The catastrophe of the e.., p.14
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       The Catastrophe of the Emerald Queen, p.14

           LR Manley
 
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   Inside was her doll, but different. It had golden, curly hair down to its waist. which shone in the morning light from the window.

   “Oh mummy, it’s beautiful,” she exclaimed, holding it up and smiling. Sylvia put her arms around Maria and laughed. “Yes my dear, it’s lovely,” She saw her daughter’s face light up with joy and wondered who had been the one who’d put things right.

  “So, remember when you tease or bully someone else you cause them pain that can usually not be taken back.” 

  Stone, who’d taken the flute, bowed his head in shame and after another long silence Leppard said, “I think we all need to try and get some sleep now. We have an early start in the morning.” 

  The boys began silently arranging their packs as pillows. No one spoke and no one would look directly at Mordalayn in case they met his steel gaze.

  Chapter 15

   

  The foliage swept past him as he leapt clear, the leaves clinging briefly to his chest and face as he grunted with the exertion, grabbing the tree branch for leverage and then hauling himself on. Him and his three fellows knew only one of them might make it out but none cared who it was. Their mission was far too important for petty self preservation. 

  The dogs snarled in the background and cries from the men pursuing them echoed around the vast gardens of the castle estate. They had done what they were sent to do and now at least one of them needed to get back to give that precious information to their leaders. 

  Kulkrain sprang over the low wall that bordered the sanctuary and sped on. Hereth, Dexan and Javohl were behind him. All four were grimy and exhausted after the gruelling mission but, after days of discomfort and the loss of two of their number they finally had what they wanted.  

  As they ran across the circular courtyard facing the king’s bird sanctuary and pounded through the tall maze of hedges a soldier appeared in their path and raised his crossbow. Before any could react the man triggered the weapon and the bolt caught Dexan in the throat. He flew back and landed lifeless, spread eagled on his back amongst the thousands of tiny black stones that made up the courtyard. Kulkrain reached the man before he could reload and chopped brutally with the side of his hand and then flung him aside. The man went limp and they ran on, none of them sparing a backward glance for their fallen comrade. 

  They ran to the side gate, the wall surrounding it overgrown with clinging vines and vegetation, the stone work old and ancient. The gate was a portcullis like all entrances and exits in the royal palace and as Kulkrain and Hereth ran through there was a grinding noise. The spiked gate flashed down in a split second, trapping Javohl. Kulkrain and Hereth whirled, their dark skin shining in the moonlight. Breathing heavily Javohl looked back. “Go my brothers. I will hold them as long as I can,” he gasped without hesitation.

  Kulkrain reached through the gate and grasped Javohl by his forearm. “Strength in the next world brother”, he said quietly and Hereth silently reached through and grasped his friend’s arm too.

   Javohl reached to his belt and drew a long dagger. “GO!” he shouted and turning he ran back the way they’d come, the sounds of dogs and men much closer now.

   “COME ON!!!” he shouted loudly as the first soldiers appeared and ran straight at them. Kulkrain and Hereth ran on, not seeing him take down two soldiers before they could even raise their bows. Javohl snarled and drew the sword of one of the dead men at his feet and whirled, taking the head of another man who strayed too close. Then one of the huge dogs leapt at his sword arm and bit down hard. Javohl fell and in seconds it was all over as the soldiers and dogs engulfed him. 

  Kulkrain and Hereth hurtled on. They heard the distant shouts of someone shouting for the gate to be raised and ran along the path that led to the river. As they passed the eastern keep a shout went up. They ran to the trees and under the shelter Hereth grabbed Kulkrain’s arm and whispered.  

  “You have more strength left than I brother,” he gasped. “Go now, I will lead them the other way.” 

  Kulkrain saw the soldiers emerge from another gate on the far side beyond the keep. “Strength in the next world,” he whispered and turned and ran. Hereth ran back to the main path and pounded along it. The soldiers shouted and made to follow him. 

  Kulkrain cut through the trees, his instincts and the moonlight helping him through the thick, twisted ground. The boat was maybe two hundred yards beyond where they were. If he could make it he could be out onto the protected waters in minutes. 

