Tuesday, 14 March 2017
In the sitting room of their home in leafy Tonbridge Wells, Gail and Tim Wright embraced.
“You played your part well, Galia.”
“You also, my love, but Galia and Timon must be put back in the box where they belong and the lid firmly shut, as well you know.”
He laughed, “I defy anyone to put you in a box of any kind, my love.”
Gail Wright chuckled, “You haven’t made bad job of it si far.”
Tim Wright shrugged, grinning from ear to ear, “I am a Holy Seer, always up for Mission Impossible.” The young-old face assumed a more serious expression, "The children…?”
“Are safe, as well you know. They will be back, plaguing us day in and day out before we know it.” They, too, have done well,” she added with a deep sigh of maternal satisfaction.
“All your children have done well. You will want to return and get to know those you thought lost, your grandchildren too. “
“I will,” she said simply.
“If you had known they lived…?”
“Would I have run away with you like a love-sick teenager? I don’t know. I would have loved you no less, but…”
He shrugged again, “What is done is done. I, for one, have no regrets.”
“Nor I, especially given how things were at the time. As it is, I can at least return now and then…”
“Whereas I may never return,” he murmured thoughtfully.
“Even so, you did a pretty good job of contacting Peter when he needed you most.”
“I did, didn’t I?” His expression lightened. “It would seem that even a disgraced Holy Seer is permitted to make some reparation for letting his carnal desires get the better of him.”
“Of me also,” she pointed out, and they laughed together companionably although anyone within earshot might have been forgiven for detecting a hard edge to the sound.
“Bethan…” he began.
“Has made her choice although I have to say it is not one I would have made for her. What kind of life will she have in the mountains? No life at all…”
“Ah, then are things you do not know!”
Bethan has chosen to make her life with Calum. I dare say they will bear you more grandchildren in due course.”
“But, she cannot. She dare not. She is a Keeper. Look what happened when there was no Keeper to guard the tomb. Ragund…”
“…has been taken care of and can work no further mischief. Keeper or no, Bethan has a mind of her own. I’d have though you of all people would admire her for that.”
“Is Etta behind this? It would be so typical of her to dissuade the girl from her duty out of some misplaced deference to Calum’s…
“If you like, yes, and you may smile but this is no laughing matter, Tim. Bethan puts all Mamelon at risk just when everything has come right.”
“Her father seems to think otherwise.”
“What does Gabriel know? He sees a lovelorn daughter and wants to see her happy at any cost, that’s all.”
“Isn’t that what we all want for our children, happiness?”
“Yes, of course, but not at any cost.”
“You could well be right, as you so often are, my love. But I, for one, trust Merlin’s judgement in this matter in spite of his personal involvement.”
“Did you really not guess?” He allowed her a longer pause before replying than he could have hoped for, she being as quick to judge at times as she could be slow to consider the implications of that judgement although he never doubted her integrity.
Gail sighed, “In my heart, perhaps, yes, with hindsight, although my head refused to believe it. Even so, Bethan…”
“…is Merlin’s daughter, and she has made her choice with his blessing. We can only assume, with Ri’s blessing also.”
“We must hope that Ragund is well and truly out of the picture then. We both know only too well that Ri’s blessing is Xu’s curse. If Ragund continues to have access to the Xaruki, anything may yet happen.”
“Be sure, Ragund is a victim of his own ambitions. He is no longer capable of working dark magic... or any magic for that matter. In the unlikely event circumstances should ever change, we will cross that bridge if and when we come to it.”
Unless it proves to be a bridge too far, mused Gail-Galia uneasily. Before she could voice her fears, however, a door burst open. Mick and Peter made their presence noisily known. “Did you enjoy your time in the woods?” she asked innocently, sharing a knowing smile with Tim.
“Is supper nearly ready? I’m starving!” Pete neatly side-stepped the question without consciously meaning to although it was true, he was famished.
“Nearly,” Gail laughed, keenly aware that her older son was oddly quiet. Their eyes met.
In something behind his mother’s lighthearted expression, Mick sensed a certain unease. He could not put his finger on it, but it reflected his own disquiet with frightening intensity. I am imagining it, surely? The moment quickly passed, however, as both boys pretended filial indifference to their mother’s subsequent hugs.
Tim-Timon looked on, smiling, debating inwardly whether or not perhaps he should have been honest with his wife about that devil Ragund’s no longer posing any threat…
Meanwhile, far below the bowels of the Purple Mountains, below even the rocky floor of the Sea of Marmela, on a freak platform within a Black Hole in Time, a lone Xaruki sat cross-legged waiting for The Call.
The Xaruki looked to neither right nor left as a kikiri approached and squatted in its direct line of vision. Instantly, the Xaruki experienced a great inner disturbance.
The kikiri, in turn, experienced a sense of rapport with the Xaruki, vague and inarticulate but sufficient to suppose that, from it, some form of communication may yet be established. …
For now, the kikiri that had once been Ragund, the Dark Mage, was content to bide its time until the Xaruki fully awoke to its presence and a process of reciprocal manipulation could begin towards a mutually acceptable end.
Although necessarily drained of its senses and all flesh ripped away, the kikiri was unique among its kind. As such, it was not (quite) beyond all feeling, and what remained of that screamed revenge with a deafening silence; it penetrated the Xaruki’s husk, stirring a long forgotten knowledge of The Dark to an, oh, so-faint, and, oh, so-distant, yet, oh, so promising reawakening….
[Note: Book Three of the Mamelon saga is in the planning stages under the (working) title of ‘Merlin’s Daughter’.]
In Gar, from a bay window in a chamber of the Great Library where its archives were kept, Calum observed the celebrations below with mixed feelings. It was only fitting that there should be music and dancing and much revelry to mark the Mamelon’s return to life and light after so long a absence. Yet, for him, it marked a new beginning about which he nursed many doubts. Soon, he would ride with an entourage to Lunis, City of Moons to be sworn in as Ruler for all the lifetimes afforded him by the grace of Ri.
