far below, the causeway to the mainland  was long gone, only remnants occasionally revealed by the trough of a wave.   The storm blew until morning, when it ceased as suddenly as it had begun. In the leaden dawn, sleepless townspeople surveyed the damage.

No sound or sign of life came from the Great House.  A long gallery which rested on abutments embedded in the face of the rock, had disintegrated and fallen to the sea.  Once-flamboyant Turkish arches from its façade were strewn in pieces along the sea-shore; entangled with much of the planting from the gardens of the house, and flotsam from boats for which the harbour had been no protection at all.   Of the three domes atop the gatehouse, only one survived.  One sat perilously askew on the brink of destruction, the third had completely disappeared.   The causeway was breached in seven places.

When at last servants managed to return to the house, they  discovered Crowley’s rigored body at the door of his bedchamber.   Terrified, the frail old man had apparently left his bath chair and taken to his feet to find safety.   The effort or the terror that induced had proved too much for a heart which, but for the intervention of Toqus, should have stopped a year before.

Crowley was buried with a simple ceremony.  His body was laid to rest in a family vault on the Montingshire estate. He died without knowing he would lie beneath land he had wife’s lover while she, far from being dispossessed as he would have wished, visited his memorial regularly that winter and on into the following spring, before her morning ride through the grounds.   Often that same ride would take Elizabeth to those distant acres of estate that had compensated Ballentine when he agreed to settle the debts remaining from Quimple’s days.  She might pause to watch for a while as the navvies worked:  soon there would be a main railway line  through the cutting they dug.

Peter realised his arm, draped over the railing, had gone numb.   He shifted it and the movement disturbed the seagull, still perched at his side. 

So what did happen to Crowley’s manservant?

Crowley’s body had actually been discovered by a maidservant, one of only five staff who spent the night of the storm on St. Benedict’s Rock.   This woman later attested that the body was locked by rigor, suggesting that Crowley had died many hours before, and that he clutched in his left hand a large gold medallion with a chain which was snapped in half – a medallion and chain familiar as that worn by Toqus.   Never thinking of the implications of what she saw, the maidservant first ran to find Toqus, because the African had always been closest to the old man. He was not to be found. By the time she had sought out othersCrowley’s body had been left unattended for perhaps an hour, maybe more:  by which time the noble Lord’s dead fingers had been broken open, and the medallion and chain had gone.

For some reason this piece of evidence was never put to any test.  The maidservant herself did not claim the memory until some weeks after Crowley’s funeral, and then only in the confidence of the servants’ hall.   The undertaker either did not notice, or did not set any store by, the fractured hand, but rumours persisted for many years, until, herself in her final decline, the maidservant swore that she had cowered before the sweat-covered and bloody form of Toqus towering over her in that bedroom, on that terrible morning.

Toqus was never seen again.   So did the servant give a true account?  Was the African giant there?

“I don’t know;” said Peter conversationally to the seagull:   “But I bet wherever he was, Matthew Ballentine wasn’t far away.”

“Really?”   The seagull appeared to consider this for a moment:  “What makes you say that, dear boy?”

“It was all too convenient.   Ballentine’s scheme wouldn’t have allowed him to claim the estate directly while the old man was alive – too obvious.  And if the syndicate charade had been allowed to continue with a sitting tenant like Crowley, they might have wanted to evict him, and then who knows what problems might have come up?”

The seagull fixed him with one beady eye.   “You’ll be saying next that Ballentine arranged for the storm.”

“No.   Toqus might have done that.”

Peter suddenly realised he was speaking aloud:  a large woman in a blue coat gave him a bemused look as she passed on the end of a dog. Talking to a seagull!  What next?    He glanced in the bird’s direction, thinking that they had been together, he leaning, the gull perching, on that railing for some while.   And it had not occurred to him that this was odd behaviour for such a creature, until now, when in his glance he took in a peculiar diamond-shaped mark on its feathered white neck – probably just some irregularity in its natural colouring, yet quite distinctive – and realised that they had been side-by-side there for nearly half-an-hour.   The bird seemed to recognise this, too.    With a lazy flap it wheeled out over the bay:  it was gone.

© 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: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Storm: Dimitri Vetsikas from Pixabay

Continuum – The Final Episode: The Valley of Carr-Villoise

Alanee has survived her mortal combat with Hasuga’s former ‘Mother’ and found the key to the wooden chamber’s secret door, by which she and Sala escape the City before its final collapse.  The pair discover a boat moored on the River Balna and entrust the current to take them clear of danger.

