Jadde ndash; the fragile.., p.32
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       Jadde – The Fragile Sanctuary, p.32

           Clive Ousley
 
Muttering and whispered conversations accompanied the slow progress of the long column of allied tribes. Malkrin rode up and down the column inspiring and urging the people on. During every night’s camp a few foolishly independent individuals disappeared; their heads always found the next morning impaled on stakes. No matter how many sentries were set around the large gathering there appeared to be no stopping the quarter-men beyond the perimeter.

  Even the weather was against them. Blossoming storm clouds led to lashing rain that washed the remaining spirit from all but the Wolf people. They were used to travelling in any weather.

  Malkrin sighed with dismay as he examined another hideous display. It was always placed alongside the sacred trail for all the people to see. Yesterday he had ordered a section of Brenna to ride ahead to bury the remains before the people walked through. That worked and the people missed the hideous spectacle. But today the demons were wise to the tactic and the Brenna had been attacked as they buried the nights’ gruesome harvest. Only two Brenna and a rider-less horse returned and Malkrin reluctantly discussed TrathWolf’s new plan.

  ‘I will lie in wait for the demons through the night with twenty warriors and catch the demons in the act.’

  Malkrin reluctantly agreed, and that night the tribes were woken with shouts and cries of the dying. It was an expensive victory; the six quarter-men had died at the expense of nine Wolf warriors. It would have been ten but Seara awoke and ran with Palreth as escort to heal a warrior.

  Then Malkrin devised an audacious plan to ambush the demons.

  He scouted ahead that evening, before the tribes camped for the night. They were four days from the Wild-cat cave; two brave Brightwater women were with him and a band of selected warriors. Another group of warriors searched the surroundings for watching quarter-men. A rider gave the all-clear signal. Malkrin chose sandy ground and scooped out eight large holes big enough to contain a man each. The women Sattie and Ethy helped bury them under the sandy soil with hollow reeds protruding for Malkrin and his warriors to breathe through. The warriors were buried in a circle around the two women, with Malkrin buried the nearest to them for instant protection. They were instructed to shout, ‘now’ when the shadows beyond the campfire turned into demons.

  It had worked.

  ‘Now. Malkrin, now.’ The words still echoed in his mind. The warriors had leapt out of the soil in the nick of time and caught the overconfident demons as they swept toward the women. All six demons perished without a scratch on the warriors or women.

  Malkrin arrived back just before dawn with his victorious brethren. He passed TrathWolf’s disappointed face, and could not resist confirming his authority.

  ‘That is how you do things my friend,’ he stated simply and rode off to get some sleep. The next night he set a similar trap with four women, two of which were from the Celembrie and formidable warriors themselves who concealed long throwing knives in their clothes.

  Another triumph, eleven demons died for two wounded. Seara quickly healed them.

  The next night was demon free – they had won a small victory. The column camped the final night around the Wild-cat cave, again without trouble. The next day scouting bands of Brenna and townsmen greeted them and the long journey was over.

  Malkrin gave the officer a brief account of the failed defence of Brightwater, of Boele the Bears death and other Seconchane casualties, and then warned of approaching demon skirmishers.

  ‘We know already Sire Malkrin. We have had lines of Skatheln heads left with blood written warnings about harvesting our souls.’

  ‘I fear you have suffered as we have.’

  ‘Aye, but we found ways of ambushing them.’

  ‘You have lost many warriors?’

  ‘At first yes, but we learnt to make a good accounting. But we have lost the Skatheln people.’

  ‘How?’

  ‘They took fright and ran off. The thought of losing their souls was too much for such simple creatures. I had a section catch them but they would not stop and have disappeared into a narrow pass to the highest snow covered regions.’

  Malkrin nodded understanding, ‘Bulwan was a kind but impotent chief. The whole tribe were convinced that the Goddess Jadde was to be found in the mountains. They have gone to seek her protection.’

  Malkrin took Seara and her inseparable friend Palreth together with TrathWolf, BalthWolf, Talgour and Thicheal to a meeting with the Brenna Council. He left the tribes people with the Seconchane officer who gave assurances that they would all be accommodated in the meadows within the Seconchane fortifications.

