Jadde ndash; the fragile.., p.26
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       Jadde – The Fragile Sanctuary, p.26

           Clive Ousley
 
CHAPTER TWENTYTWO

  The journey had taken its toll on them all, including the demon. The day after Malkrin’s and Bone-thrower’s detour the creature had sickened and refused every rabbit, pigeon or snake they killed for it. They even tried a haunch of wild pig they had cooked for themselves, but to no avail. Then two days ago as they’d passed the scattered bones of the wild cat outside Hunters Cave, the demon had died. At first they thought it sleeping and had prodded it with the butt of a spear, to no avail. Malkrin had put his hand between the bars and touched its cold flesh and lifted an eyelid. The eye was unmoving; the creature had left this world.

  ‘We must continue on with the carcass my friends; for it is the only proof we have of the evil that threatens to engulf us.’

  It was a bad omen, but Malkrin tried to be practical by pointing out that demons were after all susceptible to illness like they all were.

  The Wolf Tribe’s ritual journey had kept the track clear of landslides and debris, so hauling the cart was not too arduous for the fit warriors. Two days after passing the cave they spotted the distant ribbon of the stockade across the Darent Pass and stopped to wash the journeys grime from clothes and skin. Malkrin decided they needed to look refreshed, confident and powerful to persuade the border guards they were not just a band of thieves.

  It had gone midday when they hauled the cart to within hailing distance of the barricade. By now the demon was beginning to decompose. The stink made Malkrin gag as he prepared to hail the guards astride the fortification. He strode a few paces in front of his men, being careful to keep his arms open before him.

  ‘Good men of the Seconchane do you recognise my face?’

  Silence greeted him from the faces on the ramparts.

  ‘I have returned to save you from a deadly danger. I must speak to the officer in charge.’

  Still no one atop the barricade wall moved but from somewhere a warning arrow bounced from a nearby rock. Malkrin had expected to be ignored so it was slightly encouraging; at least he had someone’s attention.

  ‘I must speak to an officer. I mean you no harm I just wish to save you, your wives and children from a ghastly death. There is a horde of demon creatures approaching and I cannot keep them at bay with my few companions.’

  Two figures stirred on the battlements and another whose tunic incorporated a purple sash of rank appeared.

  ‘Outcast, you dare to return with a bunch of bandits and a ridiculous excuse. How do I know there is any truth in your words?’

  ‘I bring you a dead demon for you to inspect.’

  ‘We have nothing to fear from dead demons.’

  ‘It is one of the fearful creatures that the Goddess Jadde fought and destroyed.’ Malkrin then shouted as loud as he could, ‘and they have returned in hordes beyond count to slaughter us all.’

  ‘I need proof that your words are true before I summon my commanding officer.’

  ‘Will this suffice?’ Malkrin swept his cloak to one side and revealed two of the gold suns emblazoned on his tunic.

  ‘You have forged the sun symbols or stolen them.’

  ‘How could I steal them when I am outside Cyprusnia? Rest assured my power has increased fourfold and I have a companion with me who has a similar ability. Would you prefer a demonstration of his powers?’

  ‘Go ahead if you must,’ the officer sneered disbelievingly.

  ‘Bear in mind he has a single highsense decoration,’ Malkrin primed them.

  Palreth casually strode in full view of the stockade and raised an arm. Malkrin’s third sun glinted on his chest. He threw a sparkling blue fireball into a fir tree alongside the track. The tree burst into flames and vicious blue lightening discharging into the air and ground around it. A fearsome smell of smouldering wood and sharp acrid smoke assailed the officer’s nostrils.

  ‘Impressive demonstration, Outcast, I will summon the Brenna. I hope for your sake you can prove what you say. Of course they may decide to finish you for good.’

  ‘This is not the time for man to fight man but never the less, a wise decision officer of the Seconchane. Tell your superiors that hordes of demons are heading this way and each is more ferocious than any wild animal they have ever hunted.’

  ‘Stay where we can see you all. It will be several hourglasses before my commander gets here.’