Can I do this? Do I even want it? He sighed. Whatever happened to choice? The sound of someone coughing nervously startled him although it was a welcome diversion from thoughts he much preferred not to entertain. He turned to find himself face to face with the one called Galia whom he had since been told was the same who had birthed him. Birthed and abandoned…
“You know who I am,” she said quietly.
“I am your mother.”
“So I understand.”
“Do you? I wonder just how much you understand or ever will.”
“Have you come to enlighten me?”
Galia shook her head. “Time is not on our side. Soon I must return to the Motherworld although…”
“Although…?” he felt compelled to prompt her even though he wished her gone.
“I was born here. Mamelon is a part of who I am. In the Motherworld, my memory of it, of you, will fade, but never completely. I could even return now and then if you wish it. We could get to know each other, your sister Nadya also. She crossed to the window and together they took in the joyful scene below.
“I have heard that my sister lives.” he told her tonelessly.
“You have seen Etta.”
“I have seen Etta,” he acknowledged, “the only mother I have ever known and whom I love and respect dearly,” he added with less rancor than he was feeling.
“You know she is my mother, your grandmother?”
“I do now, yes.”
“I would have come before…”
“Then why didn’t you?” He rounded on her, now with rage, now with anguish, now faintly conceding both.
“Just as there have been forces at work during your lifetime, so there were in mine. Dark forces, working against us…” she protested
“Forcing you to abandon your children, abandon Mamelon for the sake of a Holy Seer? Were they so great these dark forces that you could only find sanctuary in his bed?”
“I understand your anger…”
“No, you understand nothing!” he yelled, but forced himself to take deep breaths as Etta had taught him, impetuous child and quick to anger as he had been. “Etta has been and is a good mother to me. She has always been there for me when I’ve had need of her. Where were you? You…you are a stranger for whom I feel nothing. I’m sorry if you expect more of me, but I am as I am and that is how it is. Perhaps Nadya will feel differently and you will have more success with her than with me. Where is she now, anyway?”
“She has made a life for herself and her family on Ti-Gray, Isle of the Dead”
“No place to make a life, surely?”
“The dead mean them no harm. On the contrary, they have afforded greater protection than they will ever know.”
“Family, you say?”
“She lives there with her husband, Kris, a plain woodcutter but a good man”
“Why the ‘but’? There is no shame in plainness.”
“I only meant…”
“That he is not of noble birth? A fall in grace, indeed, for one of the bloodline,” he put to her ungraciously.
Galia took no offence. On the contrary, she could not help but smile inwardly on reflecting how her son’s cynicism was so typical of his father. “They had two children, Heron and Arissa, both of whom you have some knowledge, I believe, although Arissa…”
“She is kikiri, I know,” he said with genuine sorrow in his voice that touched her deeply.
“No longer kikiri. She has been redeemed and returned to her mother.”
“Alive…?” Galia shook her head.
“Huh! So much for redemption…!
Oh, but how your father would have so agreed with you, Galia would have liked to say, but said nothing. Instead, she proceeded to observe Heron and Irina whose dancing was of that intimate kind enjoyed by those who only had eyes for each other. “They are good together.”
“Your nephew, yes, and my grandson whom also I would so love get to know if he will permit it.”
In spite of himself, Calum could feel his mouth twitching in the semblance of a smile. “Yes, they look good together. I wish them well.” He frowned, envious for thinking of Bethan.
“The life of a Ruler can be a lonely one,” Galia murmured, “It is not good to be alone.” His heavy silence told her all she needed to know. “We all need someone, to help us stay strong as well as providing comfort and reassurance.”
“I believe it is called love,” he commented drily.
“I believe it is,” she agreed
He turned from observing Heron and Arissa to look Galia squarely in the eye. “You need to get to know your family here in Mamelon, as do I. I would have liked to know my half-brothers better, but I dare say you will expect them to return to the Motherworld . Unfortunately, journeying between the two is not for everyone...” He shrugged. “…although that is just as well perhaps. But you are welcome to return as often as you can spare the time and, yes, we can get to know each other. But do not assume you will like what you find, and never expect me to love you as I do Etta.”
Galia inclined her head and tossed him a radiant smile that quite took him a-back. “You are so much like your father. That is just the kind of bargain he would have sought to strike.”
“We have a bargain then?”
“We do. I have just one favour to ask and you are, of course, well within your rights to refuse.”
Galia hesitated a fraction before taking a deep breath, “I would so like to embrace you.”
It was Calum’s turn to hesitate. His mother was a stranger, yet not the stranger he would have expected. I know you from somewhere, and it is not from either womb or some distant childhood memory. So where…and why do I have this sense that you love me, have always loved me…? He shrugged. “You may embrace me, but I should warn you not to expect some form of instant bonding simply because we are mother and son.
Galia closed her eyes and let herself feel young again, young and happy, walking with Michal and their children, not simply as Ruler and consort but bathing in lively chatter and laughter as parents as well as lovers, seizing a moment that would stay with them for all time.
Calum, too, closed his eyes although he had not intended to any more than he had intended to tighten his hold on this soft, gentle, stranger who was no stranger at all and with whom, albeit reluctantly, he found himself bonding with an intensity his alter ego welcomed.
They broke apart albeit with a tenderness that surprised them both.
“Say and think what you will, Calum, but bloodline is bloodline and family is family. Like it or not, we are a part of each other.”
“If you say so,” he retorted, contriving a chill in his voice he was far from feeling.
“You felt it, too, didn’t you? I know you did.”
“You are mistaken. I felt nothing,” he lied.
Galia made no attempt to brush away a tear that cut him to the quick as he watched it truckle down one flushed cheek. “Thank you for seeing me, my son. Be sure, we will meet again.” Mistaking his silence for rejection, she turned away and left the room.
Such beauty, he reflected, such grace and dignity, too, and, yes, there is much love there. How can I ever expect to be worthy of all that? He looked down again at the revels below and continued to observe Irina and Heron for some time. Little wonder he had bonded with Heron, since it would appear they were first cousins. At the same time, he had to acknowledge yet again that it was something more than affection he felt towards the young couple. Oh, how I envy you?