  A heavy atmosphere pervaded the Hall of Justice, but during the long complex meeting that followed a bond was established between the peoples of all the lands. It was a grim discussion of tactics, and the defence and deployment of all fighters. It would be a battle to possible annihilation and all present knew there would be no second chance to retreat and defeat the quarter-men later.

  Malkrin glanced to Jadde’s altar and remembered his strange encounter with it, and wondered if he could summon his inner eye to risk another view. Would his mind stay intact for long enough to summon her help? He doubted it, after all he’d been through he couldn’t risk throwing everything away in a blind plea that may burn his whole mind this time.

  Sire Steth and Nardin were summoned and they shuffled in with Steth supporting his near blind assistant.

  ‘We . . . have found nothing of the missing diary pages.’ Steth’s voice was loaded with disappointment.

  Nardin took over, ‘But we have discovered much about the origin of the demons.’

  He had the council’s full attention.

  ‘Go on,’ said Bredon the Fox expectantly.

  ‘The ancients created the demons and allowed them the freedom to breed. Then when they had bred in secret multitudes and were killing countless tribes of people, the ancients realised the horror they’d created and made a weapon of great power to destroy the demon scourge. It used something called a biological insecticide that only targeted the quarter-men demons. I have looked in various volumes and found references to human mutations that accidentally combined insect DNA to human DNA and created the quarter-man race. It was this DNA that was somehow the key to creating the weapon.’

  ‘The ancients were not so wise after all; they played with their own doom,’ the Fox stated bitterly.

  Nardin glanced myopically at the intent faces staring back questioningly at him. ‘Indeed Sire. Before the killing began and the weapons were created, politicians and well meaning people decided not to destroy the fast breeding mutants, but allow them to set up their own ghetto. Then when they became uncontrollably aggressive, the ancients guarded them on a remote island. The quarter-men then escaped from this island. I discovered the ancient’s governments allowed more communities elsewhere; the containment problem was kept secret. An unregulated nest was spotted, then another. By then colonies had been allowed worldwide. More unauthorised colonies appeared and spread like a plague. The alarm was raised too late, huge quarter-man nests were detected underground in every remote area worldwide.’

  ‘You use many strange words Researcher Nardin but we understand the gist of your account,’ said the Fox. ‘I cannot believe the ancients were such fools as to allow the demon scourge to prevail when they could have eliminated the creatures before being overwhelmed.’

  ‘They had different values to us Sire. Politics and false morality twisted their thinking into knots and restricted actions to mere containment of the demons at first. Meek minded people would not allow the destruction of sentient beings no matter how evil their intentions. They cried something called ‘human rights’ then ‘quarter-man rights’ which apparently none dared argue against. Then the demons began slaughtering remote tribes, and people still refused to believe it was the quarter-men and put the deaths down to militant human groups called hard-line terrorists.’

  ‘Why is there no evidence in the books of the weapon eventually used to destroy the demons
?’ asked Thicheal.

  ‘Because the books were written before the weapon was created. Most were produced before the United Nations proclamation to destroy the quarter-men. However, I am convinced that somewhere nearby lies the remainder of the account which will tell of the solution.’

  ‘Somewhere in Cyprusnia?’ asked council member Erich Gamlyn and Malkrin seethed with imagined thoughts of Cabryce’s encounter with the Brenna Ruler.

  ‘I believe that to be so. The account mentions Second-chance Experimental station. We are the Seconchane. So I think over time our name was derived from the words second chance, which because we live here must mean our direct ancestors succeeded in destroying the quarter-men from here. Therefore the experimental station must be somewhere in or near Cyprusnia.’ Nardin bowed and sat as the meeting erupted in wild conjecture.

  Malkrin lent over Nardin and whispered, ‘4765, what was it?’

  Nardin’s face saddened and his eyes welled up in frustration. ‘I have no idea Malkrin. It would not tie in with any library location, entry number or title. The numbers have been at the forefront of my research but I can find nothing.’

