Set on the world Tarkeenia, the story marks the struggle between God and man, magic and indefinable evil.
THE UNSEEN PROMISE
Help me if you can, I’m going mad
She still woke up screaming most nights; fire and the memory of burning flesh a stain in those few minutes of waking. Ellic dying in the flame and the Biscop himself said the words at his hour of judgment. Crimes against the people of Crow’s Nest, he had chanted to the crowd as she gaped at her husband bubbling like a lump of goose fat on a skillet. She still smelled his charred meat on the wind when it whipped through the trees from Crow’s Nest end. She often wondered at being thought the lucky one, with half a face twisted and melted into a mess of ribbon flesh. Oh yes, she understood all too well.
For sixty years, Magdeline roamed what she called the Widow’s Wood, her home, her lonely sanctuary. Here, she reigned as Queen, and through her madness, judge, jury, and executioner. Here, she would do the chanting, not the Biscop. But how was it, that on every man’s lips, she heard his voice? No one ever left the Widow’s Wood.
“You’re going to jump out here.” Wizened and nearly toothless, old Patch gave Roedanth such a look that he shrank back on his wooden seat. The fisherman bumped the small boat against a reedy bank. It snagged itself on a protruding tree root. The croaking of bullfrogs floated on the water’s surface.
“What here? You want me to bail out here and go where?” quaked Roedanth.
Evening had long donned her gown of jet and the Pata Batu, not wishing to be outdone, threw down a sash of rose and blue hues, casting the Known World for a short time on an artist’s palette. Tarkeenia presented a breathtaking soiree, as the twin halves of the moon reflected the sun’s distant light.
“I can’t get out, we’re too close to the Widow’s Wood. Six-Fingered Ned warned me about the woods.” Roedanth shivered now.
“Looky ‘ere, I can’t go any further. If I did, I’d never make it back in time.” The scrawny old man threw his bottom lip out. “Don’t look at me like that, I need to be going. The guards watch me every day on this river at the same time too, and I can’t be caught skipping on that. I won’t take your place in the King’s Cells. No. You’ve got to get out ‘ere.”
Blackness, never ending and final, stared back at him as he peered into the woods.
I’ll die in there.
Roedanth stood, rocking the small boat from side to side and the old man hissed his frustrations.
“I’ll not say it again, clear out else I’ll push you out. You can walk all night wet for all I care.”
He felt stupid and awkward as he climbed from the skiff, clutching at reeds and scrambling about. He wiped his dirty hands on the tunic Ned had given him, swearing first at the Biscop and then the King. It would have been kinder for the fisherman if the man had kept his word and thrown him in. Drowning would have solved all his problems. Touching a finger to his forehead, Roedanth snarled a begrudging thank you and the fishermen pushed his boat away.
Was it because she cried all the time that her eyes were red? Or was it the constant use of magic, which caused her once beautiful blue peepers to stain so? She didn’t know the cause, but the mirror never lied – the reflection staring back showed not the woman she knew so long ago. It was a different one. A Queen looked back, her face a mess of mangled flesh, but what did she care?
Sometimes she used water to scry, and other times the hated fire – but only if she could stand to light one. Tonight, though, she decided to use what the gods had given her. Up a tree, the tallest she could find, Magdeline watched the little boat row back down the river. She hissed her hate, and scratched at the tree’s trunk, leaving wounds so deep that she couldn’t help but feel the bubbling laugh rise to the back of her throat.
Long ago in a spell of madness, the mage had wrenched the fingernails from her hands, heedless of the blood and pain. Fashioning a set of blades with sharp steel tips, Magdeline had used magic, fusing them to her wounded tips. From the top of the highest branch, the mage’s tangled bleach-white hair brushed the coppice floor. This time she couldn’t hold the giggle in and hooted in the joy of exalted freedom; the sound of a hungry owl. It wouldn’t do to frighten off her new guest now, would it?
She gathered her strength and summoned the Calling. It was different for everyone. Things of mist and air were Magdeline’s specialty. Phantoms and voices on the wind a conjured terror. Diving deep, the mage sank lower and lower into the Calling and found, much to her delight, Roedanth’s troubled mind. She sifted through his memories hooting over and over like a black-faced owl. Let the fun begin!
HEART OF SECRETS
There can be no going back
It was strange that she felt at home here, in the killing shades. The dark, surrounded by memories layered with insanity, might have left another screaming, but not Pellimac. She was so far removed from embodying normality; she succumbed to her surrounds with quiet capitulation. The woman, emaciated and coated in layers of grime, patterned with old blood from the scrapes and cuts on her worn out body, rested on her haunches. She watched the single flickering candle flame. Aware that Father and Hi’ayman sat close by, she rocked back-and-forth murmuring.
She repeated this over in her mind. It helped to slow the internal screaming into the barest of whispers, giving her the courage to look up at Hi’ayman. From underneath a filthy veil of hair, shading her exhausted features, she smiled.
