Sunday, 8 April 2012

024 - Sneak

 “Frida, did you get lost?”

The familiar voice startled her. She should have expected him to be here, attracted by the power and influence of Ironhaven. He offered her his seat, waving her towards the deep red leather chair. She remembered him as a younger, exciting, adventurous man, a charming cad dressed in his lavishly brocaded shirts. This older version had lost none of the sparkle, his broad smile increased on seeing her recognize him. She felt affection for him, tempered with caution after their last meeting.

“Silvarno ! “ She said, surprising herself at the high girlish pitch the words left her mouth. She hugged him, kissing his cheek.

“Was it you who vouched for me?” She asked, observing his reaction.

“Not just you, we cleared your friends as well.” His reply dropped her to the soft seat cushion. Her friends were safe. She would find them in the city tomorrow. She knew any debt with Silvarno was best paid quickly, before the interest doubled.

“Thank you, I..” Her voiced choked her. The experience in the prison had unsettled her, she longed for human company and friendship. Just when she needed it, Silvano had appeared. She knew his connections ran higher than just being a Master Wiretap, he maintained the secrets of Ironhaven and all the regions the lashlines ran, from the feral sea to the great boarder. She kissed his cheek again, without him she may well be hanging on the garrison scaffold along with her strange companions.

Silvarno had been a suave upper echelon fixer when she had first met him. Even then he had plans, or more precisely as he had once explained; a destiny. She had joked about it being written in the stars. She recalled how seriously he had looked at her before replying that it was. They never spoke about it again. Now he rides in to rescue her, maybe their destiny is shared.

“And Gravity is stabled here, at the lodge, along with your friend’s horses.” He barely controlled a snigger at her mounts ridiculous name. He may have a destiny written in the stars, but Frida knew he thought she just had her head in the clouds.

The evening went quickly, in comfortable surroundings, talking to an old friend with a little drink inside her. It struck her as so different from the previous day, it felt years away. She tried to bring up questions about why her companions were captured and who ordered the interrogation. Silvano politely bounced the questions away, suggesting he knew but it was enough that she was out and safe.

“You’re friends are in trouble, but I granted them a release.” He said.

“ You?” Frida questioned his authority. He bit his bottom lip, looked down, his foot crushed something on the carpet. He whispered quickly.

“They are going to be used to flush out the various strands of our enemies, both external and domestic. An errant priest, an outlander and a wild girl, it was an opportunity not to be missed. This city is riddled with spies and secrets; there is something wrong with the outlying territories. You must have noticed the lack of communication from the East. Lashlines are down or compromised, we are at war with an unknown enemy.”
Frida recalled the lashline eavesdroppers outside of Fairfield and the words of the Domorrah. She described what she had seen and knew to Silvano, he nodded.

Between them there was silence. Each waited for the other to speak, Frida sipped the warm whiskey. Silvano looked up and smiled, then burst into a rendition of an old song. A song that predated the cataclysm, that had given hope to many people, if a song can survive, so can we.

Silvarno had already left when Frida woke the next morning. She remembered the room from years before, the window faced the early morning sun. She stood on the carved wooden balcony, the city of Ironhaven spread before her. Somewhere in the mass of buildings were her friends and they were in trouble. They needed to know what Silvano had explained to her. In telling her, he had put himself in jeopardy. However that was soon forgotten last night. She had once laughed at his destiny written in the stars, but she believed it now, he was making it happen.

Frida dressed smartly, wrapping her guild scarf round her neck. It revealed her wiretap status; it also granted her a certain amount of freedom. Citizens would acknowledge her today, unlike the untouchable snot faced tear stained wretch she had been yesterday.

She walked down the staircase humming the song they sang the night before. She headed towards the market; she could find it by smell alone. There she purchased a few odds and ends, including a pencil.
On a pamphlet handed out by a league activist she began to draw her own map of the city. The activist shouts his demands, for a fairer world, for supporting eachother, for a return to old values. Behind him two Ironguards appear. Seeing this, Frida folds the pamphlet away into her pocket and disappears into the crowd.

She began to hunt down her friends, using vantage points that overlooked the city.

She observed Cassidy enter a bar, which according to Silvano, was frequently used by Ironhaven agents to exchange information on the outlands. She wondered if she should hold back till Cassidy has finished. She trusted Cassidy.

During that day Frida briefly followed a man who looks like Jacob, losing him in the maze of alleys near the citadel. Silvano had been correct, she should be more cautious, her friends appeared less trustworthy than she thought. Then she realized she was the one spying on them, sneaking around because of the little seeds of doubt planted in her mind by Silvano.

That afternoon her doubts were confirmed, when she had finished her search without finding Nelya. She was seated on one of the long benches near a busy riverside inn, when she spotted the distinctive banded armour with it’s emblem of gears crushing a human.  There, in plain sight, chatting amiably with the Grinder mercenary, stood a man who resembled Garth, their fifth horseman.

She had to tell Cassidy and the others, she had to find them again.

There was something Silvarno had said that morning that she found disturbing. A comment made by her friend just before they parted. She replayed it in her mind, weighing up the consequences.

"You didn't like them did you?" Silvarno asked, “Best not to get too attached. Shepard's who treat their flock as equals find taking them to market very difficult."

Sunday, 1 April 2012

023 -Favours

Her days in prison blurred together. What they had given her to make her talk had done something to her, something unpleasant, and she spent those days in a place neither here nor there. Sometimes she heard arguments outside her cell, though she couldn't pick out more than a few words. Other times people brought her scanty bowls of foul slop that she couldn't keep down.

Some days after the interrogation – she wasn't sure how long- men came while she dozed and dragged her out by her arms. They gripped her tight enough to bruise, and barked rules at her that she barely understood. They brought her to a door.

"I want you t'know I don't like letting you out. If there's any sort of... weird trouble, I will track you down," said one of the men. She nodded, but he just rolled his eyes in disgust, and opened the door.

 Nelya was shoved through the door into an empty street washed with the colourless half-light of early morning. Her legs felt wobbly, and she was aware in a distant sort of way that the long spell in prison had added an extra pressure to a body already exhausted by limited food and lack of sleep. This was less than ideal.

She'd never been so weak or sick before, but she could manage it. For at least a little while longer. Enough to find her way around. Enough to fix this mess.

On pure guesswork, she turned left and walked down the street, using her last scraps of pride and self control to keep her walk steady and straight. 

A few more turns made more out of instinct than forethought, and she was in a large open square. Even now, before dawn broke over the city, it seemed full of people. People putting up wooden stalls, setting out produce, talking, arguing, stringing banners up between the houses.

This was an unexpected thing. Best to watch and learn. In a shadowy corner was a bench where you could sit and watch the square without being overly on show, and Nelya sat down on it with gratitude. From her new perch, she watched the proceedings with narrowed eyes.

But that focus didn't mean she didn't notice the man approaching her flank. She whipped round with startling speed and glared at him. He raised his hands and smiled.

“Woah, now. No need for that,” he said, with no sign of fear. She remained tense and poised for fight or flight as he approached.

“Can I sit down?”

She nodded, but watched his every move as he did. It was something of a shock to realise he was watching her just as closely. In her experience no-one outside of her tribe looked at things like that, like they were examining every inch to find threat or flaw. She didn't like it. There was something about the way he smiled, like he was expecting something, waiting for something... it was unpleasant, to be so off balance.

“Do I know you?” he asked.


“I know most people who come and sit on this bench.”

“I'm... new.”

For a brief moment he looked like he'd just confirmed something to himself. He leaned back on the bench and, his scrutiny apparently at an end, rummaged in his bag to produce an apple.