Although Sala strives to help her, Alaneee succumbs to her wounds.  With her whole world destroyed, Sala opts to end her own life and seeks an ending in the deepest part of the river.

Now read on:

  It is the Hour of Spirits; a time for ghosts to rise, a time of angels.  It is first morning, and Alanee is there.  In her hands the xuss, wheaten bread of the Hakaan, the wide plain she loves so well.  Upon the road before her, the long dirt lane that leads down the hillside from the village that is her home, between hedges grown high with wildsweet and the white weed, old Kaasa’s horse labours.  Steam rising from its sweating flanks, breath in bellows-blasts from deep capacious lungs it pulls a richly-laden cart – fresh fish from Hikarthay, flour from Baldar Mill.  An aged engine and its aged engineer; who more aged could there be, who more redolent of forever?  Across the swathe of mists a red dawn is breaking, and it is morning in Balkinvel.  Alanee, xuss clasped in her hand, in the summer of the land she loves.

Where was she when the darkness came?  When did the flame, the tiny spark she had nurtured so carefully into fire, gutter and die?  And by whose refulgence does she see, now that her own sweet light of memory has gone?

Deeper dreams, explanations:  ‘I am here.  I am always with you’.

Stirring.  A sweet touch that must be Sala’s touch, for in life there is no touch sweeter – then another.  Unwilling eyes, unready eyes – open, they can see nothing more lovely or more perfect than the dream – sleep is all these eyes, this body craves.  Rest is all this heart can ask.

But the touch is insistent: it comes to her and leaves her at once, like a drift of breeze, or a sweetness of honey on her tongue. It calls her.  She might turn away, but something, some kernel of heat within the white ash of her psyche asks it of her.

Open – wake – and so, as one who has returned from a great journey; as one who has seen the far distance and knows it for itself, she does.

Those eyes that meet her eyes are gentle.  They speak to her of safety; they invite her in.  It is not important, at first, that they are not human eyes, or even those of beasts she may recognise.  They are there, and there is a world behind them.

She who looks down upon her, she is not Sala, or even close to Sala.  She is not human, in a way Alanee knows.  A creature, though: a beast – no, she will not call it so – a being.  A being she saw in a picture once, with golden hair that cascades about its body in a flaxen mist: a being that smiles to see her eyelids flicker open, a being whose excited chatter is so close to speech she feels she might almost understand it, if only that speech was slower, closer to her need for understanding.  She smiles in return, and the being cries for joy.

In the subdued light (she is within the shelter of some large hut, or house) there is food; fresh fruit, some fish, some green-stuff, and there is rest again.  Darkness and light, sadness and happiness.  A host of little faces greet her, a gallery of those strange, near-human smiles, mellifluous sounds, all glad that she has wakened, happy she is with them.  In the cradle of their care she sleeps.  And come the morning, wakes once more.

As some of her strength returns, Alanee tries to raise herself and look around her.  The wounds to her leg and arm have been stitched with a fine, green thread and she is laid upon a bed of fresh hay-grass which has been somehow contained within a coarsely-woven sack resembling a mattress.  The same hempen substance covers her.  It is both comfortable and sweet-smelling, though a light dust tickles her nose.  A roof of reeds, supported by a central pole, rises maybe twelve feet to its peak above her head, and extends to a circular red mud wall.  Apart from her bed the only furniture, set against this wall, is a rather curious-looking jar upon a wooden stand.  The only opening, which serves both as entrance and window, has a rush hurdle propped beside it to act as a door.  Bright sun beams in onto a clay floor and outside there are sounds which, were they human in origin, would be like those of children playing.  She can see little against that strong, glaring light.

Three of the golden people (yes, she may call them that) stand watching.  Erect bodies sheathed in long, silken hair.  She extends a hand and one, she whose eyes first met her own on waking, accepts it.  Alanee wonders at her dark skin, the ribbed nails, hardened  knuckles, yet in its way her grip is sensual, warm and comforting.  There is such a sweetness, such an open frankness in her wild smile, such a soft music in her chuckling pleasure that Alanee is instantly compelled to love her.

One of the onlookers comes forward bearing water in a hewn wooden bowl, offering it nervously.  Alanee is glad to drink.  Expectancy!  She feels its twang upon the air.