He heard a sound, and froze, guessed it was Galia returning to make a fresh appeal to his filial instincts. He closed his eyes. Can I, should I resist her a second time? Do I even want to? Opening them again, he turned, undecided.
Only, it was not his mother who stood there, a ray of light from the gilt decorated dome overhead lending her the appearance of a tree nymph of whom he had only ever seen pictured in archives for they were long believed to have been swallowed up by the mists of time.
“Bethan…! Is it really you?
“Yes, Calum, it is really me.”
“I am not dreaming?”
“You are not dreaming.”
“But how, why…I thought…” He fumbled clumsily for words where words were not nearly enough to express his joy. Come, Calum, get a grip. You will soon be taking a Ruler’s sacred oath. This is no time to revert to some inarticulate Nu-gen. “Why have you come?, he demanded, struggling in vain to put hope aside. “Is not a Keeper’s place among the Purple Mountains, guarding the Tomb of the Creator?”
“It no longer needs a guard. I begin to doubt if it ever did. Whatever, the Keepers are history and I am more concerned with the present.”
“And the future?” he suggested hesitantly.
“And the future,” she agreed with a self-assurance that, in turn, encouraged the same in himself.
“So why are you here?” he repeated,
“All Mamelon celebrates, why shouldn’t I…? She came to the window and stood beside him. Both looked down at the happy scene, each waiting for the other to speak. It was she who broke the fragile silence. “Look,” she pointed, “there’s Michal. Who is he dancing with?”
“Some elf I do not know. Nu-gen rarely have any contact with the elves of Gar.”
“He certainly dances better here than back home.” She laughed. “Someone must have put a spell on him.”
“Never jest about magic,” he told her sharply. “So…”, he added before she could respond, “You still think of the Motherworld as home?”
“It was just a figure of speech,” she said apologetically.
“And love, is that, too, but a figure of speech?”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing, ignore me. I am a Ruler now and Rulers are not permitted the same feelings as others.” He glanced again at Michal. “You came to us with him. It is only natural and right that you should wish to return with him. He is, after all, your… how do you say it in the Motherworld…boyfriend?”
“Is that what you really think, that it is natural and right I should return with him? Where is the Nu-gen who said he loved me?” she demanded hotly “…or was that just a figure of speech,” she added with uncharacteristic sarcasm.
“Mulac is no more. He is the past.”
“Your past, perhaps, but not mine, never mine, never…! Mulac is my past, my present, and I had thought my future too. More fool me for believing you!”
“Mulac is the past,” he repeated, as nonplussed by her mood as by her tears, “I am not…”
“You are the same person, Calum. Only your name has changed. Oh, yes, and your status. Such an elevation from Nu-gen to Ruler, I’ll say!” she flung at him, mischievously mimicking Ricci.
“The life of a Ruler will not be an easy one nor any easier for his consort,” he muttered, unsure what to say, “She has to share him with the rest of Mamelon.”
“Perhaps,” she agreed in a lighter, teasing tone, “but less hard, surely, for two than one? Besides, the rest of Mamelon is welcome to its Ruler. All I ask to have an incorrigible, insufferable Nu-gen called Mulac all to myself sometimes. But if that is too much to ask…” she half turned away.
“No!” Calum could scarcely believe his ears. “I mean, yes. I mean…I don’t know,” he spread his hands helplessly. “Everything has changed. I cannot see clearly. I have lost sight of who I really am …” and so need to find that out…“As for the Nu-gen, Mulac, I have no idea how much, if anything at all, remains of him.”
“In that case, don’t you think you had better find out before you get yourself into a real mess?”
He shrugged. “I am open to suggestions.”
“Well, for example, what would Mulac do if he were here now?”
“I…” he began to protest. A mischievous twinkle in her eyes infuriated him all the more. How dare she mock me! Without thinking, he caught her in his arms and kissed her, roughly at first, and then with a passion she returned fully, measure for measure. He finally released her without pushing her away, continuing to hold her close. “Does that answer your question?” he murmured into her hair.
“I rather think it does, yes. And you, do you have any clearer an idea now of who you are and what you want?”
“I rather think I do, yes. I am Calum, Ruler, except when I am with you and will only ever answer to Mulac…”
They kissed again.
Weary of trying to dance away his troubles, Mick-Michal left the pretty elf girl to partner another and wandered off into the forest. He came to the Fire Tree without even realising he had been heading towards it.
The tree was a glorious sight to behold, a fountain of leaves coloured red and gold that reminded him of …home. A single aryd began to sing and it seemed to Mick as if it were a skylark singing, and among its sweet music his ears seemed to home in on the familiar notes of the Okay Song. I’m homesick, he thought for the first time since finding himself in Mamelon, but how can I go home, ever? There will be so many questions, and I have no answers. Heaven only knows what has happened to Pete, and how do I explain Beth’s absence? Who is going to believe me?
“Cheer up, young man, the world is saved, not lost, and you have done well in playing your part.” A voice behind him caught him unawares and made him jump.
He turned. “Who are you?”
“I am Bethany’s father, come to tell you that you need have no worries about explaining her absence to anyone, least of all to me. Suffice to say, she has made the right decision. She is with Mulac or Calum, whatever. I always think names are so cumbersome,, hung around the neck like millstones, supposedly telling everyone who we are without even coming close. Don’t you agree?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Mick muttered, resenting the newcomer’s intrusion into his thoughts.
“Well, each to his own, talking of which, I dare say you’ll want to be off home, yes?”
“How can I go home?” Mick yelled, “I’ve lost my kid brother. He just…vanished, and now I haven’t the faintest idea where to start looking for him.”
“Oh, is that all? Why don’t you try calling his name? I know I’m contradicting myself, but even names serve a useful purpose sometimes.”
“Are you quite mad? I call out and he comes running, right?”