  ‘I or my companions will not move, our errand is too desperate to leave unanswered.’

  The officer and another man vanished from view so after a few minutes Malkrin ordered his comrades set a camp fire and prepare for a long wait. They caught another wild pig and stuffed it with oat meal and then roasted it on the campfire. Much later as the sun began its slide toward the mountains they were drinking from their water containers and discussing Brightwater’s chances of resisting the quarter-men when the Wolf lookout shouted a warning. Malkrin stood and gazed at the palisade, the gates in the wall had creaked open and as he watched a troop of horse mounted Brenna emerged. Stones and dust flew around a blur of hooves and the thunder of charging horses filled the air. Some of Malkrin’s band raised weapons nervously, others looked about to run.

  ‘Stay calm everybody, we must trust them or we’ll get nowhere,’ ordered Malkrin. The horsemen reined in their mounts and quickly surrounded Malkrin and his companions. Palreth, Mondroth of the Celembrie and Talgour had never seen horses and looked fearfully at the strange sight of men riding tamed beasts.

  ‘A mighty weapon,’ Mondroth said in awe.

  Malkrin looked closely at the horsemen. All were Brenna as he had expected. They were led by Erich Gamlyn. Malkrin’s heart sank as he saw who represented the priesthood amongst the horsemen; it was Sire Helm Rantiss who glared as if he was meeting quarter-men and not Malkrin’s brave band.

  ‘You have news, Outcast?’ snapped Gamlyn.

  Malkrin stood in front of the Brenna Ruler who had in some way disposed of Cabryce. Malkrin’s thoughts seethed, revenge boiled in his heart, but his mind said, not now. It was best to pretend ignorance of her fate. Malkrin kept his voice steady, ‘I bring the worst possible news . . .’ He paused, his thoughts filled with images of drawing Palerin across Gamlyn’s throat. ‘. . . I have tidings of an imminent catastrophe for the whole of the Seconchane.’

  ‘Really. I am told that caged carcass is proof of this tale.’

  ’We have brought this demon with us. It is of the same tribe that the Goddess Jadde was victorious over. Its brethren have returned and are consuming all the lands and people in their path.’

  ‘So on the basis of a dead creature, you expect me to believe this wild tale?’

  ‘I have these reinstated highsense stars, they show I am still well respected amongst the peoples I have met and lived with.’

  ‘People?’ he turned his head and laughed to Helm Rantiss, who then echoed the mocking laughter. ‘You mean more examples of this motley band.’ Gamlyn gestured to Malkrin’s companions.

  ‘I am an authorised representative of my people’s Senate,’ protested Talgour.

  ‘And I of mine,’ added BalthWolf.

  Gamlyn laughed and sneered, ‘you, a Wolf bandit – an authorised member of a band of hoodlums more like. Why should I take your word as well as the outcasts?’

  Gamlyn reined his horse round, and over his shoulder shouted. ‘Be gone, before I order my men to send you to Jadde.’

  ‘I have proof that Olaff, novice of the priesthood lives in this man,’ Malkrin shouted. ‘He died trying to reach me for reasons I know not, but the priests do.’

  Gamlyn turned his horse again; back toward him. Malkrin’s highsense detected a sudden curiosity; he had latched onto Malkrin’s implication of priestly involvement. He had said the right thing, the priests had a lot more influence on the Brenna than he, Malkrin, had previously realised. ‘Olaff was the possessor of a great highsense that would have been of great use in defending the Seconchane. But as he lay dying after fighting demons, he transferred his highsense in a method I can only envy, to this man.’ Malkrin pointed,
‘to Palreth of the Sylve, a great warrior and now possessor of the greatest highsense. I offer his abilities to the Seconchane’s defence when it becomes necessary – in return for your help to defeat the demons.’

  ‘I say again – what demons? All I see is a rotting hulk, for all I know it could be a grass munching cow.’

  Malkrin was thinking fast, this was not going well. His highsense flashed an answer or was it just plain intuition. ‘The priests have warned you, the ruling Brenna, of an oncoming evil. You know this – and now you know they were correct.’