A shadow falls across the floor.  A dark being stands framed within the doorway.   “We thought we had lost you.”

That deep voice!  That is the voice!  Unsure if she can speak, and fearful lest she be wrong she hesitates to say the name; but she hopes; she hopes so, so much!

“Dag?”

“None other.  You remember me, then?”

Remember!  Just to hear his voice as it resonated time upon time within her dreams, though she hardly knows him, has scarcely really seen his face, is all she could want.  Oh, Dag!  He walks towards her, as tall as she remembers, and the golden creature respectfully withdraws.

“Of course I remember you!”  Alanee can hardly restrain herself, tears welling into her eyes, and weak though she is laughter plays about her lips as she waits for him to turn to the light, for a glimpse of the face she once kissed in gratitude.  “Let me look at you!”

He sits beside her on the edge of her bed and she sees at once how well his image matches the one that has found space in her heart.  Those eyes so fathomless and dark, the tiny creases as he smiles – a wide smile across his long, slightly haggard face;  featured with sufficient flint to make a man.  ‘Yes’ Alanee’s inner voice murmurs:  ‘you are all I remember you to be.’

“Who designs your clothes?”  She asks aloud, finding an excuse to give vent to a laugh that is proving irrepressible.  He is dressed in an ill-tailored smock which looks to be made of wool.  It is coloured, very patchily, by some sort of red vegetable dye that has not quite taken.

Dag grimaces.  “In all honesty I rigged this up last night out of two of the curtains the Miroveti use for insulation.  They aren’t particularly strong on clothes around here.  They don’t see much sense in them.  I’ll have to do better now you’re around, though.  I’m boiling in this thing!”

“So normally you don’t wear anything?”

“Don’t look so worried!  They cleaned and kept your clothes for you, and we’ll rig up a loom, or something.”

“Dag, who are they, these creatures?”

“I’m glad you said ‘who’ and not ‘what’.  I wish I knew.   I asked the one I call Pasc – he brought me here – and the nearest we both understood was Miroveti.  It will do, anyway.  They’re even less strong on names than they are on clothes.”

A ripple of tiredness washes over Alanee:  her newly regained strength is ebbing.  She sinks back on the bed.  “Sala.”  She says:  “Is Sala here?”

Dag asks:  “Who is Sala?”

Sleep saves her.

When Alanee re-awakens the sun has travelled another course, and she feels renewed.  Despite anxious solicitations from her kindly nurse she rises and discovers the tabard dress she was wearing when she left The City neatly folded beside her bed.  It is clean and crisp:  it feels cool against her skin.

Supported at first on one silky arm, then taking some steps on her own, she ventures unsteadily out into sunlight, only to be nearly knocked from her feet by a milling throng of Miroveti children.  They gather about her legs,  pushing and jostling and clamouring for attention so insistently she surrenders; sitting down in their midst to laughingly submit as curious fingers touch her hair and her face.  Dag discovers her here, twenty minutes later, with a fascinated young Miroveti on her lap toying with her lips, ears and curls.

“You’ve been unconscious for four days,” he tells her later, as they wander down towards a wooden jetty at the river edge.  He has swapped his vast, heavy blanket for a more reasonable loin-cloth of animal hide. “You were alone in the boat when they found you.  I’m sorry.”

There is the boat, lashed at last to a calmer mooring.  Though Alanee explores it carefully, she finds no evidence of her friend.

“She must have thought I was dead; struck out on her own.”

“With the ‘dead’ part I can empathise; I thought you were myself until the Miroveti fed you with some of their amazing herbs.  They are marvellous physicians, there’s nothing they don’t know about natural medicine.  Now here you are, just five days later, walking around as if nothing has happened.”

“Not quite.”  Although the wounds are healing, they still hurt her.  The muscle in her leg tightens with each step, forcing her to walk with a limp.

He covers her hand with his own.  “There was a robe, a very fine courtier’s robe, though it was the worse for wear:  part had been torn off to make a bandage the Miroveti found on your leg wound; the rest of it was in the bottom of the boat.  We thought it was yours.  Maybe it wasn’t.”

She forces herself to breathe calmly.  Sala would have had to remove her robe if she were to swim ashore, she tells herself.  Sala was strong, so much stronger than she.

“What did happen, Alanee?”  Dag asks.