“That’s the idea, yes. Nothing ventured, and all that…. It’s helpful if you close your eyes and picture the person you’re calling. That way, you make a connection, you see. Come on, humour me. What have you got to lose?”
My sanity, thought Mick, this is stupid. Even so, he closed his eyes, let his inner vision home in on an image of Pete typically dipping into a biscuit tin just before lunch, and shouted at the top of his voice, “Pete! Pete, where are you?” He began to feel dizzy and fell to the ground although not heavily, a cushioned landing rather than a bumpy one.
“Mick, hey, Mick, are you okay?”
Someone shook him. Mick started. I know that voice! Opening his eyes he found himself gazing into familiar if concerned looking features. “Pete, is that you?”
“Of course it’s me, you twit. Who else would it be?”
Mick sat up and looked about, struggling to reconcile with familiar surroundings. “We’re back in Tonbridge Wells.”
“You are, yes. Me, I haven’t been anywhere. You sound like you’ve been with the fairies. Are you sure you’re okay and haven’t bumped your head?”
Mick got unsteadily to his feet. “What happened…?”
“You…Oh, I dunno. You must have fainted or something, I forget. Whatever, we need to be getting home. Mum will kill us if we’re late for dinner.”
“Where’s Beth?” Mick looked around, dazedly, only half expecting to see her.
“How should I know? We haven’t seen Beth for a while, remember? She wandered off to look for blackberries. I dare say she’ll find her own way home if she hasn’t already.”
“No, that can’t be right. Oh, well, if you say so. Yes, I must have knocked my head when I fell and it’s addled my memory.
I’ll say, Ricci chuckled before the Time Gate faded and he lost sight of them.
“Did you say something?”
“No,” said Pete with a grin, “Hearing voices now, eh? Sounds like you’re a lost cause.”
“I’ll show you a lost cause. Race you home, loser?
“Loser, me…? No chance! You’re on…”
Thursday, 9 March 2017
All elves were as familiar with the symmetry of the Fire Tree as with veins on the back of a hand. From birth to death, it was a leading symbol of light and spiritual existence beyond any lifetimes Ri intended for them. Excruciatingly intense, therefore, had been the initial despair and confusion among elves when the Fire Tree, along with all other vegetation, ceased to thrive as light slowly faded and even what was seen as a Tree of Life that never shed it leaves began to display signs of decay.
While it had to be a sign of ill omen, such was the nature of elves that they tried to put its implications aside and get on with their lives. Even so, it had cast a long shadow for more lifetimes than some younger elves had ever known. Elven elders struggled to reassure and invoke the virtues of resilience, stoicism, and a positive take on all aspects of life, even in the face of such open contradiction, but most had been well aware for the greater part of their own lifetimes that they were probably fighting a losing battle.
Elves believed that when the sequence of lifetimes granted them at Ri’s pleasure came to an end, their spirits would pass into the Fire Tree and become as a leaf on the tree that never shed its leaves, free to observe and participate if only passively in the lives of their kin; to see its branches bare, hear no spirits talking among themselves or observe tree creatures at play like children cut them to the quick.
Pers stood before the Fire Tree as he had done a thousand times before and asked of Ri as he always had…Why? As always, there was no answer, but as he gazed into a patch of coppery sky through a window of silent branches, his heart missed a beat as he spotted something tiny and green. Can it be a bud, a leaf? What is happening? As he continued to observe, awe-struck, he experienced a growing affinity with the tree to an extent he had never entered into before. Astor had been evasive as to the nature of his, Pers’, task, except to suggest that the survival of all Mamelon - and beyond - depended on his actions. But what must I do? Pers had insisted several times, to which the druid would only shrug and say that was between elf and tree. It made no sense. Well, it had made a sense of sorts, but one which Pers’ conscious mind was unable to articulate. Offer yourself to the tree, and be as one with it, Astor had said more than once, and you will find what you will find, as will we all.
How does one offer oneself to a tree? Per had asked and asked of himself yet again. All Astor would say, with as much obtuseness and evasiveness as ever, was to get in touch with your instincts and follow them. That was all very well, but…how, and follow them where?
Pers sighed. He had lost all track of time, but his entire body felt as if it had endured more lifetimes than even the most favoured of elves could hope for, and it’s not as if I have even been made to feel favoured in any way, shape or form, the reverse in fact, he brooded with uncharacteristic self-pity. This was a chance to prove himself, Astor had told him, but…how? Without realizing it, he addressed the tree directly, and was shocked to hear it reply. A tree cannot speak…
Never underestimate a tree just as we trees never underestimate elves, the voice in his head persisted with a firmness that brooked no further interruption.
Pers was more than a little surprised to discover that he was not in the least afraid, quite the opposite in fact as he sensed more, far more than either familiarity or close affinity with the tree, but a kind of flowering into something else altogether. Yes, flowering, that was the word he wanted; it was as if he was not simply observing green shoots on the branches but entering into their very spirit of celebration for a return after so long an absence. No, not that even… He struggled to comprehend. It’s as if I AM that spirit of celebration. But that is absurd. How could that be, unless… He recalled Astor’s words about becoming one with the tree. Instinctively, he took a few tentative steps towards it. The tree welcomed his approach and instilled him not only with self-confidence but a sense of self-esteem the like he had never known before. It had always been Irina that shone, while he was content to live in the shadow of the sister he adored. It had cut him to the quick so to feel estranged from her while under Arissa’s spell.
Pers quickened his step, anxious to embrace the tree as he might an old friend. Yet, it was as if Arissa’s name, springing to mind as it had out of a distant consciousness, created a barrier between the tree and himself. While he yearned with increasing intensity to grasp the outstretched branches, his feet refused to move.
Come, said the tree, be all you have ever wished to be and more, much more, a legend among elves of whom all Mamelon will speak with reverence and give thanks, too, for all time.
Pers willed himself to put one foot in front of the other, but he could not. He sensed dark forces holding him back just as the Spirit of the Fire Tree urged him forwards. What is happening? I can scarcely draw breath. I feel as though I am caught in a tug of war…!