  He clubbed and fought his way through the branches and finally saw the white rippling of the moon on the water. Without pausing he lurched forward to where the small boat was moored and hacked the rope in two short strokes, jumping into the rocking vessel. 

  Shouts behind him meant that Hereth’s diversion had failed. He frantically heaved the oars into position and pulled hard, trying to get out of crossbow range as fast as he could. 

  He twisted to see a squad of ten or more soldiers appear howling on the bank. Two or three pointed and some tried to shoot after him but the shots splashed into the water. Not slowing down he continued to haul hard and knew that unless they pulled a miracle he was now clear until the far side of the lake. There he could ditch the boat and move back to land, where they would never find him.

  The captain of the guard knew the mission had been a partial success. Of the six spies they’d caught, two had been killed upon discovery, one in the courtyard and another by the dogs at the gate. The final two had nearly made it but one had tried an unsuccessful diversion. He knew also that King James would be looking for someone to blame if even one got away and it would almost certainly be him. He glanced over his shoulder as another soldier; huge and bearded appeared from the trees. The man’s shoulder insignia signified he was a marksman. 

  “Can you make the shot Tobias?” he said indifferently. 

  “Did you need to ask?” the figure said in a rumbling voice and raised a huge and sleekly designed bow to his shoulder. After interminable seconds he pulled the trigger and the cord twanged. The bolt whistled out across the glimmering, velvet water. After a second there was a thud and the silhouetted figure pulling so urgently on the oars was flung forward, tumbling from the tiny boat and into the water with a splash. 

  Nodding satisfaction and silently thanking his personal gods, the captain turned to Tobias. 

  “Good shot,” he said nodding his approval.

   Tobias grunted and stared out where the empty boat continued to drift away. 

  “Right! Back inside. There’s a mess to clear up. Find out who was on guard duty.” He barked to his men and they melted back into the trees, heading towards the castle.

  Kulkrain waited until he could no longer see any sign of movement on the shore and then painfully hauled himself back up into the boat and lay flat on his side. The bolt had pierced his left shoulder and gone clean through. When he was sure that no one would be able to see him any more he sat upright and winced as the pain lanced up his side. Stripping his shirt he rolled it up and tied the soaking material around his shoulder, the fabric turning crimson where it touched his wound. When he was certain he had staunched the blood flow as much as he could he slowly pulled on the oars and made for the far side of the lake.

   

  Chapter 16

   

  At dawn the next day the boys woke. Mordalayn had remained awake all night keeping watch and as they silently ate a small breakfast they made no attempt to engage him in conversation. Once everyone had eaten they put out the fire and made their way onwards. The Cherubs was on the other side of the woods and the few boys who had been to the house before were excited, telling the others about the wonderful garden that the owner, Maximo Cherubsayl had cultivated over many years. With talking plants, flowers in every colour you could imagine as well as a little farm of animals. Not to mention the fairies. 

  They walked on as the huge sun rose in the sky and after a few hours the trees thinned and in the distance
they could see a house. “First!!!” Blautin shouted in excitement as he pointed to the building in the distance. It looked like a farm building to Jared and appeared to be a bungalow. A thatched roof of tight weaving adorned the house and to the left was a second building that Jared guessed was used to keep animals. 

  The boys started talking excitedly and hurried their pace, Mordalayn at the back checking around constantly while Leppard and Challandra were at the front. 

  “Never been here before, looks pretty good,” Bue said to Leppard who smiled. 

  “As I recall you were not allowed to visit last time due to being confined to the orphanage as a punishment” 

  Bue shrugged and ignored the comment. “Big house, how many people live there?” 

  “Just Mr Cherubsayl and his wife. They are old friends of Madame Veer.” 

  As they walked on to the house, people began to notice their arrival. The front door opened and a big man appeared. From behind him the three boys who’d gone ahead squeezed past and ran down the path to the front gate. The man stepped out and Madame Veer appeared beside him.  