  Malkrin thought back to his brief search in the ancient’s library with Nardin all those weeks before he had led the Seconchane to assist Brightwater. Falconfeather had been very specific about the numbers, which book could they refer too? He pushed the numbers to the back of his mind and thought of the sun and Planets emblem painted so hugely on the far wall. He had seen the emblem on the highsense suns and had marked it as being significant – but what significance he had no idea. He gave up and returned to more pressing matters.

  It was well into the night when The Fox announced the dispositions of defences would be revised to accommodate the influx of tribal warriors. He then announced a short respite for sleep. Malkrin decided early tomorrow he would take Seara to Nardin in the lower library where the quiet atmosphere would allow her to lay her hands on Nardin’s blindness.

  The next day in the library Nardin sat relaxed. Seara stood behind his chair and began by massaging his temples. Her eyes gently closed and a look of warmth spread over her face and in her hands.

  Malkrin allowed her time to work her gift and walked to the giant emblem on the far wall. He read again Morris-Tait’s account and glanced at the biology volumes Nardin had indicated. He couldn’t absorb himself in the research and strode the library trying to pinpoint the curiosity he had in the emblem. It was a more intricate depiction of the gold sun emblems he had taken from the deceased pursuer.

  All the time his mind repeated 4765.

  Finally giving up, he returned to see how Seara progressed. Nardin was slouched in the chair as if asleep, his face had lost that beleaguered look now his eyelids covered his haunted eyes.

  ‘How goes it?’ Malkrin whispered.

  Seara smiled with acknowledgement of a complex healing nearly completed. She had her hands to Nardin’s forehead and Malkrin’s highsense could see her gift transferring like ethereal mist from her hands into Nardin’s face.

  ‘I will return later.’

  He left to supervise the area of the Derant Pass defence the council had allocated him. Hundreds of men and women were frantically completing ditches and using the rocks and soil to raise additional ramparts on either side of the formidable existing palisade. Large stake filled pits had been dug in front of the first line of defence and disguised by a latticework of sticks covered with turf. Young children walked from the town with refreshment and supplies for the people labouring on the constructions. All work had stopped in the fields and only hunters roamed the forests gathering as much game as they could to feed the influx of people. Teams of Celembrie and Wolf hunters also caught game from the plains below Cyprusnia to share with the combined workforce. It was the first evidence of a new trust between the peoples, and Malkrin felt intensely satisfied at the sight.

  Later Bredon the Fox and the Brenna Council rode with a thunder of horse hooves from their homesteads. Along with Malkrin and other sector leaders they surveyed the preparations from a high bluff behind the original palisade. The view from there was tremendous. The snow covered Lachron Mountain rose majestically in the north. To the east, the faint spires of the Brightwater Mountains led down to unseen plains then foothills where Wild-cat cave was situated. To the west, distant mountains apparently contained the Olephate tribe to whom a Celembrie mission had been sent. The south was just a vast expanse of the deadlands. Should black demons swarm from the east, west or south they could be spotted twenty miles away.

  A storm was sweeping in and Malkrin realised that the demons could use such a natural blanket to get a lot closer before being spotted. Lookouts would have to be posted in the foothills to compensate. He made a note to deploy fast horsemen to the task later. Below the watching council the peoples of the allied tribes toiled to raise further defence lines all the way back from the Derant Pass to Edentown. The bustle and industry was like nothing Malkrin had ever seen before, how could the tribes fail with such collective purpose.

  The Fox asked for the attention of all his officers; then gestured with his sword as he described the defensive plan.

  ‘The steep mountain sides will ensure nothing outmanoeuvres our defence and gets behind us. The tactics will be straight forward: to defend each barrier-line in turn. When the demons threaten to overwhelm the first, a designated officer will sound the fall-back on a ceremonial trumpet. The Brenna cavalry will be held one defence line back as reserves in case the line before them is breached. Then by charging the demons the defenders can fall back through the horsemen or regain the line if the demons are expelled. I’m sure the sight of slashing, stabbing horsemen will put the fear of Jadde into the quarter-men.’

  Malkrin wasn’t so sure; the demons were incapable of individual fear and he doubted the horsemen would diminish an overall attack.

  The Fox carried on indicating with his sword and the emerging sun reflected from the weapon. ‘This strategy can keep the defence organised until the demons are spent and demoralised enough for us to counter attack and finish them.’