He began to feel faint while struggling to remain conscious, suspecting for no reason other than a rapid heartbeat that seemed to be beating out the same message over and over… Stay awake, elf, or all is lost. Stay awake, elf, stay awake or…
Meanwhile, in Lunis, City of Moons, the Dark Mage, Ragund, raged at being thwarted so, finally understanding that the red haired Motherworld boy was but a distraction. No, more than that, a tool for enemy forces with which the elf might yet prove his, Ragund’s nemesis. But I am wasting time, and time is everything. He struggled to breathe as the elf, continued to drag him to the brink of defeat. “To the brink, it is then?” he yelled in the manner of a war cry, “ So be it, but no further. You will obey me, elf. Obey, ME, no one else! Damn the One to eternal fire who seeks to interfere and prevent the greatest victory dark magic has ever known. Oh, help me, great Xu, and succeed here where you failed before. Send the servant of Ri who has set himself against us scurrying back to the Black Hole from whence, uninvited, he has ventured forth. Back, back, I say, where scum such as he belongs!”
“Your humble vessel, Ragund, calls upon you on his knees, great Xu, to fill me with your spirit so together we may overcome that devil, Ri, who dares present himself as a god over you and all the worlds in the galaxy that are rightfully yours. Redeem yourself, great Xu, and bring all the force of the Xaruki into play on my behalf, the better so to serve you, for to serve you, great Xu, is all I ask…”
Meanwhile, in Nul-y-Gray, Isle of the Dead, Gabriel drove himself to the limits of his skills in magic and manipulation of sheer willpower, calling upon Ri even as he heard Ragund calling passionately upon Xu in the swirling mist where his subconscious seemed to be spinning like a humming top, frantically, a separate entity entirely from that with which mind, body and spirit could expect to be reconciled. Suddenly, he felt it, a mere stirring at first, and then slowly but surely gathering momentum until like a massive tidal surge, it swamped everything in its path, drowning out all sense of Other presence. The top ceased to hum, ceased even to turn, letting rip with a single, piercing shriek before being sucked into some inarticulate vortex.
Gabriel fell, exhausted, to the ground.
“You have done well, mage,” murmured Etta and Galia simultaneously although it was Nadya who knelt beside the inert form and felt for a heartbeat while the others entertained thoughts of their own. Nadya looked up and said quietly, “And so have you all done well. Know that I sensed your coming to his aid and would have done myself had I been even half as well versed in what was required as the two of you. I do not understand what has happened, but I sense it is a force for good and all Mamelon will commemorate this moment for lifetimes to come.”
“Your senses serve you well,” responded Etta with a wry smile.
“Will he live?” Galia asked anxiously, feeling guilty that her main concern should be returning to the Motherworld with her children, and for that, she knew full well, she needed Gabriel alive. Neither her own powers nor those of elves, druids or an erstwhile Holy Seer would be enough, just as they, alone, had never been enough to transport them to Mamelon in the first place. Fool, Galia, that you let emotions cloud your vision.
“He lives,” said Nadya looking down again just when, as if on cue, Gabriel opened his eyes. “So too, I suspect, does Mamelon.” She glanced from Etta to Galia and felt reassured by a perceptible glow of triumph in their faces. “How do you f…” She turned back to Gabriel, at the same time bracing herself for hazarding at least an educated guess at interpreting the grizzled features, but she got to further.
Of Gabriel there was no sign.
Mind, body and spirit pulled first this way and then the other, Pers soon became convinced he was literally about to collapse in pieces…If I do not burst first for I cannot breathe. The air will neither enter nor leave my body. Mind and spirit are ready to fly away into some poetic horizon although… he felt compelled to retract… there can be no poetry in annihilation, surely? So what gibberish am I thinking…?
Come, urged the tree with increasing passion if a shade less compassionate and a note of sternness creeping into the lilting voice. I sense desperation, but desperation for mine or its own survival? The elf found himself entertaining the strangest thoughts if more astutely than he realized.
Suddenly, it was as if a cloud of spores burst free from its source and proceeded to drift with speed, not into some bleak space, heading nowhere, but directly towards the Fire Tree; its branches spread infinitely wider to receive it, folding inwards again the instant it had taken to its heart the reconciled mind, body, and spirit that had once been Pers, only son of La-Ri and Ka-Ri, true child of Gar, of as pure eleven stock as any, destined for greater things even than the poetry of imagination.
For some time after the glucks and their riders had faded from view, Bethan and Fred kept a companionable quiet on the bleak purple mountaintop. Bethan shivered for the increasing cold, but did not complain although envying the Foss his furry coat.
It was Fred who broke the silence. “We should leave, I think,” he ventured, hating to see his companion’s sense of loss and abandonment even though it had been her choice to remain.
“I had no choice,” she told him as if reading the little fellow’s thoughts, “I am a Keeper, my place is here as it has always been.”
“Not for a long time,” he reminded her gently.
Bethan shrugged. “I know my duty,” she insisted.
“Duty, huh…!” Fred retorted, “Duty is much overrated if you ask me.”
“It is a privilege,” she responded instantly, “A privilege…, she repeated.
It struck her companion that this Bethan, Keeper did not so much mean what she said as was saying it to convince herself rather than… What is it, he wondered, that she cannot or will not accept? What is she so afraid of…herself perhaps? “We must go,” it was his turn to insist, “…before you freeze to death. Come…” he took her hand in his, paw “I will take you to where you will be safe, warm, and comfortable. No one knows the mountains like Foss,” he added reassuringly.
“I must guard the tomb,” she murmured, more to herself than to the little Foss.
“That is just a manner of speaking,” Fred told her, “No one expects you to literally guard the tomb. A Keeper’s presence on the mountain has always been enough.”
“Enough for what, fo whom?” she asked, genuinely intrigued, “Look what happened when there was no Keeper. Now Mamelon has hope. Would you have me throw that away by following my heart instead of my head?”
“Ah!” exclaimed the Foss, “So your heart, at least, entertains more than duty.” It was not a question.
