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.