  Malkrin frowned; The Fox was still unaware of the demons’ ferocity despite all he’d been told. He doubted it would be that simple. He himself may have to make adjustments to the plan on the spur of the moment.

  The Fox continued, ‘the first three barricade lines will be composed of our fittest warriors, and the forth line the next best, and so on down. We will give sections of a line to each tribe so all warriors are with their own brethren as a morale boost. The last line will be manned by old men and volunteer women.’

  Malkrin counted nine lines of ditches being dug together with piled barricades on the Cyprusnia side of each ditch, eight of which were behind the original palisade and ditch and one huge well prepared line and ditch in front.

  ‘Finally, weapon stocks will be placed behind each line and I have allocated small boys to run to warriors and replenish their arrows and throwing spears as necessary. Should the line being engaged succumb, they will take the remaining weapon stock behind the next line. I have pressed on the boys the necessity of avoiding demons and to concentrate solely on the task I have given them.’

  The Fox looked directly at Malkrin.

  ‘A contingent of women will be setting up tents under the supervision of the healer Seara. She has been awarded her two highsense suns without ceremony or test as her talent is now so obvious.’

  Councillor Ethran Skunktail leaned over as Malkrin smiled at Seara’s deserved recognition.

  ‘Have you heard from Researcher Nardin yet?’

  ‘No Sire, Seara is healing his sight then he will continue searching every nook and cranny of the library. Sire Josiath Nighthawk and Sire Steth Harefoot are assisting him in the search. They work twenty hour days and sleep in the library to waste as little time as possible.’

  ‘If we have a few hourglasses to spare before the demons assault, join them. A fresh eye may spot something they’ve missed.’

 
Malkrin nodded as he viewed the great mountains behind still cloaked in winter snow, and wondered if the three sun people were looking down and watching with aloof detachment. He hoped the Highnirvana would find a solution to their breathing problems so they could add their peculiar talents to the struggle. He remembered how his own lungs had felt overloaded the first time he’d walked the lowland plains – he knew how the Jenna suffered. He just hoped they would arrive soon; any mysterious power would aid the tribes now.

  ‘. . . Malkrin, raise the height of the barrier where it meets the eastern rock face, lest the demons grapple their way over,’ ordered the Fox.

  Malkrin nodded and spurred his horse down the path leading to the defences.

  The people worked in shifts without dissent, the Seconchane had mingled with their cousin tribes and their stories of the demons and the doomed defence of Brightwater spurred the Seconchane on to forget any animosity, even of the Brenna.

  Later Steth sent down a book from the history section and The Fox immediately withdrew a dozen carpenters to assemble items called shields. The ancients had created wooden arm held barriers edged with bronze and mounted on a robust chassis that would absorb sword and javelin thrusts. Malkrin marvelled at the simplicity of the defensive item, it would allow warriors to defend with one arm and attack with the other – and lock together in lines for mutual protection as the books yellowed illustration showed. Further pages showed the use of firearms and Malkrin regretted throwing the empty magic-wasp stick. He laughed bitterly at his ignorance as he read how muskets and pistols worked.

  Shifts of sharp-eyed warriors watched for a blackening of the foothills and plains from the high bluff. If Malkrin had been with them he would have noted their anxious glances down to the improvised barricades now being augmented by a tower erected on top of stout wooden poles. A small group of demons had just been spotted in the distance and Brenna horsemen armed with fire hardened ash lances and shields rode out to engage them. The demons were annihilated with only the loss of three horses and four wounded.

  One other urgent task remained to be set in stone. Malkrin sent a messenger to bring Palreth to him. He was supervising strengthening a rock barrier when the young warrior arrived.

  ‘Greetings Sire.’

  Malkrin grinned, ‘just call me Malkrin my friend.’ Then he continued with his face set. ‘How are you progressing with mastering Olaff’s great talent?’

  ‘Sire, err . . . Malkrin, I can hurl balls thirty yards, with the power to kill any demon. I have trained myself to keep generating the magic for about an hourglass then the strength within me diminishes and I can only throw small balls a mere seven strides. They may not then stop a single sick or old demon.’