  Gamlyn sneered and tugged the horse’s reins. The animal turned and Gamlyn went to dig his ankles into the animal to send it back to the stockade. Malkrin saw his arm rise, about to indicate the mounted Brenna follow.

  He had only one trick left which he’d saved as a weapon should the Brenna turn on them. He would have to use it as a demonstration now. And if it failed there would be no option but to slink away and try to think of another approach to convince his people. But he had a good idea what the wasp-spitter would do.

  ‘I have found this mighty device on my travels, it also will aid us,’ Malkrin shouted; ‘it releases powerful wasps at great speed. Watch the ancient’s magic on that rock.’

  Gamlyn’s derisory laughter assaulted him as he produced the small device.

  Malkrin pointed it at a rock sitting atop a landslide nearby. He had risked spitting the metal stick’s wasps twice yesterday to familiarise himself with the technique and now hoped the weapon still contained a full hive.

  He held it in both hands for it had a fearsome kick when the wasp flew. He squeezed the lever slowly and a colossal roar filled the narrow pass, seeming to echo from all directions. The rock suddenly blew apart sending shards in all directions.

  As one the horses neighed in fright and reared either from the noise or from sharp splinters of stone stinging them. Riders fell from their mounts or were sent charging away in their horse’s panicked frenzy to escape. In an instant the arrogant superiority of the Brenna had been reduced to a large pile of thrashing limbs. The chaos caused a huge dust cloud, as it settled the six Brenna riders that remained raised themselves unsteadily to their feet. A couple of the more sedate horses stood and pawed the ground nervously; the others had bolted taking their riders with them. Through the dust cloud Gamlyn approached Malkrin; a sword extended before him.

  ‘For that, your life is forfeit Outcast,’ he announced.

  Malkrin withdrew Palerin. He had no intention of fighting; he would just ward off the strikes, although he would have loved to plunge the sword deep into Gamlyn and hiss, ‘for Cabryce,’ while staring into his dying eyes. His companions had arrows notched, but as Malkrin had ordered they did not release them.

  ‘Think Sire Gamlyn, fighting will get us nowhere. The priests were correct.’ he implored through clenched teeth.

  Gamlyn’s reply was to sweep his sword at Malkrin’s head, his face contorted with rage. In that same instant Malkrin lanced Palerin before him. The clash of blades seared the dust laden air and echoed along the mountain pass. Both blades met again and again in instinctive attack and defence. Malkrin used his highsense to predict exactly which way Gamlyn would direct his blade. He was aware of his companions warding off blows around him, but paid most of his attention to Gamlyn. The air filled with cries and oaths as his men attempted to calm the aggressive Brenna.

  ‘Cease,’ a new voice commanded.

  Malkrin and Gamlyn spun round in the direction of the open gates. Sire Josiath Nighthawk sat before the fighting men on a panting horse. Well behind him a sedate procession approached on foot and horseback that Malkrin had previously only seen on ceremonial occasions. A collection of muscular Acolytes supported the Abbott on a litter, his bulky frame sat in an ornate chair with four carved poles in each corner held by the trainees. Another priest rode alongside the litter and with him strode Nardin. He was holding the pommel of the priests saddle for guidance and stared ahead unfocused.

  It was so strange to see the Abbott outside of traditional ceremonies that Malkrin and Gamlyn paused with swords in mid stroke to stare at the rarity. Gamlyn glared first at Malkrin then at the priest.

  ‘Who are you to tell me what to do priest.’

  Malkrin noted that Gamlyn was sweating and out of condition, whilst with Palerin he had slipped easily into a defensive routine.

  ‘Sire Gamlyn this is not the time for hostilities. It is a time of unity and change,’ proclaimed Josiath.

  Gamlyn stared from the priest to Malkrin then sheathed his sword. Malkrin returned Palerin to his scabbard.

