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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