She perches on the edge of the jetty, dangling her feet in the water.  He sits beside her, and the river moves past them with stately invincibility, brown and wide.  The opposite bank is a forest that extends to higher ground, and which in turn becomes foothills to mountains beyond – a forest a-flutter with wild creatures revealed in brilliant flashes of plumage, dark leaves, ruffled gently by a warm wind.  Behind them the Miroveti village pulsates to its own rhythm of life: laughter and wailing of children, cackling of old ones, mewing and clucking excitement of females, mature grunting males.  A collection of huts of mud and straw built by half-human hands in a clearing in the woods.

Alanee tells Dag of the fate of the Consensual City; of her adventures there, and how she owes her life to her friend.  It is not a short tale, for Dag, like Sala, knew nothing of Hasuga or his power. 

When she is done, he says gravely:  “That explains a lot of things; and poses questions for a great many more.  Alanee, you drifted down this river, but it is not the Balna.  You were discovered up-river no more than a mile away, and further up there are falls: great waterfalls where the river drops a hundred feet or more.  You can’t have come that way.”

The library of her mind contains all the history she needs, so she tells him of all she found while idling in the sanctuary of death.

“This is Carr-Villoise’s valley.”

Dag looks blankly at her, so she goes on. “Carr-Villoise saved this small patch from the final conflict.  With Karkus he protected and fed the last mutant humans here while they developed Hasuga.”

She relates the story Lady Ellar had only begun to learn, left alone with that Book of Lore: how once, long ago, doomed mutants genetically engineered an almost ageless child, a biological computer whose brain could encompass all the knowledge they hoped he would need to eventually rebuild their species.  “So his body could survive they gave him this valley.”

Dag looks puzzled.  “Like a garden?”

“I believe so.  When Hasuga ate his real food came from here. This, the village, the river, the forest, this is all real.”  Alanee rests her chin on her hands, looking at the reflections on the water.  “And he was real.  Everything else…”

Alanee pauses for a while, watching carp, bass and eels darting among the reeds.

“Hasuga constructed a virtual world of his own.  He was lonely.  He wanted a mother so he created one.  Then, through the emanations of that great brain he made a palace to live in, a virtual city and a civilisation around it.

“The city, the outer lands and the people who lived in them, even those who ‘cared’ for him, he made by the power of his mind, structured over time into something so complex and substantial it might just as well have been real.  Oh, there were limits:  he could only sustain so many people or players within it– he played out little games of war, thought up plagues, all sorts of natural disasters, simply to control numbers.

“But computers, even organic ones, finally wear out.  So his purpose was always to recreate flesh – to re-establish a natural cycle of birth and death; people like the unsullied predecessors of those who created him.  There were a lot of failed experiments, like the children in the city:  I thought they were so vacuous and characterless, and now I see they were merely failures, unsatisfactory clones.  But there were successes too.”

“The Miroveti?”

“I guess so.  Simple creatures he created to be his gardeners who became his chemists.”  She smiles reflectively, “Far from simple!”

“Anyway, his final task was to regenerate humans.  His starting point for that was a slightly aberrant player from amongst his population and I was it.”  She spreads her hands demonstratively; “Far away from The City, see?  His message wasn’t so strong, out there in the Hakaan.  Oh, Habbach, was the Hakaan even real?”

  “Were you even real?”   Dag grins.  “You look pretty three-dimensional to me!  What you’re saying is, he was shaping you to be first of his new species inside the virtual world of The City?  So you can’t be real?”

“Let me explain.  He had to brief me first, make sure I was completely ready, that I had enough power, enough knowledge. Once he was certain of that his mission was complete.  All that was left for him was to shut down. He had to do that so I could get free.”

“Shut down – what, everything?”

“By gradual stages, yes.  We saw it as impending disaster – the Continuum.  It was Hasuga throwing switches:  he’s a very orderly and organised sort of being.  He had to prime himself to be sure there wasn’t a total failure before he was prepared.”

“So how do you become flesh and blood through all this?  When does it happen?”

Alanee speaks slowly and gently soothes his hand with her own.  “Dag, it already has.”

“Oh, for sure?  And how do either of us know the difference?”

“A secret that was kept by The Ancients.  The final key to my transition, if you like.  Hasuga didn’t understand it, It was incorporated it in the switch he was programmed to use to shut himself down.  A book that told of a magic made long, long ago. We had to hold it in our hands to make a final link: I was to die.”