The seer shook his head, wondering at the miracle before him. This bag of bones was his mother. Father crooned, running his spidery fingers through a mess of tangled knots, working out the clumps of dirt so it didn’t sit around her shoulders in an unkempt state. This she ignored, for she only had eyes for Hi’ayman.
“Mother,” Hi’ayman whispered. He was mindful of the Specks outside the door, hungry beasts. “Father! It is not safe. I can’t keep out the ravenous mob forever. They’ll rip us to pieces if we don’t do something. We have only just gotten her back and I won’t let her go now.” Desperation bubbled in every word.
But none of it moved Father. What did he care of the others?
Hi’ayman rose from his pallet, extinguished the burning oil lamp, plunging them into darkness. Pellimac shifted her weight and moaned. “Mother, it will be all right. I promise.” He stood silent for a time, looking at her with his sightless gaze and without a word turned to leave, his blindness a comfort in the grey gloom. Shutting the door behind him, the Seer, despite his sightlessness, couldn’t help but pretend to take in the passageway. The corridor appeared empty, but after seeing Pellimac, nothing could surprise him ever again.
He headed towards the outer chamber, a large grotto that served the Nest as a common space. Many huddled here in the daylight hours, waiting in fitful hunger for the rise of the moon. A few stragglers slept. Hanging upside down, bellies bloated, the strips where their eyes pulsated in readiness. The Pata Batu in her glory was rising, and soon the hunt would begin.
He was in luck, the vagrant human had wandered off and Hi’ayman sniffed in satisfaction. Father’s prize had gone unnoticed. He missed Kitty and her cunningness more than ever.
Half in and half out, Noloc swung his short legs back and forth in frustrated anger. “Get me out of here.” Indignation fuelled his shout. The embarrassment at getting stuck in front of these sky dwellers was more than he could bear.
His companion, a stout fellow and wider than Noloc paled as he looked on in stony silence. His friend had no choice but to allow himself to be pushed like a cork from an old bottle of wine, the dwarf popped free. Stowic’s turn came and with conviction he stepped forward.
“I won’t be needin’ ya help, thank ye the same.” His voice rumbled, gravel crunching underfoot. Shai raised an eyebrow and returned his solemn stare with one of her own. He dipped his head and scrambled up the rickety tower. With a deep grunt, the dwarven miner threw himself up and into the shaft. After a few minutes of jiggling and the odd wobble, he joined Noloc and Monlith in the darkness. Shai looped a jar of lumino worms over her neck and followed suit.
She was the last to arrive but not prepared for the confined brawl. She couldn’t believe the two dwarves were engaged in a heated argument, carrying on as if they were errant youngsters. Their guttural voices filled the narrow passageway. Beard pulling and foot stamping lashed the sides of the tunnel. But that wasn’t all. Curses flew like wet mud in a battering storm. Harsh insults, shocking the Benzines with their ferocity. Dark eyes, glittering diamonds in the gloom encouraged raised fists, clenched and ready.
Furious, Monlith grabbed the elbow of the fellow closest to him. Noloc spluttered, red in the face. But it was Shai, who quelled the riot, placing a hand on the swarthy fellow in front. She spoke, “Be the bigger dwarf, Stowic. You needed no help to get through that tiny hole now, did you? Let him be. We have a sister to find.”
Stowic grunted, unclenching his fist as he gave his counterpart a nod. “Fine. I’s ain’t one to hold a grudge.” Adjusting the gear on his body, the fellow readied himself.
Noloc curled his lip, hiding it away in the thick beard. “We’ll talk bout this later in the deep where we can ‘ave our privacy.”
Satisfied, Monlith turned to face the darkness. “He’s been here. Hurry! We’re losing precious time.”
Crawling on hands and knees, the mismatched party edged forward, leaving the sanctity of the Machobe realm. No one uttered a word. Their laborious breathing fell away. Silence a protective bubble in the eerie gloom. Nolac took the lead, a peace offering for the scuff back yonder.
The hunt for Pellimac and Kendrai had begun.
Ro’Breare led his mob of Specks out and into the night air. Under the bruising of the coming evening, he relished the half-caste’s absence. Out here, he rode sovereign over the swarm – Lord of Nightmares. The frenzied feeding would begin soon, fuelled by addiction beneath a veil of stars. He needed to find a means to a desirable end. Smiling, Ro’Breare strutted, confident and cruel.
In the woods, away from the caves, the Specks rushed forward. With the help of Ro’Breare, the small horde of ravenous brutes hunted. Holes lifted high in the air and sniffed. Seeking blood, the monsters clacked in delight. The search was on, soft bodies waiting up ahead, four-legged ones this time.
Loping through the trees, in and out of shadows, they closed the distance between their snapping teeth and dinner. Ignorant of the butchery below, the Pata Batu sailed across the evening sky. Her inky cloak glittered with endless layers of faraway worlds.