She took it warily, and sniffed at the fruit. It smelled fresh and sweet and juicy and her stomach growled.

“It's not poisoned,” he said.

“Then you taste.”

He took a small bite and made a big show of swallowing it.

“All safe, dear heart.”

“We'll see.”

They sat in silence for a while, Nelya running her thumb over the smooth surface of the apple and thinking. She'd clearly stumbled into a situation here, one with social rules she didn't know. Would it show weakness to ask the rules? Or should she risk offending him by blundering...?

“I'm Cal. I like the monosyllabic and mysterious thing you're trying with me. Very intriguing, but it does take up rather a lot of my time. Shall we get right to it?”

Nelya stared at him. She hadn't understood half those words.


“Ha! You're amazing!You actually think you can bluff me, and you're even doing quite well! As if a recent releasee would just happen to wander in to the right time and place she could get exactly the help she so clearly needs... did one of the guards tell you? I'll have to have a word. They aren't supposed to send me people like you...”

Nelya's temper snapped. She took a deep breath and summoned all the words she knew. She was about to use a lot of them.

“I don't know what you're talking about. I don't understand what you say, but I think you said I lie. I don't. I am not stupid. I am not weak. I am not afraid. And I don't know what you know of my people,” she bared her teeth “but my lack of weapons would not stop me from killing you so please explain.”

He blinked at her, then laughed.

“My word, you really are a complete innocent-”

“I have killed thirty-two people.”

“Ah. Really? How... fascinating, dear. I suppose I should best explain, I have no wish to join your collection. As I said, I'm Cal. I help people, Money, information, goods... anything. People come here when they need me. Simple, honest, friendly. So,” he leaned in close to her, his smile even broader “What help do you need?”

Weapons. Food. Friends.

“What do you want in return?”

“Oh, little one. For you, out of the goodness of my heart,” he said, pressing his hand against his chest. “I'd hate to see something like you crushed by this city. Believe me, it is very good at crushing people, and you clearly don't belong here.”

“None of those things are true. “

“I'm sorry, sweet girl?”

“This city will not crush me. You will not help me out of kindness.”

“Well, perhaps you could owe me a favour then, if you won't accept kindness...”

“I will not enter a trade when I don't know the full price.”

“Why on earth not?”

“I don't trust you. You think me stupid enough to walk into your claws? I, the best hunter my people ever saw? You think I never saw a predator's smile before?”

She glared directly into his eyes for a while. He smiled back, but there was something in his eyes, some emotion she couldn't put a name on.

He looked away first. She'd won. For the first time in this upside down and backwards world she had won. It was almost enough for her to smile. Almost.

“That hurts me. I am probably the closest thing to a friend you'll have here, and you refuse to trust me. Well, should you change your mind, just come here at dawn and have a little chat with me, will you?”

Nelya watched as he got up and sauntered away, handss in his pockets, bag slung over his shoulder. She waited till she was sure he wouldn't see her before she devoured the apple, core and all.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

022 - Dark Heart

Jacob ran along the stone corridor, his feet unintentionally hitting the ground in time to the pounding of the machine. His rhythm broke as he ricocheted around a corner, bouncing off the wall in his panicked flight. A glance as he turned showed the black-cloaked figures still behind him, their shapes distended and demonic in the fluttering torchlight. Then he was running again.

Hours earlier he had been unexpectedly and unceremoniously released by the Ironguard. He had found himself looking over the immense city of Ironhaven. It was crammed with buildings and crawling with people. There was an intensity and vibrancy of life that seemed to be trying its hardest to contradict, or deny, the dusty harshness of existence beyond the walls.

He had been bewildered, by his interrogation, by his sudden freedom and by the heaving claustrophobic vista before him. He had no idea what had become of his companions. Then he saw, rising from this chaos, the calm might of a cathedral. It had stood proud and clear, reaching to Heaven, offering him familiarity and sanctuary. He had steeled himself and pressed though the city, keeping the spire in view until he reached its hard, cool stone.

The vast interior still echoed with a little of the city’s clamour, but it was muted. He found himself a pew in a quiet vestry and sat down to think. Occasionally a priest would walk through to the adjoining room, where Jacob heard brief, murmured voices, and then nothing. He saw no one come back out.

His curiosity had got the better of him. He pulled his hood up, looking once more like the priest he was no longer sure he deserved to be, and walked through the doorway.

Two Ironguard sat on either side. They looked brutish, and bored.

One on the right spoke, “Your wrist, brother.”

Jacob was suddenly glad he hadn’t re-bound his wrists after his imprisonment. The guard pushed Jacob’s sleeve up to reveal the overlapping circles of his tattoo; he spat on his finger and rubbed the ink, grunted, then waved Jacob on.

At the other end of the room was an arched corridor. He came to a door, wondered whether this was such a bright idea. Then he tried the handle and discovered it was locked.

He tried again. What if he couldn’t go back, if the guards would only let him pass one way?

Then he remembered the key. Oh he had thought himself so clever. He held his breath as he tried it in the tiny keyhole and, sure enough, he felt the mechanism catch, the bolt slide back. He had cautiously opened the door onto a flight of stone steps leading downwards and descended, locking the door behind him.

He descended into darkness. And deep beneath the cathedral, beneath the city, he had seen the machine. He had looked down into a pit and witnessed the gaping mouths of fire and the soot-stained wretches that fed them. He had felt himself sweat with the cloying heat, felt his breath come short in the barren air.

Mighty pistons pounded a rhythm like a thunderous pulse and as he had stared in horror and incomprehension at the black heart of Ironhaven someone had seen him. A black-robed figure had called to him and begun to mount the steps that wound round the sides of the pit to the level on which he stood.

Fear had grasped Jacob then, so he had run, blindly, through these deep corridors.

And now he came to a flight of steps. He ran up them, his fatigued breathing coming in heavy gasps. At the top of the steps he saw a door, bright light lancing in beneath the top and bottom. He prayed for old hinges or a rusted bolt. Acid burned in his muscles as he powered upwards and slammed into the wood of the door.

He burst into daylight in splinters of wood and stone. There were yells and curses around him as he stumbled into a crowded street. People tried to spread away from him but the drive of the crowd pressed them inwards. He thrust forwards, using his strength and his elbows to plough through the heaving mass.

The cries of surprise and anger at his exit soon merged with the hollers of the vendors and the rowdiness of a busy street full of people with places to be. All those people made him very nervous, but it was nothing compared to his fear of what was after him so he let the pull of the crowd drag him away until he washed up against a narrow alley of empty containers, back doors and overflowing bins.

He slumped down where he couldn’t be seen from either end of the alley and heaved in ragged mouthfuls of air. He held his head in his hands as his whole body shook with exertion and adrenaline. He began to cry.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

021 - Dawn

As the heavy gates slammed shut behind her, Cassidy peered blurrily out at the city ahead of her. A great sea of humanity stretched as far as the eye could see and seemed to be several stories deep from her vantage point.  Basked in the first few rays of sunrise the entire city glowed a deep amber, the taller buildings casting huge shadows across the city below. It was still too early for the feeble light to creep down into the lower levels and they remained hidden in the shadows.

The furthest she’d ever come into the city was dealing with the touts and traders that prowled the outer walls hoping to get inside and ply their wares. In her experience they rarely succeeded. This was her first time within the walls and she struggled to adjust to the sheer magnitude of the place. Not just its size but its intensity; its complexity. Everywhere you looked people were busying through the streets almost atop each other. Children skittered about in tiny gangs from doorway to doorway, disappearing down ladders and speeding along gantries threaded between the buildings.