Dag pales,  “But you didn’t…”

“Yes, I did.   Hasuga’s ‘Mother’ made the process more straightforward, actually;  I was dead when your wonderful Miroveti found me.” 

“|They brought you back from the dead?”

“So it seems.  They recovered my tiny piece of Hasuga’s program, if you like.  He modified me so I could survive without him.  I had to be shut down and restarted; and that made me real.”

For a long time Dag says nothing, staring deep into the water before he will ask the question he would almost prefer to leave unanswered;  “What about me?  I haven’t ‘shut down’, have I?  Are you saying that to be like you, I had to die, too?”

 She remembers the compress of leaves, the morning of her pain.  Her words are carefully chosen.  “I know you did.”

He stares at her:  “My healing – was that you?”

Alanee does not answer.  She has said enough.

Leaving Dag alone to reflect, she walks back up the slope from the river.  She will not tell him, yet, what their work together must be, though it might be that he knows; perhaps she senses the resentment he will feel, and can see how carefully she has to tread if ever he is to love her.

For herself Alanee will never lack comfort, never have to act alone.  In her mortal lifetime Hasuga will always be close at hand, though in no form she can touch.  He has left the burden of his imprisoned form behind, substituted flesh for a less substantial presence.  Yet he speaks to her still.

She has only a small part in the first chapter of the book she brought Hasuga on that fateful morning; a book that begins with a story of a garden.  And when she is gone, the book will help him with all that comes after.

“One thing, Hasuga – one thing I do not understand.”

In a day to come when she is alone, perched upon a rock above the valley, watching Dag and their children playing in the meadow below, she will ask the question, speaking aloud as she often does when she speaks with Hasuga:

“If the fatal flaw in the human race was, as the book tells us, begun at the very first; how different are we?  One man and one woman – we cannot begin a perfect race, can we?  Isn’t this just the same mistake, all over again?”

And he will reply, inside her head.  ‘Is perfection what you truly seek?’

Alanee may ponder this for a while, seeing how one of her two boy children always harasses and bullies the other, even in play.  Something in her mind must give an affirmative answer, for Hasuga responds to her.

‘There is more for you to know.  Have faith in me.’

Alanee’s answer is not, as she may suppose, so far away:  for hers is not the only home upon the banks of this river.  There is another.  It is kept by a woman deeply in love with a man who found her and pulled her from the water’s clutch, a handful of years ago.  While Alanee rests, this woman sows corn in a little plot she has created, her Mansuvene hands once so soft now hardened by labour, but with a happy heart, because despite misgivings she has always harboured, she is joyfully certain now that she is with child.

This afternoon she will break her news to her man, when he returns from his expedition along the shore of the river, and though she chided him for his false hopes, some part of her has faith too.  Maybe he has found the others he says he is sure are there.

After all, he is a man of  perception, and her trust in Commander Zess’s judgement is absolute.

The End

© 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 Twenty-Nine: Time to Choose.

In the previous episode:

Acting upon Hasuga’s demand that she remove a book from the City’s Inner Library, Alanee takes the elevator deep into the rock below the city, where she finds the sanctuary of the Book of Lore guarded by Karkus, aged progenitor of  The City itself.   In stealing the book she is discovered by the leacherous Portis, who tries to compromise her in the privacy of the elevator in return for his silence.  She tricks him by summoning Ellar to call the elevator,and escapes, leaving Portis to explain himself to the Mediant.   Now read on…

Alanee knew she had only a few minutes lead on events.  While she put as much distance as she could between herself and the elevator, Portis would, with difficulty, be persuading the Ellar the Mediant of his innocence and of hers, Alanee’s, culpability – he may not succeed on either count, but Ellar, meticulous as she was, would want to cover herself very quickly, so swift pursuit with the object of investigating any possible theft was inevitable.

Later, were she given time, Lady Ellar might review these events and wonder.  Why had Alanee’s summoner message, tapped out blindly:  “Help call lib elev”, reached her rather than any other member of the Council?

  She might wish that it had not.  She will not know that Alanee’s inexpert fingers hit her call-button purely by chance, because beneath the folds of the robe that seconds later she would shed she could neither see what she wrote, or to whom she addressed it.  It was only essential that someone should call the elevator, bring it up to the high corridor.

The Book?  Ellar never saw the book.  It was beneath Alanee’s robe when she recovered it, concealed from sight as she clasped it to her, running away through the scattering of nobles who frequented the corridor at that time.