  Josiath’s glance turned to Malkrin, ‘be at peace citizen of the Seconchane.’ Then to Malkrin’s companions, ‘I extend good wishes and a welcome to your friends.’

  Malkrin’s warriors lowered their weapons.

  The entourage reached Malkrin and the Abbott was lowered to the ground. He waddled to Malkrin and raised his hands in forgivingness.

  ‘There will be no bloodshed here Sire Gamlyn,’ he commanded. ‘We have a dire situation to prepare for. Sire Josiath Nighthawk and Sire Steth Harefoot have just informed me of a great find in our library which tells of the past danger. With Malkrin’s account it is the proof you and your fellow officials requested, we must all face this abhorrence again.’

  Malkrin relaxed, and walked to face the Abbott, ‘Thank you Sire I am glad you acknowledge the deadly peril that approaches.’

  The Abbot glanced to the cage. ‘You have a dead Archgry?’

  Malkrin nodded.

  ‘And you have first hand observation of these demon hordes?’

  ‘I have Sire, I and my companions have fought them.’

  ‘Then we must learn from you.’

  Malkrin felt a warm glow, did that mean his citizenship would be reinstated. He thanked the Abbott with a polite bow and automatically glanced to his old mentor, noting the look of pride written on Josiath Nighthawk’s face. Malkrin looked closer at him. A renewed sense of purpose had caused the years to drop off, or was it the sunlight that smoothed out his wrinkles. Malkrin realised that for years he had only ever seen his mentor in the close confines of his dimly lit accommodation and had to admit he was not as old as he’d always assumed. Now astride the horse he looked commanding and cerebral as he leant down to examine the gold suns Malkrin and Palreth wore.

  ‘So my friend is dead – I’m sure it was not by your hand.’

  The words hit Malkrin with the force of a stonemasons hammer. Josiath recognised they were not Seconchane suns. ‘You know of the men that have been searching for me and the extra powers these suns contain?’

  ‘Indeed Malkrin, there is a lot for us all to learn. Some time ago we briefed the Abbott about an unknown evil rising in distant lands. One of my friends’ highsensed distant unease and she thought it linked to the ancient curse. The Abbott is now in full accord with me and I have just received the written allegiance of Bredon the Fox. He is riding with the Brenna Council to Jadde’s Hall as we speak. That is where we all must go now.’

  ‘Then I will speak with you later. I must know about these unknown pursuers, and what they, and you, want of me.’

  And as he spoke Josiath drew his cloak back, placed his palm on a highsense sun that was pinned to his tunic and words sprung into Malkrin’s highsense. Rachel, I have found Malkrin; and one other previously unknown talent of high ability.

  The Brenna had gathered their dignity and reunited with their horses Gamlyn and the Brenna surrounded the priests’ party and Malkrin’s companions. The whole entourage headed for the palisade gates.

  Malkrin glared at Gamlyn’s back as he bobbed up and down astride his horse. It was hard to resist confronting Gamlyn about Cabryce’s death, but the time would arrive once the demon scourge had been eliminated. He walked back to Nardin who stared rigidly ahead. As he neared him Malkrin noticed Nardin’s face light with pleasure and relief as his dulled vision picked out his old friend.

  ‘It is good to see you Malkrin
,’ he said as they embraced.

  ‘Likewise. I will walk with you; we have a lot to discuss.’

  The procession returned through the gates where the Abbott exchanged the ornate litter for a horse. Malkrin supported and guided Nardin as they exchanged information. Then he asked the question that had burnt into his every fibre.

  ‘And my Cabryce, have you found out more details about how she died?’

  ‘I will relay what I know . . .’

  And Malkrin resolved to dive and search the Fethwerth pool then give his wife’s remains a proper burial.

  Nardin continued urgently, ‘There is information hidden in the lower library that describes the weapons and methods used to destroy the quarter-men. Somewhere nearby I believe there is an ancient research facility, maybe in a hidden mountain valley but I need to carry on searching for its location – if my eyes will last long enough to allow me.’

  ‘If time allows I will help. I have learnt the Brightwater written language and sampled their records so I should recognise relevant information.’