  The other boys started to run and soon they were at the front gate, hugging their friends. As Jared walked up he could see that the formerly petrified Getruhl was now smiling and had lost his shyness. The boy was pointing back to the garden and to the house, talking excitedly. 

  Leppard and Mordalayn stepped forward to greet Maximo. He looked middle aged and his head was a mop of shoulder length, black hair. Big but not fat with a big black beard he appeared to be somebody who had worked his life in the country and had a big, red, happy face. He looked pleased to see everyone and as the boys ran up to him he squatted down and hugged a few while shaking hands with others and clapping a few on the back. 

  “Blautin, hello son. Still good with a flute I hear.”

  “Jethrul, hear you’re getting along well these days.”

  “Stone, you seem to have grown a foot every time I see you.” 

  The boys laughed and were clearly pleased to see Maximo who greeted most by name and made some friendly comment or other then turned to Jared. 

  “And you must be the young man I have heard so much about,” he said kindly and took Jared’s hand in his huge one and shook it hard. “Such a pleasure to meet you.” 

  Madame Veer then spoke up. “Boys, your attention for a moment.” 

  They paused in their excitement and she continued. “As you know we are here because of the danger that befell us. Most of you know of Mr Cherubsayl’s house and the others have heard stories.”

   There was a buzz as the boys murmured their agreement.

   “You may relax here and enjoy the grounds and the gardens with Mr Cherubsayl’s permission BUT you are still under my authority and absolutely no one is to break house rules or leave the grounds for any reason. Is that clear?”

   The boys mumbled their understanding and then another woman appeared next to Maximo. She looked about the same age, and was small framed with blonde hair down past her waist, flashed with streaks of silver. She smiled at the boys and said hello.

   “Hello Mrs Cherubsayl,” they said back and she looked to Maximo. 

  “I’m sure the boys would love to explore the gardens with you Max,” she suggested. “Why don’t I take our guests inside and you show them around.” 

  “Good idea!” Maximo beamed. “Who’d like to see the gardens and my lovely animals then?” 

  There were loud shouts of approval and even Madame Veer smiled. “Good, good. Right, drop your stuff in the hallway then come back.” 

  They did so and assembled in front of him. Mordalayn, Leppard and Challandra moved towards the door. Jared made to follow but Mordalayn said quietly. “No Jared, you go with the boys. Have fun. This meeting is not for you.” 

  Jared looked up confused but saw Mordalayn’s expression was friendly and handed the Caracalic his pack and then moved to the other boys. Maximo led them off to the garden, all of them chattering excitedly. 

  Near to the house was a small garden of tall flowers, like sunflowers nodding in the gentle breeze. As they walked up to them one of the flowers turned its head “Hello young people, such a pleasure to see you,” it said in a lilting voice 

  Jared and the others jumped and one boy squeaked in fear. Maximo chuckled “Now, now. Don’t be frightened lads. This is the whimsical sunflower. Why don’t you say hello?” 

  Jared stared at the plant, still not fully comprehending how this world could constantly surprise him. The flower turned slowly, its head passing along all of them. Its mouth was just below the centre of its orange face and it appeared to be smiling. Slowly it extended one of the leaves from its mains stalk like an arm and looked at Jared. “You are not of this world are you?” it said. Its voice was lilting and soft, female and reassuring. The sort of voice you could imagine reading little kids a bedtime story. 

  “Shake hands Jared,” Maximo said kindly. 

  Jared held out his hand and grasped the large green leaf which tightened slightly as it wrapped around his fingers. “Such a pleasure,” the plant crooned. Its voice was ever so soft and Jared felt sleepy just listening to it. The other children gazed at it. Some of them had seen it before but they all still seemed amazed. The plant turned its face to a neighbouring flower and in a whisper said, “Serena, we have visitors. Surely you would wish to say hello.” 

  The other plant raised its dial to look at them and gently shook it from side to side as if waking up. “My, my. Little men, young Blautin you have grown” Serena said. Blautin giggled and stood still as the plant extended one of its leaves to tickle him under the chin. Other plants nearby, maybe ten in all turned to gaze at the visitors and Maximo chuckled at Jared’s confused expression.

