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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Sunday, 1 January 2012

010 - Visions

Ellis’ words hung in the air. He watched Jacob expectantly.

Jacob looked down at his exposed tattoo. The twin circles, heaven and earth converging. To him, now, pride and shame, faith and confusion. In Cassidy’s face he saw mistrust, in Frida’s, wariness. Nelya peered in wide-eyed curiosity.

The big lad, almost as big as Jacob, looked up but chewed on his fingernail disinterestedly.

Jacob slowly wound the binding back around his palm and up his arm.

“My faith is my own. I am not the threat here.”

“Oh right,” Cassidy scoffed. “Since when have you preachers ever kept your faith to yourself?”

“Just as all Outliers will throw a stranger to leercats as soon as look at him? As all Darklanders will offer your flesh to their knife and Death the moment your back is turned?”

Nelya growled at him. Cassidy opened her mouth to retort but a slow, dry chuckle cut through the tense atmosphere. They all turned to the old woman at the table, still hunched over her bowl of misty soup.

“Heh,” Her voice was like rustling papers. “And so goes today’s lesson in tolerance.”

She looked straight at Jacob. Her skin was withered and lined and he thought she might be the oldest person he had ever met. He was amazed she was even alive. Her rheumy eyes, as milky as the liquid in front of her, couldn’t possibly see him, but he felt as if she was peering into his soul.

“Alice,” Ellis said in a voice full of doting reverence. “We have disturbed you.”

“Grey Alice, they call me.”

She was still staring blindly at Jacob and he shifted uncomfortably.

“You have a preacher’s mind, but a heart of green.”

Cassidy gasped, “Alice, with all respect -”

“Oh hush, Cassidy. So impetuous, it is your weakness and your strength.” Alice paused sadly, “Just like your father.”

Jacob frowned, a heart of green was how those of the outliers' Earthbound religion, Domarah, described themselves. A false religion, of course, but you could wish for worse doctors were you ever wounded; their herb lore was second to none. He felt offended, but knew that was not Alice’s intent.

“And you,” Alice’s unseeing eyes went unerringly to Nelya. “Quiet, jumpy thing. A Darklander, eh, girl? Far from home. Are you looking for something, or running from it?”

Nelya’s eyes went even wider but she didn’t say a word, just looked from person to person, spooked. Her breathing quickened.

“But I’m keeping you.” Alice chuckled again. “Ellis, take them up.”

“Of course, my lady.” He sketched a wide bow to Alice, equal parts humour and respect.

“And Garth, close the door would you, there’s a draft in here.”

Cassidy looked guiltily over at the open hatch in the floor as Garth ambled over. He pulled it up, secured it and began putting the planks back in place.

Ellis led them from the room to a wide corridor with a number of closed, heavy-looking doors. At the end a square shaft plunged down to darkness and Ellis casually swung himself out onto a ladder made of metal rungs hammered into the walls. He began pulling himself upwards, closely followed by Cassidy and Frida.

Jacob leaned cautiously into the shaft and looked up. Above them he could see the light from another opening spilling in, providing a twilight illumination by which to climb. He swallowed hard and gingerly reached for the ladder, testing the first rung within reach. He stepped out and, without looking down, hauled himself up the ladder firm grip by firm grip. Jacob guessed the next floor up was ground level.

The corridor they climbed into had a strange scent, it was faint and Jacob sniffed, trying to get a better sense of it. Something like flowers.

“This way.”

Ellis led them to a door with two men stood by it, large and mean looking. Their eyes skimmed over Cassidy and Ellis but scrutinized the other members of the party.

“We’re here to see Cameron.”

“Course you are.”

“C’mon, weapons on the table.”

Cassidy easily gave up her rifle and a short knife. Ellis added a knife of his own to the pile. Frida hesitated only a moment before parting with a pistol and her own knife. Jacob shrugged, he had never carried a knife outside of his pack, and his pack was back at his lodgings.

“You too, girl.”

Nelya’s hand was on the hilt of her knife. She looked back and forth between the two men, sizing them up. The closer man took a step towards her.

“You’ll get them back,” Cassidy said, placing a hand on the guard’s chest, halting him. “It’s just a precaution.”

For a moment it looked as if Nelya was going to hold out stubbornly, but she relented and put her knife and bow down. Her hand lingered on the blade before she stepped away.

“Right, you’re in luck, boy. They’re all in.”

Ellis opened the door and a billow of thick smoke wafted into the corridor in its wake. There was that smell, not-quite-floral, thick and heady. As they filed in Jacob waved his hand in front of his face but couldn’t help inhaling the vapour. He felt light-headed.

The room was dim inside and Jacob saw it was lit with tiers of candles that ringed the walls. At the far end of the room three men were sat behind a broad desk, conferring. They stopped talking and looked up at the new arrivals.

Jacob gasped, a reaction echoed by Frida and Nelya. The men had white hair and pale skin, they all had the same thin lips, high cheeks and slender noses. All three were identical, with the same milky, blind eyes as Grey Alice, and the same impossibly piercing gaze.

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