Bethan made no reply but turned to face the way they had come, “I am ready. Let’s go. I am very grateful for as well as glad of your company, Fred,” she added with a smile so sad that it only served to convey her misery. “I will miss you,”
“I am going somewhere?”
“Your home, your people, you must be longing to return to them?”
Fred shrugged, “I am in no rush, and will not leave you until or unless it becomes necessary for whatever reason.”
“You have no duty to me, Fred. I appreciate your concern, but…”
“Duty has nothing to do with it. I want to stay with you. You need someone. It is not in your nature to be alone. We Foss, we may seek and enjoy companionship or we may prefer our own company. Now, that is choice…”
“Well spoken, Foss,” said a voice behind them that all but startled them out of their skins. Both turned uneasily.
“Daddy…! Is it really you?” Bethan gasped. So great was her incredulity that she did not even wonder why Fred barely reacted.
Father and daughter embraced. For the first time in ages Bethan, Keeper resumed the persona of Bethany Martin from leafy Tonbridge Wells.
“But, Dad, how, why…? What on earth are you doing here? How did you know where to find me? How did you get here? I don’t understand…”
“Never mind me, child, what about you? What are you doing here when we both know, as our Foss friend here also knows, that you long to be elsewhere?”
“I am a Keeper. I belong here. It is duty that brought me here and duty that would have me stay.”
“And how do you feel about that? Do you want to stay on some cold, inhospitable mountain for the rest of whatever lifetimes may be left to you? The truth now, child, for nothing less will do. If this notion of duty, laudable as it is, did not compel you to stay, would you not rather be somewhere else even with someone else,” he added with a wicked twinkle in the searching gaze. He glanced conspiratorially at Fred. “No offence, Foss, we owe you much, my daughter and I, and we are grateful, but I suspect we all know where her heart lies.”
Fred nodded, too awe-struck to say a word.
For her own part, Beth was content to snuggle against her father’s chest, relieved to relinquish a tenuous hold on past, present and future. Daddy, please help me, her inner self cried. Even as it did so, she wondered why it was not begging to go home. And where is home? Oh, but I am so, so tired. For now, she would block everything else out and savour the moment by remaining exactly where and as she was without, just for once, having to keep battling self-doubt and feeling increasingly guilty for a growing sense of losing a war.
Gabriel gently pushed her away and looked her in the eye. “You must choose, daughter, and choose now, “Forget all you have been told about duty. Sometimes we need to put ourselves first. True, many would dispute that of lovers, but lovers also have the right to make choices. So…choose.
“About a certain Nu-gen that once was and who now fears confronting his destiny without the love of his life at his side? Oh, yes, I know. I know also about love for I loved your mother dearly.”
“I cannot choose. I have no right…” She turned appealingly to Fred, “Tell him Fred, tell him I do not have a choice, that this is Mamelon and I am a Keeper and cannot, must not, will not put my duty before anything or anyone else. “Tell him…” she wept.
“Tell him what? All that he knows already? I think not. As for choices, how many times must I repeat myself? We all have them, you as much if not perhaps more than anyone.”
“Why, because I am a Motherworlder?” she retorted through tears, “I thought you knew me better than that.”
“A Motherworlder, yes, but you must know that it is not to a Motherworlder I speak now but to Merlin’s daughter.”
“Merlin…?” she gasped, met the full-on twinkle in her father’s eyes and instinctively knew that it was true.
The mage inclined his head, “It is one among many names I have been called in as many lifetimes,” he agreed.
“And my mother…?
“Ah, Freya, light of my life, heart of my darkness. I loved her well, your mother, and love her still. It is from her I would guess the druid in you would have you mistake duty for a ball and chain. Mamelon has no need of a Keeper now. Ri has once again triumphed over Xu. Ragund and his consort are less than the dust beneath our feet, trodden into the ground by their own dark ambitions. As for you, daughter, you are as free to choose as anyone what course you will follow.
‘Gluck, Gluck…!’ All three looked up as Iggy emerged from murk and mist to make a perfect landing.
Bethan made her choice.
Saturday, 4 March 2017
Pete opened his eyes. What happened? Where am I? Then he remembered. “Dad…?” he said aloud.
“I’m here, son,” Tim Wright had no trouble accessing the boy’s mind in his persona as Timon, erstwhile Holy Seer of Mamelon.
Reassured by his father’s voice, albeit in his head, Pete naturally wanted to know what on earth was happening to him.
In leafy Tonbridge Wells, Tim-Timon pondered the question a while before answering. He could hardly tell his son the truth, that he was being used as bait to distract Ragund while Gabriel persuaded Pers to play his part. “Do you trust me, Peter?”
“Yes, Dad, of course I do.”
“Then listen carefully. You don’t have to do anything, just relax and leave everything to me. There are forces at work that mean harm to the elves of Gar and all Mamelon. It is up to us, me and you, to see they fail. Lie, down, relax and empty your mind of all things but The Okay Song. Run it through several times in your head and you will soon start to feel sleepy. It may well be you will experience nightmares, a sense of being tugged first one way and then another. Fear not, for I will keep you safe. Should you feel an urge to go with one pull or the other, you must sing The Okay Song, aloud if necessary. I will help you. I will be with you every step of the way and lend you what support I can. Am I making any sense?”
“Not really,” responded Pete with customary forthrightness, “But I get the general idea. Someone’s out to get me and it’s down to us to make damn sure they don’t, right?”
“Right…” Tim smiled inwardly. It was so typical of his youngest son to hit the proverbial nail on its head without resorting to circumlocution or ‘waffle’ as Pete would have it. “So are you up for it?”
“Do I have a choice?” Tim hesitated. “Look,” Pete continued with a cheeky grin, it’s okay day, Dad, really. I get it. Whatever needs to be done is important and any risks… Well, I’m game if you are. I sort of miss home, but I’ve sort of got to like it here too. It’s weird, really weird, but the people here, they are a sort of extended family if you know what I mean…”
Yet again, Tim marvelled at his son’s uncanny perception of what had to be a mind blowing situation for anyone, let alone someone his age. “I know exactly what you mean, son, and in a way, you’re right. I lived among these people once. Like you, I want to save them if I can.”