As she stumbled downward into the metropolis she noticed the buildings to her immediate left were crammed with busy traders shouting and waving fistfuls of unfamiliar money. Behind them assistants grabbed bales of exotic dried plants and jars filled with colourful powders and thrust them upon members of the eager crowd as they snatched their payment. 

Further down the street a row of kiosks gushed savoury steam. As she passed she took a deep breath and inhaled a lungful of aromas, the wares of all the kiosk vendors finding each other in the air. While most of the business appeared to happen up front, Cassidy noticed that many of the kiosks had seating behind the counter, home to elderly gentleman peacefully eating bowlfuls of meat and noodles.

As she approached an intersection, a bicycle whizzed across in front of her carrying at least four children of differing ages and sizes giggling as they disappeared into the haze. Wandering deeper, her eyes adjusted to the gloom of the lower levels. From somewhere above her came the good-natured shouting of workmen closely followed by the flashes and sparks of a spot-welder. Cassidy wondered if the city were constantly being refitted and rearranged to accommodate new people. Space certainly seemed to be at a premium.

Cassidy kept a constant eye out for any familiar faces. She didn’t even know if the others had been released or expunged back into the wilderness.  Waiting by the gate was not an option. If they thought for a minute she intended to get back in she felt she would have been welcome at the gallows beyond. Until she could get her bearings she could only remain vigilant for signs that she wasn’t alone inside the iron walls.

As she turned a corner she noticed a familiar sight. Above a small door hung a swinging metal sign. The text was written in indecipherable glyphs but the picture below was unmistakeable. A smiling woman holding a drink. She murmured several prayers of thanks under her breath and made for the door.

Inside it was remarkably empty by comparison to the bustling streets. Much of the seating was unoccupied. In an alcove towards the rear two men nursed glasses of crimson liquid whilst they shuffled porcelain shapes around a board between them on the table. Neither looked up as she entered, both had a brow furrowed in concentration. On the bar sat a plump little girl eating nuts from a bowl. She stared curiously at Cassidy as she approached the bar and took up a stool.

The girl continued to gaze wordlessly as if trying to figure out an equation written on Cassidy’s forehead. Cassidy returned her gaze politely but, unsure of how to begin a sensible conversation, soon returned to looking straight ahead at the racks of bottles behind the bar. Catching sight of herself in the mirrored wall behind them, she noticed she had aged at least 10 years, her face was drawn and dirty and stray hairs stuck out from her ponytail in wisps and clumps.

A scraping noise made her look down at the bar. With a single pudgy foot the girl had pushed her bowl of nuts in front of Cassidy and gestured with a nod for her to have some. Cassidy was starving but her stomach was still unsteady. She returned the nod and began to pick at the nuts in the bowl. The girl simply grinned and grabbed her feet as she rocked back and forth on the bar occasionally whispering a few tuneful words from a song only she could hear and that Cassidy could not understand.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

020 - Gallows

Sundown occurred far quicker than Frida had expected. 

Her strange day culminated in a sunset of deep pink and purple hues that crested the mottled clouds. The beauty of that final glimmer of light was not lost on Frida. 

She neatly placed her belongings into her pack, until her cell was clear, ready for the next occupant. She wrapped the toy spaceship delicately and hid it amongst her clothes.

After changing into more comfortable clothing, she combed the last few weeks’ accumulated dried twigs and leaves out of her tangled brown hair. She had unbound the tight bandages from her chest. She thought it odd to die looking like a boy, after all, what if they buried her in the wrong place? 

She considered why her captors let her keep her pack if they intended to execute her without trial or reason. She had never spent time in the Ironguard fortress before, but had heard of the ‘sundown’ decree. Strangers and undesirables would be given till sundown to leave the city, if they failed to do so, they would be executed. 

She was a registered wiretap; there was a guild house in Ironhaven which could vouch for her. She belonged to a esteemed organization, she had an education, who would execute someone who could read. As for her friends, who would vouch for their honesty? She doubted that there was anybody who could speak positively on behalf of an outsider like Nelya. Jacob, Garth and Cassidy may have associates here, perhaps they had contacted them. It all seemed so futile now. The sun was setting. A lone drum began to beat slowly in the execution yard.

Frida watched the yard through the small cell window, wondering what would happen. She stroked the soft velvet fabric on the hem of her sleeve, to calm the rising panic.

The steady thump of the execution drum continued.

The sky had shifted hues to orange, sparkling off the metal scaffold of the execution platform. The torches surrounding the yard ignited automatically.

A tall figure was lead out to the execution yard. It was followed by a procession of other hooded figures of various heights. Large, well fed Ironguard soldiers flanked the convicted to the long platform. A different group of grey uniformed men lined up near the scaffold. Each carried a long rope and a butcher’s hook. These were the executioners; prisoners released to perform this task until eventually they too would hang.

The convicted seemed to accept their fate without question. The faint smell of camphor still remained in Frida's cell. She felt sick thinking about a drug that made a person compliant in their own death.

In the fading light of day, the executions began in a silence only broken by the slow drumbeat.
Frida avoided the window. If she ignored the indiscernible figures in the yard or believed that she may not be responsible for her companions’ demise she could just pretend nothing unusual was happening.
The cell door opened. She stood up, clutching her pack. Her head lowered to avoid the guard catching the tear that slid across her cheek.

In silence she was lead down the corridor of the fortress. Her guards armour creaked and rattled. She was acutely aware of her surroundings. They were leading her towards the yard. Her muscles tightened.
She stepped into the execution yard, the gallows hung with eight hooded bodies. The ground beneath them was wet and foul smelling.

She concentrated on the ground by her feet, not daring to glance upwards until she was pushed though the archway into a larger courtyard.  This courtyard was overlooked by the massive barbican fortress. Smooth concrete walls higher than trees protected Ironhaven from outsiders, except here, in a kink where the barbican sat.

There was a sudden realisation, she recognised where she was. Inside the barbicans courtyard there were two great opposing gateways; one leading back to the wilderness, the other directly into the walled city. From the direction she had entered, Frida was uncertain as to which gate Ironhaven was behind.
“Tapper, this way,” the guard said, opening a small door inset in the gate to her right.
“I had a horse.” Frida said. The guard shrugged.

Frida walked cautiously towards the doorway, either exit would be better than staying in the fortress. The guard shoved her through, with the same concern as a man throwing rubbish.
She stumbled and almost fell onto the streets of a busy city. Frida regained her balance quickly. She flicked her hair out of her face. She had been released, she was free and back in Ironhaven. A group of young boys walking past had seen her stumble, their master regained their attention with a cough before ushering them on to one of the great town buildings. 

Frida sought out a vantage point, not far away the road dropped down into the heart of Ironhaven below her. The fortress overlooked the bowl of the city. From where she stood, the far extent of the wall appeared barely visible in the oncoming night. The great citadel, the true centre of Ironhaven gripped tight on the mound near the cities centre; around it twin rivers glinted as they flowed under the many bridges. There were four storey and higher buildings, larger than most Frida had encountered on her travels, excluding the ruins. No one gave her eye contact, it took her a while to notice that aside from children, the citizens refused to acknowledge her.

There was still no sign of her friends. Possibly, like her, they would be released on the whims of the Ironguard. She settled down near the gate, waiting for it to open and her friends to step out.

The streets had emptied and the curfew warning sounded before she was moved off, alone, into the night. She walked the streets, vaguely away of the night passing and the need to find some sanctuary. The realisation that her friends may not be joining her led her to one conclusion. She resolved to return to her life and headed towards the Wiretappers guild house. The tall ornately decorated guild building offered board and lodging to non-citizens, in relative comfort for a small fee. Or so the sign outside proclaimed, in writing and symbols.