  ‘Better than I’d hoped.’ Malkrin used his most authoritative voice, ‘when the demon horde arrives, tour each line of defence and hurl fireballs at groups of demons that look about to break through.’

  Then he stared the young man in the eye. ‘If the worst happens and there is no stopping the creatures then take Seara past the Brenna homesteads and into the Lachron Mountains and search for people in a place called Highnirvana. I can give you no more information except that they definitely exist. Will you swear to do as I ask?’

  ‘I will Malkrin; you have the word of a member of the Sylve.’

  Later in the night Malkrin slept, content he had put in place a means to safeguard Seara. He owed it to the memory of his good friend Halle.

  He had also found time to race a horse back to visit Nardin, who was again researching fading volumes without using the antique eyeglass whilst Seara slept exhausted in a library chair.

  Then two days later a concerted probe in the early hours by a hundred demons threatened to overwhelm a sleepy defence. The demons preliminary skirmish cost forty-two warriors for fifty demons slain. It had taken the ever alert Celembrie led by the superhuman Thicheal to stem the breach and was a dire warning to all who had not yet engaged the quarter-men.

  At midday the horizon blackened with the quarter-men host. The evil tide approached in rippling waves with vanguard patrols filtering like oil trickling around large stones. They seemed more plentiful than Malkrin had witnessed on the plains before Mount Doom and many times the amount that had assaulted Brightwater. His heart pounded and he forced his highsense to pick up the thunder of a hundred-thousand bloodthirsty minds bent on annihilation. The tribes had been lucky to virtually complete the defences. He thanked Jadde for the time they had been given.

  They needed Nardin to find the ancient’s weapons and they needed help from the aloof Highnirvana – and all now.

  Right now.

  That evening the black tide rolled toward them. Timid men ran, although few they threatened to demoralise the allied defence. The Fox ordered them rounded up, the most cowardly he executed publically as an example, and the rest gave oath to stand solid.

  Liquor was handed out to the warriors and armourers and even the attendant boys and women. It fortified their resolve, a black humour developed along the lines. People danced around campfires, determined to spend their last night in hedonistic pleasure. But discipline held and the dark celebration fortified the defenders.

  They were hit for the first time before dawn; the swarm of demons were so tightly packed that fire-arrows could not miss. The black host hit the first defence barrier with undiminished force. A furious shower of arrows clouded the sky and rained down with the accompaniment of javelins and spears. The stake pits instantly filled with thrashing, dying demons; their companions merely stamped them down and the pits become their comrade’s graves. Piles of dead demons mounted and still more waves stomped over the corpses. An hour later weak spots appeared and Malkrin rushed reinforcements to them under the hail of fireballs that Palreth hurled into clumped demons. They saved the first line that night, but only just. The demons fell back after dawn and gathered beyond arrow range.

  Quarter-men had dragged warrior’s corpses with them and set a long line of stakes into the ground and set impaled heads on them. Hardened warriors were used to the display but the less battle tried Seconchane had to be bolstered by encouraging words from their commanders. The Fox strode along the line offering further encouragement as quarter-men charged again and were repulsed.

  The demons paused to finish off their own wounded for an hour, then massed hordes assaulted the line again.

  ‘Fall back to the main palisade,’ ordered the Fox.

  Malkrin and the other commanders organised the withdrawal. A wise order, Malkrin thought. To defend the first line further would be too costly. Young boys rushed back past Malkrin, their arms weighed down with sheaths of arrows and spears. He gathered his trusted companions around him and fought the demons as the last men filtered through the stockade’s heavy gates. Then he and his band ran back through the entrance, losing two warriors in the headlong flight. The stout doors were slammed on the demons and locked with massive timber beams.

  The reinforced palisade walls vibrated as demons crashed against them sending the unsteady falling from the walkway. Some rose instantly others were attended to by Seara and her helpers. Malkrin ran to the walkway, raising Palerin before him and shouting encouragement. He peered over the sharpened post railing as men from the tower pointed and shouted. The demons had learnt a few new tricks and Malkrin saw huge smashed tree trunks being thrust forward. The demon tide parted and six collections of demons thrust forward with the battering rams looking like giant multi-legged centipedes. They hissed and screamed triumphantly as they smashed into a concentrated area to one side of the great doors. Other demons threw lighted torches into the thatch roof of the tower and the men abandoned it amidst smouldering reed-thatch falling all around.