““But what if we can’t? Save them, I mean…What happens then? To them, to us, to me…?”
Tim swallowed hard. He had dreaded the question. “I don’t know, but that is for me to worry about and you to put out of your head. Whatever happens, I guarantee your safe return home, yours and Michael’s.”
“What about Beth?”
“Beth, too,” he lied. He had no way of knowing for sure, but he suspected Bethany Martin would not be living next door again in any near or distant future. “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be, and don’t you worry, Dad, if ever anyone was a match for Ragund, it’s you. I assume that’s who we’re up against?”
Not so much who as what, reflected Tim grimly. “Spot on,” he agreed, “Now, just relax and run over The Okay Song in your head until you fall asleep, and keep reminding yourself not to worry about a thing. I’ve got your back, okay? Should you experience any ups and downs or the occasional nasty jolt, just imagine you’re on the roller coaster ride at Margate. Do you remember how we all visited Auntie Bev there last year and went to Dreamland?”
“Yeah, it was great,” Pete chuckled, “Auntie Bev’s straw hat blew away!”
“That’s right, it did. Your auntie Bev was frantic because it was her favourite hat.”
“Win some, lose some,” Pete laughed without realizing how the comment would cut his father to the quick.
Win some, lose some, indeed, mused the erstwhile Holy Seer grimly as he set about preparing himself for the battle to come. Oh, but if it were only Ragund… He could defeat Ragund, he was certain of it, despite the Dark Mage being a worthy if sly and cunning opponent. Yes, Ragund alone was vulnerable. But Ragund with Xaruki magic on his side, possibly even able to summon powers attributed to Xu himself…
In spite of his self-confidence, Timon began to tremble for thinking of the enormity of the task that lay ahead, so daunting and no less likely to fail as it was to succeed. Great Ri, help me and stay with me for my people if not for this unworthy servant, he prayed silently, much relieved that your Peter had already closed his eyes.
In Lunis, City of Moons, the Dark Mage, Ragund, was almost ready to tackle the supreme task of his life, the result of extensive examination of countless archives whose dusty covers, yellowing pages, and faded inks pre-dating more lifetimes than any living human, elf, Foss, Krill, druid or, yes, even mage could either recall or would have ever dared attempt delving into the darkest corners of knowledge and magic.
He frowned. Where was Shireen? He had conducted a thorough mind search to the extent of seeking out her wardings with a view to penetrating them despite a longstanding agreement that each would respect the other’s privacy, so anxious was he to locate her and reassure himself that she posed no threat to his master plan. Besides, she was a good lover and he did not want to lose her. He knew about her relationship with Radik, the Krill leader, of course. But it meant nothing more than sex. Radik was a fool. He, Ragund, however was a match for Shireen in such ways of mind and spirit that the likes of Radik were incapable of imagining even in their wildest dreams. Yes, we are good together, Shireen and I, he mused almost fondly, so why can I detect no trace of her, only absence?
Not for the first time, Ragund had cause to wonder if whomsoever was aiding Astor was also behind Shireen’s mysterious disappearance. But, why, what could he possibly hope to gain? Reluctant though he was to put a name to his unexpected adversary, he no longer doubted his worst suspicions. A smile lit up the hawkish visage. Ah, but a worthy opponent indeed. He could have asked for none better. Oh, and how much sweeter my victory to see the meddling fool trodden under foot by Xu himself.
That he would emerge the victor in the battle ahead, Ragund was in no doubt and then…To the victor, the spoils, all Mamelon and more besides… He preened himself before a nearby, full size mirror and any that may have heard the ghastly rasping sound that erupted from his throat would have been hard pressed to recognize it for laughter.
The instant Pers opened his eyes, he knew he was home. He could smell it, the distinctive smell of the forest. He could feel it, too, his love for Gar and it for him, embracing him as one might a returning traveller. Instinctively, he returned that embrace and felt all the better for it. Nor did he feel any surprise at finding the Motherworld boy, Peter, asleep beside him. It was all so…expected, although he could not for the life of him have said why. So when Astor appeared, he was not unnerved. He has been vaguely aware of the White Mage’s presence for some time before he acknowledged it. I am ready, he told himself if ready for quite what he had no idea.
“You are rested, Pers?”
“I am rested, Astor.”
“You will be wondering what is happening to you…”
“I wonder only that I am home and my parents are not here to greet me. For the rest, I dare say you will enlighten me soon enough.” He sat up and looked the druid in the eye with uncharacteristic self-confidence.
“You have a task ahead, elf, that will not be an easy one but it is one you must choose if Mamelon is not to be trodden under the heel of a dark magic to which no words can do justice.”
“Ragund’s efforts are but child’s play to that which he intends to invoke and let loose upon all Mamelon and more besides,” Astor growled.
Pers paled. “Xaruki…?” Astor started in surprise. He had not expected such perception. “I am not the fool many take me for, druid,” Pers said quietly.
Astor felt more reassured than he had for some time. “The Fire Tree…” he began,
“…requires a sacrifice, right?” Astor nodded, slightly bemused by the elf’s directness. “…and I am to be it, right?”
“Only if I agree, yes, I get that. But do I have choice?”
“We all have choices…”
“Don’t play games with me, Astor. Do I or do I not have a choice?”
“Not if you wish to save your people, Mamelon, and quite possibly the Motherworld also,” Astor told him bluntly.
“Then it is as I thought, I have no choice. Tell me what I must do and I will do it.”