She entered the guild house. A familiar voice greeted her. 

“Finally, did you get lost?”

Sunday, 4 March 2012

019 - Answers

Nelya was not quite sure what to expect from this. There would be questions asked, and she would be expected to answer them. This much was clear. But she was certain she could have no answers to give, and if forced no-one would understand her. Her language was rarely taught to outsiders.

When the inquisitor entered, she recoiled from... it. Tall and wrapped in bulky cloth, she was uncertain whether they were male or female. But it was the face that sparked alarm in her. Not a human face, at all, but the face of some kind of wicked spirit or demon. It took a few moments for her to realise it was a mask. She watched them in silence, holding her body tense.

"I would like to have a pleasant talk with you, please."

"There's nothing I can tell you." Nelya said, shrugging slightly.

The inquisitor leaned over her to light a candle. It filled the room with the sweetly savoury smell of rosemary.

"Then we'll just talk about nothing."

She blinked against the smoke getting into her eyes and making them water. The thickness and smell of it made her tired. It had been a long time since she'd slept properly. More than a month. Her head swam, and she closed her eyes against the strange, shifting light in the cell. She didn't like the red it painted over her hands and arms.

There was an argument, raised voices, with her as the subject, and she slammed her hands over her ears to shut it out. She didn't want to hear it again, not ever. Someone asked her a familiar question, and once again she gave her explanation.The last time she'd said it cool and calm, but it was different now. She knew the risks and she didn't want to be sent away again. But no matter how she explained the necessity, no matter how she begged, they made the same decision, every time. As she would, if she had the chance again.

In her head, over and over again, she went into a house at night and did the worst and best thing she'd ever done.

"Separate the person and the act. It's hard, but it can be done." someone said. It sounded like her voice, but that wasn't right.

"Just don't hurt my new friends. They don't know what I did." she called out.

"Tell us about them, just so we don't make a mistake."

She told them everything she knew. It wasn't much, but hopefully it would be enough to protect people who had been kind to her. Kindness should be rewarded.

Then they killed her. Not the body, which was just so much walking meat, but the important bits. They force-fed her certain herbs, and she lay on the floor and retched, as miserable as she'd ever been. Words were said, things were done, and she felt the girl that had been... pull out of her, leave her, everything draining away until all that was left was a body... and a thing inside it. Her head was pounding, her heart beating so fast she thought it may burst.

"I don't feel like a dead thing." she said to the people standing around her. Priest, mother and husband. Except not any more.

"In time you will. You'll forget everything you were." None of them would look at her.

"It doesn't happen that way. I've given it a month, how much longer am I supposed to wait?" But they were gone and she was alone on the road again. Or in Fairfield, watching Jacob taking a shining thing from a dying man.

"Tell me about that." said her husband, his arm around her shoulders "And perhaps you can come home."

Once more, she told everything she knew. And more, there were so many things she wanted to say, but the whole thing was so confused. She didn't feel dead, she didn't feel cold. Perhaps it had all been wrong. She was still the girl that was, and not just a dead thing with memories that didn't belong. Sometimes she thought of never going home, and the lack, the emptiness of it made her wish they'd just killed her.

"I want to go home." She repeated it, over and over again as her head pounded like it had when they stripped away her life, and her stomach churned. She stared at the floor as it shifted again, and became rough, grey stone. The place smelled awful, the wholesome herbal scent now acrid and mixed with the acid smell of vomit. She'd been sick.

She had no idea what she'd said out loud, and all it would take was a clever person to piece her story together and find out everything she'd done. The only thing that was any comfort was that she was sure she'd spoken in her native language the whole time.

The inquisitor watched her through the slits in the mask.

“Interesting reaction.” he said, in a language he shouldn't have known.

Shock made her limbs weak, and she hugged them to herself. She looked up at the inquisitor with dry eyes.

"I am going to kill you for that." she said, but the inquisitor just laughed and left the room.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

018 - Masquerade

Jacob looked around the new cell. It had more of a window than the first, still barred of course, and furniture. There was a table in the middle with a bench behind it, both made of the same rough, splintered wood. On the table was a simple wooden plate. He sat down and waited; whatever was coming, would come.

He had thought the group would by-pass Ironhaven in its flight, that he would never find out what the dying preacher had been talking about, never discover what door the key he had been slipped would fit. He thought about the dying man’s last words.

“The inner sanctum, the unholy truth...”

Jacob had questioned his faith, questioned Heaven, when maybe all along it had been guiding his steps, even his doubt. But it had led him to this place of contradiction and corruption, it had led him to his new companions, skittish Nelya, impetuous Cassidy, chimerical Frida.

He came to a conclusion. He would tell them about the key. Heaven had put them in his path, surely for a reason. He needed their help, as they doubtless needed his guidance.

At that moment the heavy door swung open and a robed figure stepped in. At first glance he thought it was a brother of the High, as he had been, but as his gaze travelled upwards it came to the mask. A grotesque distortion with bulbous cheeks and wide, pursed lips which brought to mind a frog’s face. It was carved of wood, well-polished and with a short, thick line marked down from the right eye in a darker stain.

Jacob thought he saw a flicker behind the eyeslits, a blink maybe, but nothing more.

“I am to be your facilitator.”

“My facilitator?”

“Think of me as a tool, to ease your participation in dialogue with this city.”

“You want me to talk? Ask me a question.”

The masked figure sat down. Jacob couldn’t decide if it was a man or a woman. His instincts said man, but the mask muffled its voice, the robes hid its shape. It placed a thick candle on the plate and lit the wick with a match struck on the stone floor. The candle gave off a pleasant odour that reminded him of the cooking pots of the village he had tended.

The mask tilted to one side, as if studying him, “How am I to know what questions need asking?”

Jacob frowned. He was not equipped to deal with this.

The smoke from the candles seemed to be thickening, filling the cell with harsh, billowing clouds that made his throat ache and his eyes stream. He tried to focus on the figure but the mask swam and disappeared in the writhing grey around them.

There was a shouting and hollering from all around, ecstatic whooping and hideous screams, the crackling of burning wood and straw. He saw the panicked faces of the villagers he had cared for, and the distorted, vicious faces of savages emerging from the smoke, faces painted with blue swirls and fresh red splatter. He hid. He cowered as the villagers died and through the capricious smoke he caught glimpses of slaughter, brief flashes of butchery.

Jacob sobbed. He cried out as he felt a touch on his shoulder. But it was only Brother Silas, trying to console him, to convince him to go to the city of Ashfall and talk to the High priests there.

No, he had already been to Ashfall and there were no answers there, only disappointment and disillusion. That was why he had set out alone, to find himself.

Brother Silas reminded Jacob that he had found more than himself, that he had found Cassidy, and Frida, and Nelya. He had. He was confused. Brother Silas had been head of his old mission, part of his old life, before he had met those three.

But Brother Silas would have seen what Jacob saw in them. The good swaddled in fears and distractions, the need for guidance.

Jacob told him all he knew about them.

There was sharp clack and clunk that cut into his hazy thoughts. He blinked his eyes open. His head was resting against the rough table and he straightened up, light-headed. The cell door swung open and as the masked figure left it looked back over its shoulder.

“Thank you, Brother Jacob.”

Sunday, 19 February 2012

017 - Returned

Cassidy sat on the cold stone bench, her wrists manacled to the seat between her thighs. She leant back against the rough stone and tried to figure out the next move. Voices emanated from beyond the bars of her cell. She thought she could hear Frida's voice somewhere back down the hall.