  He smashed Palerin down on a demon head that appeared over the post tops, they were climbing using their knife-fingers to dig into the wood for grip. All around men hurled quarter-men back and sledgehammer pounds on the logs set a deep evil rhythm to the shouts and cries of death.

  Then a cu
rious thing happened.

  Malkrin noticed fresh warriors leaping up the ladders to the walkway. They first touched Seara as they passed, just a touch on her shoulder or on her tied-back hair. Their mouths moved but in the horrendous din Malkrin could not hear. He questioned a Wolf warrior as he passed.

  ‘Our divine Angel gifts Jadde’s energy from her heart.’

  It seemed to invigorate them and they fought like men possessed.

  Then Seara rose from tending the injured and went to climb the ladder.

  Malkrin dashed along the walkway weaving between individual fights and leapt to the ground, rolled and grabbed her waist as she climbed the first three rungs.

  Palreth implored her from the ground. ‘No, get down my love.’

  Together they restrained her as she cried.

  ‘My friends they need my encouragement.’

  ‘You can help them more down here Seara. You will die up there, and then you will be no use to your friends, or me, or Palreth.’

  She calmed at the mention of Palreth and saw his concerned face before her.

  ‘You’re right, but I love them all.’

  ‘That’s as maybe. Take a break, you’re exhausted. We can hold here. Eat and drink, then return.’

  He glanced up as the first demon leapt down onto Cyprusnian ground.

  ‘Take her back,’ he ordered a limping warrior as he swung Palerin at the demon. Engaging the flailing creature, he jumping away from its feet-knives and severed its head with one gigantic sweep of his sword.

  He had a moment of epiphany and clasped the gold sun that had spoken to him all those weeks before. He knew now it was a communicator of thoughts, relayed through a string of users over great distance allowing the Highnirvana people to communicate with his pursuers and with Josiath. He thought into it with all his highsense.

  ‘Rachel?’

  ‘Rachel are you there?’

  A dead demon crashed down beside him; he avoided its twitching finger-knives.

  ‘Malkrin Owlear is that you with Jeremy’s sun?’

  It was the voice of Rachel again.

  ‘We need your help now, the main palisade is under assault.’ He thought at full shout as he looked up at the sunset filtering through the billowing smoke and orange glow of rampant flames.

  ‘Less volume Malkrin please,’

  ‘Can you help?’

  ‘We are travelling to you. We have rebuilt ancient guns, but it is a slow journey and they are a great weight to haul down the mountain. Expect assistance to arrive at twenty hundred hours approximately.’

  ‘20 hundred hours?’

  ‘Eight o’clock this evening. Also be advised we have had to split our forces in an urgent quest.’

  What do you mean?’

  A quarter-man lunged at him tearing his tunic arm and drawing blood. A spear was thrust into its carapace seams and two Wolf warriors dispatched it as Malkrin put his hand holding Palerin to his temple to aid concentration.

  ‘Are you injured Malkrin?’ The Wolf warrior asked.

  Malkrin waved him away and concentrated.

  ‘Four scholars and two soldiers have been diverted to find a Seconchane female trapped in a lost cavern belonging to the ancients. It is a legendary place and we have sought its location for years without success. In fact, ever since the quarter-men began re-emerging beyond Mount Doom.’

  Her words confused him and he finished with, ‘Just hurry.’

  ‘The additional quest may contain the solution to wiping out the quarter-men.’ Fear not Malkrin. All is not lost.’

  And the voice was gone.

  He swung Palerin at a demon that had just killed a Seconchane boy armourer.

  As the creature died he suddenly thought of the sun and planet symbol in the hidden library and realised what had mystified him about it.

  He would have to leave the tribes to fight without him. The ancient weapons were the key to killing the demons in a slaughter the tribes could not accomplish on the battlefield. The lower library was still the key to finding the armaments – and he had to get there quickly, for time was running out for them all.

 
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