  ‘We must first ensure their written word is in the same tongue for I have discovered the ancients spoke in many languages. I know only the one called English, which is almost our tongue. Is that the Brightwater’s?’

  ‘Not sure, but I will know once we open the first volume.’

  Soon they were out of the Darent Pass and the track opened out. There before them the familiar smoking chimneys, and thatched roofs of Edentown opened out below. The huge Priests Keep towered above the town, standing guard as it always had, but now not appearing as ominous as when he had last walked by in chains.

  Malkrin turned to BalthWolf who followed closely behind. ‘You have the honour with your two companions to be the first of the Wolf Clan to extend your ritual route into Cyprusnia.’

  ‘It feels good, the Goddess has honoured me. My people will rejoice with the news.’

  ‘Don’t get any untimely hopes my friend; we still have to persuade the Brenna and priesthood to change their ingrained dogma.’

  People had started to gather. Malkrin heard excited shouts progressing through the town and more well remembered faces appeared. He had never seen people so carefree; it was as if the weight of oppression had been lifted by his return.

  ‘Welcome back Malkrin.’

  ‘The first to return, ever – well done.’

  Their shouts heartened him; he really was the first to return from exile.

  He knew in that moment that if need be he would lay his life down in defence of these folk – his people. Soon the Hall of Justice loomed at the end of Highgift Row and folk were now throwing a multi-coloured blizzard of rose petals over the procession. It warmed his heart, even the deadly serious Palreth smiled as he waved to the crowd. All too soon they walked up the eighty-four steps of justice and Brenna Guards swung open the huge doors carved with the image of Jadde issuing her decree.

  Memories of his previous visit to the court returned to Malkrin but now his thoughts were cleansed with redemption. The Council of Twelve were seated in their huge carved stone seats and attending officials milled behind them. Goodwill emanated from the Abbott and Sire Josiath who also sat on the council’s right. It was the most complete gathering of the rulers of the Seconchane that Malkrin had ever known and probably the most urgent that had been seen for generations. He still felt a film of suspicion in the minds of the guards but the Fox’s first words changed their hostility to surprise then relief.

  ‘Malkrin Owlear,’ began the Fox in his most officious tone, ‘It appears you have done my people a great service in learning about the returning scourge, and bringing the dire news to warn us. I hereby reinstate your highsense status in honour of your loyalty and in respect of the need for stout defenders like you in weeks to come.’ He staggered down from his ornate dais and pinned two of the crudely cast suns alongside the two finely crafted emblems. Then he whispered in Malkrin’s ear, ‘you are now the only Seconchane ever to wear four suns. Welcome back brave warrior – I knew you would not let us down.’

  So it had been a hoax trial to banish him; to be their eyes and ears in the deadlands. Malkrin thought quickly. No – The Fox was just trying to save face. The priests’ had manipulated the elderly chief. It was them that had manoeuvred the Fox into the trials judgement. The real power in his land was wielded by the Abbott and his priests and above them was another tier of government indicated by his three sun pursuers and Josiath Nighthawk. Who were they? Malkrin needed to know very soon.

  ‘Introduce me to your brave companions Malkrin Owlear,’ The Fox commanded and Malkrin did so, pleased at the Brenna leaders respectful demeanour to his friends; even BalthWolf Bone-thrower. The Wolf warrior had good reason to detest the Brenna rulers, but bowed and wished The Fox well.

  ‘I have arranged refreshment for you all,’ The Fox announced gesturing to the laden benches lining one long wall. ‘As you eat and drink the council require a full account first from Malkrin, then please anything his brave companions can add.’

  The day wore into evening and then night. The threat was thoroughly discussed and The Brenna Council backed by the Abbott proposed to fortify then defend the Darent Pass against all intruders.

  ‘And what if these ‘intruders’ are survivors of other encounters with the quarter-men? Are you proposing to watch them die within reach of safety?’ Bevin Talgour asked pointedly.

  The council conferred and argued in heated whispers. ‘Very well, we would take in all human survivors.’