   “Not used to this are you?” he said,  

  Jared shook his head. The sunflower he had been introduced to turned to him “You must excuse me now young man. It is high noon.” 

  Before Jared could reply the flowers all straightened as tall as they could go and raised themselves up. They were stock still and their dials were turned to the sun, high above in the sky. A soft song, like a birdsong but sweeter and more melodious came from the plants and Jared again thought he would doze off. The plants swayed slightly to the rhythm. “Come,” Maximo said “it is the plants’ time to pray.” 

  Jared and the others walked away, glancing over their shoulders as the sleepiness lifted. Watching the plants, tall and beautiful in the bright sunlight.

   Further down was a small pen with a fluffy green animal in it, about the size of a Labrador puppy. It jumped about excitedly as the boys and Maximo approached it and yipped loudly. As they got closer, Jared could see its face was more or less hidden by the tumbling green locks of fur. Just a small, pink snub nose stuck out from the middle of the pea green curls. It jumped up and down and rubbed against the bars of its wooden cage as the group came near.  

  “And this,” said Maximo, sliding the bolt on the top of the cage, “is Terka.” As Maximo raised the hatch the animal launched itself at the hole and cleared it, landing on Jared who grabbed it as it scrabbled around chest level and when he had a firm grip, began lapping his face with a slobbering wet tongue.

   “Hmm…likes you,” Maximo said amused and a couple of the other boys laughed. The creature had tiny paws that scrabbled for purchase on Jared’s arms and after slobbering over his face for a few seconds more it put its head on his chest and began to purr contentedly. To Jared it was like holding a big ball of fluffy cotton wool with a face. He stroked its head and the creature snuggled up against him. Maximo reached over and took the creature by its collar and gently lifted it away. It made no attempt to resist and as Maximo placed it back in its cage it began excitedly yipping at the boys. “I see you make friends easily young Jared,” Maximo said with a smile. 

  “Err…actually, no not usually,” Jared replied. 

  They then rounded another corner and a group of small flying figur
es buzzed round the corner to meet them. Jared jumped again and saw that he was facing about six or seven little people, about twelve inches in height each with tiny clothes. They had wings on their backs which beat too fast to see. They stopped in front of the group, hovering and looking expectantly at Maximo. 

  “Ahhh, children and let me introduce my friends the fairies,” he said turning to the boys. The fairies flew down to the children and began chattering excitedly. 

  “Hello young sir, how are we today?” one said to Blautin. Another made a beeline for Bue and hovered next to his left ear.

   “Hello there, may I accompany you on your journey round our house young fellow?” 

  Maximo laughed. “They are very friendly to people and like to help,” he said brightly. “Tell me Keran, have Kloee and the others come back yet?”

   “No master,” one replied looking serious. “I think they are still collecting for you as you asked.” 

  “Good, good,” Maximo said nodding. “Well, I’ll leave you with my winged friends for a while.” He walked back to the house.

   “Want to play a game?” a hovering fairy said in a high voice. 

  Jared looked around, the other fairies were nearby, their faces expectant and wings beating fast. 

  “Err..sure,” he replied. “What do you have in mind?.”

   “Brilliant!” the fairy said clapping its tiny hands together. “We’re going to play Phase.” 

  “Phase, Phase!” the other fairies shouted darting around the shoulders of the children in weaving patterns. Two giving each other a high five and then looping the loop, sparkling dust spilling around them.

   “Come on, I’ll show you,” the fairy said beaming and flew into the back garden.

   When the boys got there, there was a fairly large swimming pool with wooden cages either end. Both were big and looked sturdy. The fairy turned to him and buzzed down low.

   “My name’s Jeejoh,” he said conspiratorially and winked at Jared. “I’ll be your keeper for this.”

   Jared glanced over his shoulder and saw the other boys coming up behind them. The fairies were flitting around excitedly amongst them and darting in wild circles and loops. Jeejoh flew on ahead, down the slope to the pool.

 
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