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.”