Outside the bars of her cell thin grey tendrils of smoke whipped at the air and disappeared. They squirmed between the bars and collected around her feet like snakes. The stench filled her nostrils and made her feel sick. The offensively sweet aroma reminded her of the old caravans.

Distant footsteps began to echo along the corridor outside the cell. A figure, robed and hooded, arrived outside the rusted bars in front of her. She couldn't see the face, it was hidden by a wooden mask with an obscene grin. It was impossible to tell much about the figure but whoever it was had been subject to what Ellis called 'good livin'. The stomach was as round as a barrel and the robe hung from it like someone had slung a sack over a globe. In his hand he carried a lantern lit with a dark green candle.

The figure reached for a stool and pulled it up in front of the bars. He at there for a moment saying nothing, just staring out silently from behind the empty eyes of the mask.

"I don't care what you do to me you coward. I'm not telling you a damn thing. The second I get out of these chains I'm gonna snap off your favourite appendage and choke you with it."

A low, rumbling chuckle emanated from behind the mask. The huge barrel stomach began to bob up and down as the figure's shoulders shook with laughter.

A chill ran down Cassidy's spine. No. It couldn't be him. Not now. Not after so long.

Her mind raced and she yanked hard at the manacles to no effect.

"Hooooo! Now if my perdy little sunrise didn't go an' get herself a mouth. You get that from your mother's side. Weren't no-one that could turn the air blue like a darklander and your momma was no different. Garth used to call em a bunch of shit-mouthed savages. Never did get round to teaching him the meaning of irony. Oh, almost forgot m'self!"

The figure reached up to fiddle with a clasp behind the mask and as the wooden face slid down it revealed a face she hadn't seen since she was a child. Two warm eyes looked out from behind a wind-burned face. Every inch that wasn't pink and sweaty was covered in a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard.

"No! You're..."

"Dead? No shit sugar-lump. There's no gettin' anything past you is there?"

"But... how could..."

"Hush now, darl'n, ain't no point fussin'. Time's short enough without us havin't to fill in all the blanks. All that matters is we're here now. I came back to see you."

"No, I saw you die. There ain't no coming back from that."

The figure got up and walked toward her. As he did, the bars slid aside to allow him through. He sat down next to Cassidy and put an arm around her shoulders. She could smell his old familiar aftershave but something else too. Something bitter and earthy. Something old.

"Now listen buttercup. Dyin's just one o' those things we all have to go through. I did it, your mother did it. But don't go gettin' any ideas now. You got some work to do. Do you remember that place I took you to back when I was still topside? My field workshop?"

"Wait, what the place out past The Blackspires?

Her father's eyes lit up. But not in anyway she'd ever seen when he was alive.

"Bullseye, jellybean! Remember I sat you up on the counter while I sorted out the haul? Roasted one o' them big birds right on the roof under the stars."

"I think so, I don't know it was a long time ago."

"Course you do!" he bellowed. "Listen Cassie, I need you to go there. There's something you need to see."

"What? You can't be serious! That's right on the darklander doorstep. It's suicide!"

"Oh hush! Ain't no daughter of mine gonna get strung up by tree-folk. You'll be fine."

Cassidy opened her mouth but she had no idea what to say. Her eyes welled up. This was too much. Tears began to stream down her face. The giant of a man stood up before her.

"Time to say goodbye, honeybear."

He opened his arms, filling the whole width of the cell as he did so. Cassidy closed her eyes and waited to feel him nearly squeeze the life out of her like he'd done when she was a girl. When nothing happened she opened her eyes. Her father had gone and the bars were back across the front of the cell. All that remained was a masked figure standing at the bars. They wore the same robe and mask as her father but were a fraction of the size. The figure said nothing and after a moment they turned on their heel and walked away.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

016 - Sundown

They waited in the cell, silently watching the sunrise. There was always the chance of a last minute reprieve. A flustered guard would stand at the door telling them of a dreadful mistake.
Instead there were heavy footsteps in the corridor outside. A key turned. An Ironguard soldier entered. He pointed at Jacob.

"You’re first," he said. He indicated with his heavy gauntlet towards Nelya. "Then you."

A pair of guards appeared to escort each one of them silently into a different cell off the main corridor. Once Garth and Cassidy had gone, Frida was taken down the corridor past their cells. She was pushed into another cell, with a heavy door and stone walls. A window at shoulder height tempted her with its warm light. A low table sat in the centre of the cell, holding a shallow bowl. In the corner of the cell a few small insects buzzed around a dark stain.

A masked person entered. Frida had heard of Ironhavan’s inquisitors, she thought they might be priests like Jacob. The inquisitor’s wooden mask was an intricately carved face, the mouth exaggerated and grotesque, behind it, covering the head completely was a waxed leather hood.

 The inquisitor began to question Frida, asking simply about who she was and where she'd come from. The expressionless face maintained a consistent enquiring tilt when Frida spoke. It unnerved the young wiretap. 

"Consider me your interlocutor, a participant in a civil dialogue." The mask nodded, tilting, to one side. The voice was muffled.

"I'd like that," said Frida," I don't really know why I'm being held here."

There was no reply, the face tilted upright. 

"I'm a licensed wiretap, operating for the Markermeer Caravan," she said. The figure remained unresponsive. From the shapeless robes the inquisitor pulled out one of Frida's eel battery jars, placing it on the table without comment.

"Tools of the trade," Frida stated. She felt sympathy for the trapped writhing eel.

Although nothing was revealed by the shapeless clothing, Frida was convinced her interrogator was a woman.

The inquisitor placed a candle in the bowl on the table.

"Face the window, watch for sundown," the mask told her.

Frida looked out of the window, the sun was still rising. Her view was across the execution yards to a scaffold, built of metal and stone, permanent. The yard was deserted. She felt the sudden drop in her gut.

The inquisitor spoke again, answering Frida's unasked question.

"The executions occur at sundown."

There was a smell of rosemary in the cell, it smelt comforting, homely. There was no physical threat made, but as her interrogator spoke Frida's willpower diminished. She was terrified, facing the execution yard whilst the inquisitor stood behind her. Without thinking she found herself blabbing. She had been tortured before, it happened to wiretaps during training to test their integrity.

There was something descending from the sky above the yard. A metal insect the size of a long-shore ship began unfolding limbs. As the insect descended, heat and dust blew into the cell. Frida began to make out a doorway and windows on the insect. It had come for her. Her inquisitor had disappeared. She grabbed the opportunity, stepping back and throwing the eel battery at the wall. It exploded, leaving a smoke filled hole. She crawled through the gap, running towards the metal insect that hovered above the yard.

She clambered up the scaffold, cautiously grabbing the struts by the insect's open doorway. Once inside she felt the ship ascend. Through its dirt streaked windows she watched Ironhaven disappear.

The sky insect had no occupants. She found a wooden seat with a window to the onrushing clouds.
A voice spoke to her, the voice of the metal insect.

"What about your friends? Should we not return to rescue them?" It asked. 

She told it about her friends, she felt guilty about them. Aside from Cassidy, she had only known them for a short time. The voice asked her what she wanted and where did she wish to go. She thought about it, there was only one place she wished to go, ever since she was a child.

"To the stars," said Frida.

"To the stars," the voice repeated and chuckled. 

A door slammed.