“If you are sure, but if you have any doubts…”
“Of course I have doubts,” Pers snapped, “but we both know there is no time to look into and attempt to remedy them. Get on with it. Druid, and let us not waste our breaths a moment longer. What will be, will be…” he added, echoing the last words his mother had managed to communicate. Did Astor know, he wondered, that she had visited him? Her dream-self had found its way into his unconscious self despite wardings planted by forces more powerful than any devised by druids... He had felt this, and been less shocked than he might have been at her haggard appearance. Haggard was not a word anyone associated with the elf-queen. Choose well, my son, she had said during that fleeting appearance which had clearly drained her of more energy than expected …but remember your DO have a choice and no one will think less of you for not trusting a druid. He means well, I think, but he can no more guarantee success or failure than I. Whatever your decision, it must be yours and yours alone. Let the love your father and I bear you be your guide for that is as unchangeable as it is timeless. I…” But the much loved musical voice had trailed away and was gone as suddenly as it had come before he had time to even to reassure her.
Much as Ragund would have welcomed Shireen’s moral support, he was committed to proceed with or without it. Permitting himself a sardonic smile of gleeful anticipation, he stared into the flames and began the chant that would enable him to engage with the Xaruki, perhaps even with Xu himself. Until now, he had only descended as far in to the murky depths of an ages-old magic as he dared for fear of being unable to enact his return. Now, though, was the moment of truth. He had, after all, spent a lifetime of studying archives, interpreting, misinterpreting and reinterpreting them in order to extract no small degree of success for his efforts. Mamelon had water once more. He had been denied a part in that, for which certain meddling forces would pay dearly. Soon, though, Mamelon would be relieved of its coppery gloom and returned to natural light. And it will be down to me, ME. I alone will decide where the water will flow and where it will not, where fruits of the soil will grow and where they will not, who will live and who will become less even than kikiri, left to wander the spirit world alone since even the dead will disown them. …
He concentrated until he was unaware of his body or even any alter ego, letting his mind run freely along dark passages that boasted neither walls nor floors nor ceilings but comprising of pure light, now growing darker and darker until there was only a pitch blackness programmed to refuse entry by the darkest of dark forces but which cried out to be penetrated and negotiated; the blackest of all black magic, tapped into and revived from a sleep of which time itself hadn’t the measure.
Deeper, deeper, a sense of ‘almost there’ although where that could be was anyone’s guess…
Suddenly, an intrusion…! An unknown force or forces began pulling on the free falling mind, attempting to drag it into an orbit of sorts that would prevent any further progress.
Even as his mind engaged in a tug-of-war with what could only be another’s, Ragund could not prevent his body screaming with excruciating pain. Yet even pain could be used as a weapon, and he did not hesitate to harness it as such, directing its power at the heart of this unforeseen threat, temporarily causing it to falter while he employed every ounce of willpower left to him to force a way out of the Darkness into the long forgotten heartland of the Xaruki.
A glimmer, a tear in the Darkness, almost there… What remained of body and spirit that was Ragund the Dark Mage, engaged with him, mind-speak engaging with itself in the absence of all time and space, only ego pressing him to rip open the tear and be assimilated into the Xaruki,
Almost there, almost…
Suddenly, the tear opened wider and the head of a bull-like beast appeared, eyes like burning coals, horns ripping into frantically at the Darkness in a desperate attempt to break through to the other side, access the mind that was Ragund.
No sooner had what little remained to Ragund of any thought processes registered this fact that it also became aware of another presence looming into the inner eye much like a pure white unicorn, head bowed, its single horn aiming directly for the raging bull’s head.
As the bull tossed its head and managed to avoid the first thrust of the unicorn’s horn, Ragund experienced a sensation he had not expected. Suddenly he was in the grip of an unimaginable terror. He struggled to retreat into his body, allow mind and spirit to be reconciled and feed life back into its natural form. Even as he began to float upwards, he remained aware of the battle below, a battle already lost, the unicorn sure of victory unless the bull could escape its own, self-perpetuating Darkness. The latter was unlikely. Ragund experienced a heartbeat. He, at least was on the winning side. Forewarned is forearmed. Next time, he would be better prepared for such a distraction.
Word and question hovered, taunted, and finally ensnared him more effectively than any Darkness.
Could it be that he had been gravely mistaken to work on the red haired motherworld boy, fire sign though he surely was?
Ragund brooded hotly, rage and self-recrimination joining forces to help to raise his floating subconscious from the Black Hole it had made for itself. Ri had always sided with elves, hence the Fire Tree at the heart of Gar. He, Ragund, had always assumed it stood to remind all who looked upon it of the power of fire, how Xu may have lost the Great Battle but had made His mark sufficiently to reduce Mamelon slowly but surely to dust. But Xu had reckoned without the power of Light over Darkness. That was the meaning of the Fire Tree, a continuation of a battle between gods left in stalemate because neither was able to strike the final blow without…
Without what…what have I missed?
He, Ragund, had unknowingly continued the battle on Xu’s behalf thanks to his accessing the darker secrets of the Xaruki… And if He can only break through before the unicorn strikes, I, Ragund, will have struck the final blow for which Xu will surely reward me and work through me but only…
Only if, what…? Only pure goodness can defeat pure evil, and…
The elf…! That is the meaning of this distraction. The elf is naive but innocent, and what is more pure than innocence, especially innocence offered up in a godly cause. I have been tricked. Astor and …but I will defeat them yet, I WILL.
Back in his own body and room, fire dwindling, Ragund could not help but surrender to an exhausted mind, body, and spirit.
The Dark Mage slept even as flames continued to flicker and cast shadows on a wall that much resembled two great beasts engaging in a battle royal.
Meanwhile, in the ages-old Forest of Gar, where buds were starting to appear on the branches of its trees, Peter Wright tossed and turned on the ground, sweating profusely and frequently crying out in an agony he was beyond feeling. For his own part, all Astor could do was watch, helplessly, and pray Gabriel was as capable of all he, Astor, believed he was, and more so. But if he should fail for underestimating Ragund, as many have and paid dearly for it… or the Motherworld boy resists Gabriel’s powers…or young Pers loses his courage… what then…?
What then, indeed? The White Mage shivered despite the clammy heat. By way of a distraction, he wiped the squirming boy’s burning forehead with a cloth dipped moments earlier into a stream already gathering pace as it passed them on its way to Lunis, City of Moons.