Later, Ellar might discover these things.  Just as she might investigate Portis’s frantic claim, made while he sought to cover himself:

“It is a device Lady!  She has stolen a book!   Detain her, for Habbach’s sake!”

She might believe him.  Anyone witnessing this scene in the corridor might, if Portis’s habits were not well known, if his tastes were not public knowledge and if the physical evidence were not so compelling.  It is a balance of probabilities, as all things are, and it weighs in Alanee’s favour for just long enough.

Alanee bursts into Cassix’s chambers, where Sala awaits her. Saucer-eyed, Sala takes in her friend’s undressed state.  “Je-Habba!  What happened to you?”

“Sire Portis got a little too fresh for his own good.  I’m all right, ba, don’t worry, or I will be as soon as I get some sensible clothes.”  She senses Sala’s nervousness,  “But you’re upset, aren’t you?  Is there something the matter?”

In the bedroom, Alanee throws her robe and the book upon the bed, quickly slipping into a Hakaani-style tabard she had commissioned from the dressmaker.  She shudders:  “I wish I had time for a bath, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this soiled.”

Sala stands in the doorway.  “What’s that?”  Her eyes have rested upon the book.

“I’ve no time to explain right now.  I’ve a head start on the guards, I think: no more than that.”

Sala’s stares at the little locked volume: her eyes follow it as Alanee picks it up and slips it into her clutch bag.  Alanee reads her thoughts.  The friends both pause in shared significance.

“Is that from the…?”

“From the Inner Library?”  Alanee is tying the thongs which secure the sides of the tabard;  “Yes, it is.”

Sala’s summoner is blaring:  she stabs at it, holds it up to the light.  “It is the Lady Ellar.”

“Don’t answer it!”

“Alanee, she’s my patron!”  Sala protests; “But it doesn’t need an answer, darling.  It’s an order.”  She displays the read-out for Alanee to see.  The message says:   “KEEP HER THERE.  You stole that book, didn’t you?  Alanee, they kill you for that!”

The pair exchange looks.  Alanee says:  “So, now.  Your patron or your friend?  Time to choose, ba.” 

Sala nods solemnly.  “That’s a choice I’ve already made.  I won’t keep you, but have you seen the mirrors?” Alanee is making for the door, intent upon completing her mission by placing the book in Hasuga’s hands; “Take a minute to look at this first.  Please, ba?”

She urges Alanee around the mysterious and, to her, a doorless wooden edifice, guiding her into the leather chair before the trio of mirrors.  They are alive with reflections; reflections of carrion birds circling, people racing blindly as deer before a forest fire; dying people with terror, mortal terror in their faces, muscles taut as steel hawsers, drooling mouths and bulging, sightless eyes.  There are thousands, the running and the dying, thrown into stark relief by flashes of brilliance from a furious sky.

‘Have you seen?’  Hasuga is in Alanee’s head again.  ‘Do you understand?’  Alanee does.  Now, before these images, she understands it all.  ‘Bring me the Book.  I must have it in my hand, Alanee.’

Fighting her fear, she tells Sala.  “The book must be returned to whom it belongs.  I have to take it to him.  If you believe in me you must wait for me here, ba.  Do you see?  I will return.”

Sala calls after her:  “This.  All this.”  She waves towards the mirrors.  “It isn’t real, is it?  It’s just necromancy, witchery.”

Alanee smiles kindly.  “Is that what you want to believe, ba?   No, the mirrors speak truly.  That is the Continuum, and our time has run out  Be patient now, I won’t be gone for long.”

“The guards will come.  Ellar will come!”

“Tell them you tried to detain me, but I fought you off.  Stay here if you can, darling.”

Since her arrival, Alanee has not had opportunity to explore the links from her high station to the lower city, and she knows of just one route to the Palace.  By winding her way through back alleys, past drinking halls and night club areas that are sweeping up from the business of the night before, she hopes to evade any troop of guards Ellar or Portis may send in her pursuit.  She loses herself twice before a chance diversion delivers her onto the forecourt of the great palace building.   Taking a deep breath and concealing the book as best she can, she steps into the open.  Although she may feel a hundred eyes boring into her back, she is safer than she expects.  In the event most of the city’s elite are about their daily tasks and word of her little drama with Portis has not yet reached this level.  Any remarks she overhears refer to her status.