The cell returned, hazily drifting into focus. She was sitting with her head resting on the table. She felt heavy, drowsy. A tiny fat asymmetric insect sat in front of her on the table. She recognized it. She had found it years ago in the rubble of an eviscerated city. At first, she had mistaken it for real beetle. It was so small and insignificant. How odd, she had thought, an insect with letters etched on it. Then she discovered something else. It had tiny doors, windows, engines and stubby wings, all scratched away by time. This was a child’s toy of a space machine. She hid it in her possessions, wrapped up, telling no one about her find. The inquisitor had taken it from her bag and placed it on the table in front of her. The deepest secret she held; she had seen the remains of a real one, its weathered carapace rotting in a salt marsh.

The faint odour of camphor remained, it emanated from the extinguished candle, smoking in the centre of the table.

Her other belongings were littered around the cell. There was a torn paper label on everything, written in Frida's own handwriting. She examined the pieces of paper, the scraps contained gibberish words or nonsensical rhymes.

Frida panicked, alarmed at how the drug loosened her tongue. A rising feeling of nausea struck her, what had she revealed about her new friends and the secrets of Fairfield. She wondered what they had threatened Cassidy and the others with. The sun would set soon, over the gantry yard.

She picked up her clothes. They had been left neatly piled on the chair. She held them tightly. She felt how coarse they were. She inhaled their strong earthy smell. Then she began to cry.


Sunday, 5 February 2012

015 - Caged

The Ironguard were smarter and more capable than the Grinders had proved to be. Nelya swallowed down her instinct to flee and find a place to hide among the trees. With no-one to help her there would be no point.

“Weapons on the floor,” barked the man. “slowly.”

She hesitated. Only for a second, but in that second the man had moved closer to her and pointed his gun at her head.

“Don't even think of it, Darklander,” he spat. “On the floor.”

Very slowly, she put them on the floor.

“Good little savage. Tie her up. Tie them all up. Let's not take any chances here.”

More Ironguard appeared from among the trees, bringing rope with them. Nelya was tied tight enough for a tingling numbness to set into her fingers. No-one else even struggled, though Jacob was approached with wariness. Their horses were captured with speed and a surprising gentleness.

They were led - and pushed, if they went too slow – through the trees till they reached a small clearing. Their arrival startled the birds roosting there, who took flight with a skirring of wings. Nelya glanced over the clearing, the small, high-sided cart, the horses grazing contentedly, the still-warm campfire. The cart tracks leading from the clearing were a day or so old, laid down after the heavy rains.

The Ironguard had been waiting here for them before they'd even left Fairfield, and they'd been aware of the likely route.

“In the cart. No talking.”

They bundled in, followed by two Ironguard who sat with their weapons drawn and ready.

“Sit tight,” one said, with an unpleasant grin, “We're going to Ironhaven.”

Jacob groaned, and slumped back against the high sides of the cart.

Ironhaven, then. Nelya watched the faces of her new companions, all tight and ashy with worry. As the cart juddered into movement, she tried to think of a possible way out of this.

She couldn't do it. Every idea she had required skills or understanding this group simply didn't have. As the cart left softly wooded areas, went through rough scrubland and finally onto the now-familiar dry dirt of the road, her plans became strange and wild, before fading.

There was no way out, at least not from this cart, rumbling along under the baking heat, surrounded by mounted and armed men. Their horses and weapons held captive.

She would just wait, instead. They were being taken in alive, which meant there was going to be a chance for escape or bargains at some point. Patience and thought rarely led her down the wrong path.
It was acting on impulse that made things go wrong.

Ironhaven showed as a dark blot on the horizon, growing closer with every mile.

Just before sunset, the cart pulled up outside the walls. The five of them were ordered out, and led through a small, side gate. Whatever this was, it was to be done quietly.

They were blindfolded. She heard the others stumble and shuffle amongst the sounds of booted feet. Even she was clumsy, with no sight to judge things.

They walked on dirt for a while, and then on stone. The air changed to cool and damp. The damp had that creeping feel that reminded her of caves.

A few more steps in the dampness, then hands on her back shoving her to the floor, and the sounds of other people stumbling, falling, grunting, and a sharp swearword in a voice that was surely Cassidy's.

A boot on her back, just between her shoulderblades. The sound of knife on thick cloth, and her hands were free. Free, but too numb and sore to push herself up and run for it... and almost as soon as the boot was removed, a door slammed and locked behind them.

A moment of silence, as she nursed blood back into her hands and arms. She removed the blindfold, to find herself in a dark, damp, rough stone cell with the four others. A small window – too small to wriggle through, even if she could climb up to it – let in the dying light. Frida cleared her throat.

“Well, they could have asked nicely.”

Cassidy broke out in snorting laughter, and after a second Garth joined her. Jacob, serious, only shook his head slightly.

“We're in a cell,” he said. “and we don't know why.”

“There are worse places.” said Nelya. “As long as we live, we can escape.”

“Worse places? Right now, what could be worse? And don't say dead, because that could very easily be coming.” snapped Cassidy.

Nelya waved her hand, though as the gloom gathered it seemed unlikely anyone would see it. Death was a fact, and not something she feared.

“We could be lying broken-limbed in a cave, with our insides spilling, knowing all that will come for us is a hungry beast. This is how my brother died.”

There was another silence, this one longer and deeper than the other.

“Yeah, alright.” said Cassidy. “I'll give you that. That sounds much worse.”

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Sunday, 29 January 2012

014 - Flight

“Going somewhere?”

Jacob jumped at the unexpected voice from behind. Cassidy shoved him sideways, standing and grabbing her pistol off the ground in a quick snap. She aimed into the brightness of the courtyard and her face shifted from startled, to relieved, to annoyed.


“Um... bad timing?” The big lad's cheeks reddened.

Cassidy put her pistol away and wiped her face again, her eyes weren’t streaming anymore, but there was still grit stuck to her cheeks.

“What are you doing here, idiot?”

“Nice to see you too. Ellis didn’t say?”

“Didn’t say what?” She rounded on her brother.

“Ah,” Ellis looked nervous, “I can’t come with you, Cass, you know I can’t leave Fairfield.”

“But,” her jaw clenched, “Firebrand?”

Jacob went back to the horse he had been given, pretending to check the tack. He had ridden before, but not often, and he wouldn’t have had a clue if the gear was on incorrectly. He just wanted to give Cassidy some space.

Ellis put a hand on Cassidy’s shoulder. “You know Hazard isn’t fit for riding anymore, Garth’s taking Firebrand.”

“Why him?” She glanced sideways, “No offence.”

Garth smiled, used to Cassidy’s abruptness, and perhaps he had a little more compassion than Jacob had given him credit for.

“Three girls with one man? Jacob may be built like a bullhorn but that’s just too much temptation to put out there.” He gestured widely: out there, beyond Fairfield, beyond the world they knew.

“I can handle myself.”

“I know, but the less that’s put to the test the better, right?”

Garth reported that the coast was about as clear as it was going to get. In the day that had passed the Grinders seemed to have dried up with the rainwater. There were bound to be people watching, but with the change in numbers, the disguises, it might be the best chance they had. After all, they were just a farmer and his hands going home after trading at the caravan.

Cassidy kept finding little reasons to delay but after a final moment with Ellis, they eventually left. They rode north, to Breckle Forest. The road was baked into hard, crumbling ridges, everything went back to dust far too quickly.

Heading north made Jacob nervous, but he knew they were planning just a few hours ride before they cut west. It was calculated to throw off anyone that might see them leave and then take them around the top of Ironhaven.

Except for a few leercats slinking along parallel to their path they saw little else by way of life until they approached the everpines of the forest. The trees were well-suited to the sandy ground and had a better time of it than most crops. There were bird cries and animal calls in the woodland, but Jacob had never been any good at identifying them.