  And Malkrin saw a chink of light appear in their insular outlook, dark with lifetimes of seclusion. It needed to be swept aside in the interests of all the peoples. ’Then would it not be better to send a force beyond Cyprusnia to help defeat the quarter-men hordes before the necessity of taking in refugees arose?’ he said.

  Again the council conferred. The debate raged in fierce whispers and Malkrin used his highsense to split the council members into for and against. He whispered the argument to his companions who with their ordinary senses could not make out the words even in the great echoing hall. Bredon the Fox and Councillor Boele the Great Bear and four others were in favour of Malkrin’s argument. Against them were the six great traditionalists led by Erich Gamlyn, who brooded undecided. It needed a last push to sway the argument.

  Malkrin stood up to persuade the hardliners.

  ‘If I may speak Sire,’ he bowed to The Fox, who held up his hand to silence the council. ‘In my travels I have come to realise only the quarter-men come from the deadlands. It is as I have already mentioned; a great range of glowing mountains many, many weeks journey from here. The great lands of Monjana in between contain many rich and varied tribes with great traditions and varied beliefs inhabiting a rich diversity of towns, villages and productive land. The majority of these people believe in the great Goddess Jadde and of her return in a time of crisis. So in all ways they are brothers of the Seconchane. They even speak in dialects of our language and have perfectly formed children and are not mutants as the stories we tell our children would have us believe. Also a very brave Seconchane novice priest has already lost his life fighting the quarter-men to save another Seconchane citizen’s life. I would not like his sacrifice to be in vain, especially as he has passed his huge highsense ability onto Palreth Tonell of the Sylve. Palreth, because of Olaff’s selfless act, is now the first true member of both tribes.

  ‘Get to the point please,’ asked one hard-line councillor.

  ‘My point is the deadlands do not start at the Darent Pass but are much further from Cyprusnia. Therefore our people are unnecessarily contained in these sheltered valleys and need not fear the tribes beyond.

  ‘And what of the Wolf bandits who harass our borders regularly. Are these not mutants in wolf-pelt disguise?’ Gamlyn responded.

  ‘Does my companion BalthWolf Bone-thrower appear a mutant to you?’

  The Bone-thrower stood and removed his wolf-pelt cloak to prove Malkrin’s point then sat down without
uttering a word.

  ‘No he is not,’ Malkrin answered the silence. ‘And the Wolf people have never stolen either lives or goods from us. They merely want to continue their sacred journey which must be completed once every four seasons. This has never been accomplished to Jadde’s precisely specified route.’

  Bredon indicated for Malkrin and Gamlyn to sit and the council continued the heated whispering. Malkrin highsensed a distinct softening in attitudes, and whispered the change to his companions just as Bredon stood.

  ‘We have reached a final binding decision,’ he announced gravely. Gamlyn locked his eyes on Malkrin; his gaze was unreadable, even to Malkrin’s highsense.

  Had they decided to follow Gamlyn’s bigoted views?

  ‘We have decided eleven for and one against to aid our new neighbours, and to send a force of half our warriors with half of the hunters and half of the fit townsmen to go to the aid of the Brightwater people. They will leave the day after tomorrow to allow time to organise weapons and provisions. We estimate it will be a force of three thousand men and will show our new brother tribes the supportive and good neighbourly attitude of the Seconchane. We require Malkrin Owlear to lead this force and his companions to act as guides to these lands. We further ask BalthWolf to ensure all acts of aggression toward the Seconchane cease, in return we will offer his people passage through our lands once this crisis is over.’

  Bredon sat down suddenly as if the weight of change had exhausted him.

  Malkrin bowed and offered ready agreement, as did his companions who had listened closely. Then Malkrin’s warriors could contain themselves no longer, and rose slapping and hugging each other and nearby Brenna guards in relief and victory.

  The remainder of the night was spent in guest quarters in the Great Hall. Malkrin stayed with them and slept until well after the sun spread its rays over the great encompassing mountains.

 
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