“I believe that is Lady Alanee, our new Seer!”

“So young!  So young!”

“Exquisite!  Quite exquisite!”

When she steps into the Great Hall of the Palace, however, the atmosphere is quite different.  Here the hustle and bustle of the day is in full swing and seemingly more frenetic than its usual pace.  She is recognised here too.  A few greet her, some ignore her, all look curiously at her disrespectful form of dress.  When she reaches the private elevator that rises to Hasuga’s high rooms, this becomes an issue.  A royal drab steps across her path.

“Lady?  What business have you here?”

“I’m appointed to meet with Sire Hasuga.  You know who I am?”

“You are the Seer, Lady.  But your clothes are inappropriate to the inner sanctum.”

“The matter is urgent.  I had no time to change.”

“Nevertheless…”

“Step aside, man.  Lady Alanee has Sire Hasuga’s full authority.”  She identifies that voice immediately, spins around in some confusion.

“Celeris?  But how…?”

His smile is as placidly beautiful as ever.  “Lady, I am always at your service, surely you know that?  You must forgive our over-zealous friend here:  the place is in turmoil.  There is a rumour that Sire Portis is under arrest, and Sire Trebec is to be brought to trial for genocide.  The High Council is in utter disarray.  It is what you might describe as a ‘bad morning’ really.”

He steps closer, so she can inhale the sweet scent of his breath, whispers to her.  “You see?  Even a hologram has its uses.  Actually, my dearest memory, this is the last time we shall meet.  Be well, Alanee.”

The elevator doors are open behind her.  Before she has time to protest or give tongue to her anger, (or would it be love?) Celeris walks away, vanishes in the hubbub of the crowd, leaving behind him an emptiness of parting.

As the doors close and the pod of the elevator raises her to Hasuga’s royal apartments she tries to confront the riddle of Celeris.  Who, or what, was he?   Substantial enough, this she knows:  no ghost, no apparition.  Then what – a part of her that she might summon in times of hopelessness or hope?  How could a life be brought to existence purely by her need, then cease until next she needed it?  How could space be created in time for such a materialisation, and what would be left each time it departed?  The process of deduction begun before the mirrors is developing and each new revelation is another shock, another open mineshaft into darkness.

He is where he always sits, upon his bed.  The room is empty.  The serpentine machine is gone, the screens are still and lifeless.

“You have the book.”  It is not a question.

Alanee takes the book from her bag, offering it to him, arm outstretched.

“No, not yet.”  Puzzled, she steps back.  How pale he looks, how thin and drawn!  The mighty complex of his brain that always seemed to pulsate with inspiration is unillumined now, as if some part of him has already left his body.

“I thought you wanted it, you said you could open it, read what’s inside.  Now you don’t?”

“I know what is inside.  As do you.  You read it when you took it in your hands, and yes, you must give it to me, but not before you know its name.”

“It doesn’t have a name – not on the spine, not on the cover – look!”  She proffers the volume, and almost at once she wishes she could retract her words, for there is a name – embossed in gold letters, where before there was nothing.  In some wonder, she reads the title aloud.

“The Holy Bible.”

Hasuga says simply:  “We are done here.”

“You make no sense to me. This makes no sense, none of it.  There is some plan, some scheme.  If I am a part of it, shouldn’t I be told?”

“Alanee my dear one, I have said to you not once but many times that I am learning.  All the knowledge I have gained is in your head too, though you may not countenance it yet.  I do not know what will happen to you next, only that if you are given the opportunity, you will also learn.”

Hasuga rises to his feet and steps closer to her, so she may see his eyes, and the conviction within them, as never before.  “It is all there in your mind – all the history, all the reality.  As you need it and if you need it you will find what you seek, dredge it out.  Think of your mind as a great library filled with books , all of which you could not possibly find time to read.

“So, what now?”  His smile is suddenly so reminiscent of Celeris.  “Well, that is the next great discovery.  When my hand closes around that book, a circle is completed.  Then we shall both discover the truth.”

Hasuga extends a thin left hand, clasps her free hand within it.  “We shall not see each other again.  Go now.”

And with his other hand, he takes the book from her grasp.

The heavens scream.