Protected from the sun there was still a fresh, moist smell to the cool shade of the close trees and the horses’ steps were muted by the carpet of brown needles. Garth slowed them down and peered carefully into the undergrowth to their left before he called them to a halt.

“I can’t believe it’s still here.”

Jacob looked into the forest. He couldn’t see anything.

“It’s an old hunting path. My da brought me here a few times after grabbits and Shy Deer. Never did catch anything.”

Cassidy jumped down, “Be best to lead the horses through, keep a tighter path.”

Garth nodded, “Makes sense. I’ll go last, see if I can’t lay some misleading signs.”

Jacob carefully dismounted, sore already and glad for the change. He tried not to look too obvious as he rubbed his thighs.

“You’ve done this before, Garth.”

He grinned, “Misspent youth.”

A deep voice rang out from the shadows ahead of them, “Must’ve been, to lead you here.”

“Bandits.” Cassidy’s pistol was back in her hand. She must have spent hours practicing that draw.

“No such luck, Miss.”

Another man’s voice, from the right hand side of the track.

“Ironguard. And you’re surrounded. Don’t be stupid.”

Cassidy and Garth cursed. Frida went pale. Nelya bristled, looking quickly left and right.

A man stepped out from behind a wide trunk. Jacob could see the ends of a big crossbow and a quiver of arrows slung on the man’s back. In his hand was a heavy-looking black pistol, an antique about twice the size of Cassidy’s, straight edges, clip loaded, an unusual thing to see, and deeply dangerous. His face was rough, pocked and stubbled, and his dark eyes looked as vicious as his weapon.

“Just be glad we’re not the Grinders. We’re bringing you in alive.”

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Sunday, 22 January 2012

013 - Portent

Cassidy leant, arms folded, against the wooden stall watching Frida and the others prepare their horses out in the courtyard. The sun was rising and the stone beneath them seemed to glow with its own warmth. She had chosen to make the most of the shade in the gloomy stables, behind her the door to the windowless tack room stood ajar revealing piles of worn saddles and rusted stirrups. By noon they'd be riding in the full glare of a merciless noon sun, their clothes stuck to their backs like a second skin. She felt a cool breeze stir the hair from her neck. It'd been too long since she'd been back here. She took a deep breath, letting the earthy smells fill her nostrils.

Out in the courtyard Jacob struggled with a wilful palfrey that refused to stand still and let him finish loading it with supplies. She chuckled to herself in the knowledge that it was difficult to load up such a young horse and this one was nigh impossible. The horse had had nothing but men on its back ever since she'd known it. She immediately saw the irony and chose to ignore it.

Frida took the bag from him and fixed it along with her own. Gravity was obviously more accustomed to carrying Frida and her equipment and didn't seem to mind the extra weight. Meanwhile Nelya was perched unsteadily atop Ellis's old jennet. Had she been given a horse like Jacob's she would have been shaken loose or fallen of her own accord within a half-hour but the smaller breed seemed to suit her. Klop had been Ellis's childhood horse and though older and smaller in stature than its fellows, it had been ridden well and often by its new owner and the muscled haunches hinted that it could hold its own on the road.

Ellis was in the yard tending his current horse, Firebrand, named on account of it's copper colouring. Cassidy's own horse whickered in the stall beside her.

"I know, girl" she said aloud, not taking her attention from the riders ahead of her. "We'll be off soon."


Cassidy drew a sharp breath in as she felt steel press at her windpipe. She raised herself onto her tiptoes to try and pull away from the blade but it followed her.

"Be still" a voice breathed into her ear. "I've come to say a piece and then leave you to your travels but you must be silent as the grave. I do not mean to trouble your companions."

"What do you want?" Cassidy croaked.

"Merely to set you on the right path. Help comes in many forms besides those hidden beneath the dirt in leather-backed chairs. Their thick blood and thin minds will only get you so far. But first, a warning."

"A warning?" Cassidy gazed helplessly as her friends busied themselves with their mounts, unable to call for help, though now the dagger had let up enough that she could return her heels to the ground.

"The iron men come with their worms and their lackies because of who you are, Cassidy. Because of what you are."

"What? What do they think I am?"

"Thinking is none of it, girl. They are guided by ancient words. Prescribed when our world was but a doubt in the mind of men of fire and steel and emerald light. In their minds these words hold infallible truths. If it is written, it is already done. It is their unshakable devotion to this belief that drives them to you."

"What would they want with me? I've barely been out of this town my whole life except to chase off leercats." Cassidy, finding a small repository of confidence, began to edge her hand toward the pistol in her waistband.

"Indeed, and when you were out chasing wildlife, they had men searching the ruined places and darkened corners."

"For what?"

"Answers. The kind that have laid buried for a long time and would have done well to stay that way. Tell me, what do you know of the markings you carry on your hands?"

"My mother drew them on me when I was an infant. It made my father furious. She said they were to protect me." Cassidy felt her wrist touch the ivory grip of the pistol. Just a little further.

"Your sigils may be more than your mother would have had you believe. The children of the darklands all carry them but none like yours, not for a long time and for good reason. Even amongst your mother's people, yours would be considered... dangerous. To put them on oneself would be foolhardy, to scrawl them on a child... unthinkable. So the iron men follow the scribblings of dead men straight to your door. They mean to take you, Cassidy, regardless of the cost, and they will go through anyone to do so."

With his spare hand the stranger rotated her head toward where Nelya was still struggling with her horse. He leaned close enough that Cassidy could feel his breath in her ear.

"Do you mean to make them pay the price for her mistake?"

Cassidy saw her opportunity. The stranger had inadvertently rotated her neck away from the blade and it gave her the window she needed. In a blink she grabbed the pistol and struck the stranger's arm away with her forearm. She span around to aim at the stranger but instead her eyes were filled with stinging dust. She dropped the pistol and fell to her knees cursing the stranger, her blinded eyes gushing to remove the debris.

When her sight returned, the stranger was gone and the rest of the group had run over to see what was going on. They arrived to find Cassidy spitting chalk dust into the hay and using curse words that Frida hadn't heard outside of a roadside grog-house.

"What happened?" asked Jacob

"Nothing," she growled back. "C'mon, we're leaving".

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Sunday, 15 January 2012

012- Mystic Frog

They descended underground where Ellis waited for them. Cassidy grabbed her brother by the arm, manoeuvring him away from the others. She waved the group on, towards one of the numerous shelters the network of tunnels provided. They walked on, torches illuminating the damp concrete. Jacob had become stoic, reapplying the bandages to his arms. Nelya remained tense and cautious, ready to protect them all. Frida begun to whistle a tuneless childhood song.

They had travelled a short distance when Cassidy caught up with them. She quickly wiped her dirt and tear streaked face before reaching them. She took the lead again, following the markings she herself had written as a child.

They had questioned the elders, gaining vague reassurances and unsatisfactory answers. There was a greater threat to Fairfield and the other communities. Now they were supposed to hide and await an escape attempt.

“What did he say?” Frida said, speeding up her pace to walk alongside Cassidy. Cassidy just held up her finger, pointing it at the roof. 

 "So, how do we know what's going on up there?" asked Jacob.

"I think we can trust the Domarrah," said Cassidy, "and my own brother." Although the others were not convinced that even she believed that.

They had reached a narrow side chamber that lead through into a wider compartment.

"I'd feel safer following the Mystic Frog," said Frida. She indicated one of Cassidy's juvenile scribbles, a crude frog shaped symbol scrawled across a redundant warning sign.