Long ago, when Alanee was very young, the earth shook itself as a dog does when it clambers from the water.  Her mother pronounced it a ‘tremor’ and dismissed it, but to Alanee it was a fearful episode; a profusion of falling plates, rocking furniture, cracking plaster from the walls.  She remembers it.  So the feeling of the palace in motion beneath her feet is familiar, and were it not for the time and place, she might dismiss it as her mother did.  But there is a greater wrongness within it that speaks to her, something that demands she run.

“Quickly, Sire!  We must get away!”

Hasuga only smiles:  he smiles, then, like Celeris in her chambers, like Saleen before Ripero’s outstretched hands, he is gone.  The room is gone.  The apartments, the entire palace is fragmenting, with no cry, with no thunder of masonry or spike of flame – without any blinding fog of dust:  just a distant whine of something coming;   something absolute …..

Filled with horror, Alanee turns towards the door:  but there is no door, there is no wall.  For a fraction of a second the great hall of the palace is in its place (how is she here, rather than three storeys above?) but then that, too, disappears:  Toccata’s tsakal house materialises with Toccata standing within it, his face a white mask of despair.  His expensive hangings are falling in a whirlwind, yet he still reaches out to her, mouth moving in a soundless greeting.  In turn the ante-room to the council chamber, then the palace courtyard fly about her head – images of places she knows, faces she remembers, shuffling like cards in a deck.

Somehow she is running, she knows that, though her feet do not seem to move; passing through the courtyard, the Grand Park, the malls, her old apartment, all with the desperate desire to find her way back:  back to Sala.  The one thing, the one person vital to her.  She must rescue Sala.

Is it her?  Is she in some kind of dream?  Only that unremitting sound, growing steadily, seems real.  The City has lost its order, its structure:  it is coming to pieces.  Nevertheless somehow she is finding her way.  Something in her psyche guides her, makes sense of the moving maze in such fashion that she finds direction when all direction has been lost.  A thread within her follows a thread through the mayhem and that should be sufficient – would be – were it not for Mother.

Mother, cheated by her beloved child and screeching out her loss in a paroxysm of fury:  Mother with hyena-teeth bared and long knife aloft comes whirling from the mists of confusion with one thing only in her contorted mind; to take the life from the one who took Hasuga from her – Alanee’s life.

Before she can defend herself Alanee is thrown to the moving ground with time to no more than twist away from the first strike – the second she cannot avoid.  It plunges deep, it strikes like an rod of fire into her thigh and instantly her blood starts pulsing through the wound.  This is death!  She takes the third strike on her arm, catching the raw blade enough to turn it on itself.  With a strength born of mortal peril she thrusts the demented woman from her, grabs the hand that has the weapon in its grip.

Now a real struggle begins.  Mother has the knife, would thrust it into Alanee’s heart, but Alanee holds her by the wrist and is forcing it back.  Mother is finding her feet, trying to rise.  Alanee feeling her strength flowing freely from the gash in her leg has too little time.  It must be now!  The woman’s hand is pushing this way, her balance is swaying that.  Going with her movement, going against her poise, one thrust.  The knife goes where the knife chooses, and it chooses Mother’s throat.  The woman who devoted her life to care of the Hasuga child ends it by her own hand, by Alanee’s guidance.  Her windpipe severed and emitting bubbles of blood, Mother sinks to the floor, thrashes there for a second or two before dying.

Alanee’s rising vomit would choke her.  With no time for ceremony, she snatches Mother’s robe, using the bloodied knife to rend a strip from it.  She binds her leg tightly, so tightly she has to suppress a cry of pain.  Aghast at the pool of her own life that has already formed upon the switchback floor, she limps forward:  still hoping, still searching.  She promised she would not be long.  She promised she would return for Sala.  Her leg is ruptured, the muscle in her arm is slashed, disabled by the same knife; but she must find Sala.

The task is insuperable, random scenes passing before her so fast she can achieve no sense of direction.  In neither light nor darkness, she does not know where she is going, she cannot find anything constant to cling to.  The noise which pursues her is incessant now, an animal, an all-devouring thing.  People are scattering everywhere:  Ellar flits by, Trebec, the Domo.  And all the while her strength ebbs.

Utterly despondent, she ceases to try.  The hopelessness of her state, the certainty she will die before she ever reaches her friend overcomes her.  Whatever is happening to the city will consume her too.  There is no redemption, no answer.  There, amidst a rolling barrel of destruction Alanee drops to her knees and submits to fate.

Behind her the Continuum roars louder, a focussed beast sensing prey.

© 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.

Image credit: Kristen from Pixabay