"It's upside down," said Jacob. He placed his palm on the metal plate and rotated it. The plate hid a small recess, empty except for a desiccated grey orange. The grey husk rolled out onto his hand. Behind it he could see the pale blue fluorescence of a Lashline. He stepped away to allow Frida access.

"Always trust the Mystic Frog," said Frida, as she began uncoiling wire from the delicate device around her neck. "I may be a while." 

She continued fiddling with the wire. Within a few moments she had taken her jacket off to untangle it. She clipped the wires to the Lashline, cupping the Tapbox device gently in her hand. Then she sat cross-legged, closed her eyes and concentrated.

The others watched her, waiting for something to happen.

"It's not really a frog," said Cassidy.

Nelya nodded. She explained to Cassidy that she had seen the symbol before, in the wilderness, in the places her people avoided. Her people would not communicate with the voices of the living ghosts. 

Frida continued to nod her head to the sounds of the Lashlines. Cassidy rummaged through the food Ellis had wrapped for them, handing small parcels to Jacob and Nelya.

They ate without talking, waiting for Frida to finish. Coiling up her wire, she began to relate her assessment of what she had heard. The news from the Lashlines confirmed what they had guessed; the Grinders were not the only people out there. Something else was emerging from the East. The remoter outlying towns had ceased communication. Other towns were sending brief messages to friends and allies requesting assistance. From the West, from IronHaven, there was confusion; the city had become paranoid about outsiders and its citizens panicked by mysterious deaths.

There was a solemn silence after Frida’s report. They had no option but to trust Ellis and the Domorrah, accept the escape plan, get out of town and keep running. Head North West, skirting the borders of IronHaven. They settled down to rest in the flickering light of torches. Trouble could find them later, now was a time to sleep.

The sunlight burnt their eyes as they emerged into the clear skied morning. A day had passed underground, a day of preparing and planning. The art of practical disguise was to blend in, to be boring, to avoid attention. Frida had learnt this travelling with the traders. She was proud of Nelya’s transformation into a Harvest boy. The loose overalls and dull colours hid the wild girl's form. Dressing the others was easy compared to Nelya, even with Cassidy reassuring her. Putting a Leercat in a clown suit may have been easier than covering her facial tattoos.

The early morning streets were still busy with locals and the numerous bright awnings of the caravans when they stepped out of their underground shelter. A non-descript group of farm workers wearing cloth masks, they were covered in a pale white dust from the outlying fields. Frida and Nelya, who were naturally darker than the others, looked unrecognisable. They walked through town, hoping that whatever deception Ellis had planned would work. There was no sign of Grinders; possibly they had retreated, waiting for Cassidy’s gang to leave. Passing through the caravan traders unrecognised, they travelled up the main Avenue. Ahead were the low walled buildings where the rescue would occur.

For a long while Cassidy stood looking back at the Oasis, the inn that had been her home for so long. The others could all relate to her sense of loss. Frida gave Cassidy a gentle nudge. Time to go. They all moved off in different directions, each taking the path assigned to them. The plan involved scampering along the centre of the low rooftops, avoiding the chance of being spotted by a casual observer from the ground.

The ochre mud brick courtyard was well hidden. There was one main exit, a wide archway leading out into the countryside. The only other access was from above. The group quickly descended the carved brick staircase. Stepping down into the courtyard, they could see movement in the alcoves that surrounded the central square. A deep green lichen covered the few areas of concrete or stone that extruded out of the mud brick surface. It grew especially thick in the dark alcove where five horses had been tied up. The horses continued to graze on the lichen as the group crossed the square towards them.

“I assume this is our escape plan,” said Jacob. Cassidy nodded. 

“I assume you can all ride?” Cassidy asked. 

Frida’s heart jumped. There alongside the other horses was her own, Gravity. They were riding out of here, right now. The gate was open, the road beckoned. 

“But why have we got five?” Nelya said.

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Sunday, 8 January 2012

011 - Sent Away

Nelya blinked at the strange pale men. She'd never seen anything like them. The way they stared at her skinned her, flayed her, stripped her to the bone.

She wasn't the only one stunned by it - Frida was frozen, wide-eyed, and Jacob looked like he'd seen something awful.

"Who are... What are..." Nelya began, but her voice dried up.

"These are the Elders. They run things." said Cassidy. She seemed reluctant to say much more. "Please. Just let me deal with this."

The central man spoke first. His voice was low and soft, but it made Nelya flinch. There was something badly wrong with these... things.

“Interesting choice of friends, Cassidy.”

“Yeah. Well.” Cassidy licked her lips. “They've been useful.”

“Still.” said the one closest to Nelya. He looked right at her. She would have backed away, if her back weren't already pressed against the wall. Calm. Calm. Don't show fear. She took a deep, ragged breath and forced her body back into stillness. Fear was useless here, with her unarmed and far away from safety.

“I'm not here to talk about them. I'm here to ask for help.”

“Would this be about the chaos in your bar earlier?”

Cassidy nodded. “And the dead priest. Someone hates me enough to send Snakes to set me up, and I need help with this. You know I don't like to ask.”

“You don't like to owe us favours, you mean.”

Cassidy winced, and the men smiled in unison. They turned to each other, and began to confer once again. Their voices were so low even Nelya's sharp ears couldn't pick up what they were saying. It sounded more like oak-leaves rustling in the wind than any proper speech.

Nelya realised she was toying with her necklace, her fingers stroking the smooth bones with nervous repetition. She dropped it, and forced her hands to stay at her side.

She had begun to think the low, unnerving whispering would go on forever when the three men came out of their huddle.

“It's very probable that certain factions are trying to weaken our power base, going through you. None of us were expecting them to push so far, so fast, though.” The middle man looked somewhat pained. “It's simple. You're going to have to leave Fairhaven.”


“We'll arrange an escape for you. All of you. In the meantime, I suggest you hide here.”

There was immediate protest from everyone, a chaos of loud words, enough to make the head spin. Frida, all high-pitched about a horse, a job, and even Jacob raised his voice a little, before quieting himself.

“But where will we go?”

Nelya risked looking over at Cassidy. Frida was stood behind her, a hand on Cassidys shoulder. Nelya didn't make eye contact. She didn't think she could bear to. She shouldn't be here to watch a stranger's life fall apart.

“We have... connections in other free towns and cities. We'll arrange things with them-”

“You can't just decide this for me! You can't just make me go.” Cassidy spat. She was glaring at them all now. “This is my life.”

"No-one should be forced to leave their home." said Nelya, to her own surprise. It was like the words had been pulled from an aching place inside her without her say-so.

“There's no other option. If they find you, any of you, that's it. They'll find an excuse to... remove you.”

“Ha. If you got me killed Ellis would never do any more of your dirty work.” Cassidy ran a hand through her hair. “Don't bother to lie to me. I know what you really care about.”

She paced, arms wrapped tight around herself like her stomach hurt. Nelya grimaced to herself.

“Fine,” said Cassidy, after a while. “If this is how it has to be. Sort it out. I'll just hide.”

Silence was for the best, Nelya doubted Cassidy would want an opinion from her or Jacob. She followed, glad to leave, as Cassidy stormed out. 

"Could everyone just- give me some time. I need to talk to Ellis." she said. They hovered in the hallway for a moment before collecting their weapons back. Jacob leaned against the wall, face blank.

"I never wanted any of this." he muttered.

Nelya paused. If he had been one of her own, she'd have shown concern with an arm around his shoulder. It seemed wrong here.

"I don't think any of us did." she said. It was the best she could do right now.

Cassidy was being sent away from her home. Nelya's was a long way away. And it was becoming obvious to her that these people would get themselves killed without her.

She would stay, and go where they went. Whether they wanted her or not.

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