The catastrophe of the e.., p.5
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       The Catastrophe of the Emerald Queen, p.5

           LR Manley
 

   “Who were those men?” Jared asked glancing back across the bridge to where the leader could be seen attempting to stir one of his prone men by kicking him.

   “Mercenaries” Mordalayn replied. “Their commander is Galfront Siavy.”

   He turned and extended his left foot, pushing against the dock hard so the boat moved away from the bridge and the water lapped against the sides. He picked up one oar and pushed against the wooden surface, the boat turning slightly with the pressure. He then slotted the oars in place and sat down, begining to haul on them, pulling clear of the dock. Then both he and Jared turned to the unexpected sound of running feet thudding hard on the wooden boards of the bridge.

  Galfront was furious that Mordalayn had bested his men so easily. It was bad enough he’d been forced to cover so much land tracking this child. To add insult to injury Mordalayn, once a general, had for the last twelve years been the personal bodyguard to the Emerald Queen of Alegria. Yet it didn’t appear to have dulled his fighting abilities. He had needed to be sure of the Caracalic’s skill so ordering his men to attack had been informative to say the least. Still, he had to admit that he’d proved his mettle.

   Angrily Galfront kicked the man nearest to him to wake him up. The soldier groaned and grabbed his sore head. “Get up you mangy dog!” he cursed at the man, who winced in fear and staggered to his feet. “Get after him and stop that boat.”

   The man saluted, knowing better than to argue, even on the rare occasions when Siavy was in a good mood. He turned to the boat in the distance and winced as Siavy barked. “I said stop them, don’t dawdle man!.”

   The soldier bent down and picked up his mud spattered sword and then ran towards the boat. Galfront folded his arms and leaned on a tree to watch, as one of his other men slowly made it to his feet and shook his head groggily.

  Mordalayn couldn’t understand why the man was running at them. They were already clear of the dock and the distance was increasing with every passing second. The mercenary hurtled towards them. Mordalayn stared at him and shouted. “Stop man, you won’t make it.”

   The soldier paid no heed and with a roar leapt the distance from the bridge to the small boat. He fell short by a foot and splashed into the water. His hands scrabbling for purchase on the side of the craft. Mordalayn stepped back putting one hand on Jared’s shoulder. Puzzlement crossing his features as the man floundered, his sword slipping from wet fingers and clattering into the boat.

   “You fool, don’t you know how dangerous these waters are?!!” Mordalayn shouted angrily.

   The man snarled and his back legs kicked frantically as he tried unsuccessfully to heave himself up. Jared watched mesmerised.

   Mordalayn reached down to the man and grabbed his arm, kicking his sword out of reach.

   “Stop struggling and I’ll pull you in” Mordalayn told him firmly.

   The soldier reached behind his soaking cloak, scrabbling for something.

   Just then Jared heard a new sound. Whispering on the air, similar to the sound of leaves rustling in the trees mixed with chattering. Mordalayn glanced up at the noise and winced. “Quickly you fool, take my hand.”

   The whispers got louder and sounded closer. Jared looked around quickly but could see nothing. Two of the other soldiers ran up the bridge. The distant figure of Galfront stood motionless, watching what was happening.

   As Mordalayn moved to take a firmer grip on the man’s arm to pull him up the soldier brought out a dagger from his belt and swung wildly. Mordalayn contemptuously grabbed the knife arm with his other hand.

   “Let the blade go” he hissed in the man’s face.

   The whispering got louder as the boat rocked wildly, water spilling into the vessel as the two figures struggled. Jared fought to keep his balance on the bench, moving back further from the entwined figures.

   Jared glanced past the two struggling men to see they had made some distance from the dock and shapes were forming in the water. Something was underneath the surface.

   “For the love of the sun man, LET THE BLADE GO!!!” Mordalayn shouted, finally losing his composure as he tried to prevent the man from sliding into the water yet fighting to keep the dagger away from his face.

   The whispering now had a sinister edge to it, a noise like a child chuckling. Not sweet like a baby’s giggle but dark and horrible. The soldiers on the dock were gesturing frantically at the boat, while the disturbances in the water became more numerous, the motions and ripples getting nearer to the vessel.

   “Soooooo sweeeeeeet” a voice said on the breeze as Mordalayn finally succeeded in twisting the man’s knife hand far enough to make him drop the blade into the water.

   “Nauuughty!!!” the voices echoed, seeming to come from everywhere at the same time.

   The man kicked and struggled and Mordalayn tried in vain to pull him into the boat.

   “Sooooo looooovely” the voice snickered as the water rose and fell.

   “For the love of life you imbecile, STOP STRUGGLING!!!” Mordalayn shouted in exasperation.

   The whispering was intrusive. Jared could feel shivers running down his spine and clapped his hands over his ears to shut out the sound.

   A hand suddenly appeared at the far end of the boat, reaching over the stern. White as bleached bone with long pearl coloured finger nails it drummed gently on the wood. Drops of water fell from the fingertips.

   “Oooursss” the voices cooed, the sound of leaves blowing in the wind was now matched with what sounded like birds’ wings beating madly and frantically.

   Jared watched terrified as the hand moved slowly along the side of the boat towards Mordalayn and the soldier, steam rising in wisps from it. Further back you could see the two men on the dock pointing madly and shouting.

   The hand was connected to a wrist which wore a bracelet made of pearls, the same colour as the nails on the hand. The middle finger was wearing a large pearl ring.

   Mordalayn saw the hand approaching and with a look of regret let the man go, who slumped back and fought to retain his grip.

   “It’s too late. You’re beyond help now,” he said solemnly shaking his head. He stood near Jared as the thrashing soldier finally realised his danger and turned round as the hand reached his shoulder.

   “Soooo taaaasty!!!” the voice whispered again and then giggled like a little girl. The fingers on the hand pinched the flesh of his upper arm through his leather tunic.

   The man shrieked in fear and pleaded. “Please, don’t leave me.” Mordalayn shook his head as other arms came sliding from the water and took grips on the man’s upper body. He kicked and screamed and with one final burst of energy managed to half heave himself into the boat. Jared then saw something that frightened him more than anything else that he’d seen. The arms were not attached to a body, they were just loose, the sleeve of a gown that appeared to be made of sequins covering each one. As Jared reacted in fear, one of the arms paused in its approach. The hand turned towards him, the palm raising itself upwards, rearing back and the fingers flexing like spider legs. Then it turned to the soldier who was screaming in a high wail that carried over the lake, his two colleagues frantic on the bridge but powerless to help him.

   Suddenly the thrashing stopped. A yellow light emanated from the heavy pearl ring on the middle finger of every hand holding the man. Jared couldn’t tell how many, maybe seven or eight, the last one slithering over the man’s wet forehead from behind and grasping his face. The light grew until the different points merged and the soldier was coccooned in light. He went rigid but his eyes still moved between the fingers, darting wildly to Mordalayn and Jared.

   “Strength in the next world” Mordalayn whispered as the light completely covered the man’s body and suddenly, without any warning he tipped backwards, his grip on the boat gone and was pulled beneath the surface. There was not even a ripple in the wake. Only a yellow light that faded slowly until the waters were calm and blue.
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   Mordalayn stepped forward once the light had gone and picked up the man’s sword. Without hesitating he threw it out across the lake, the blade spinning wildly as it arced through the air before splashing into the water.

   Mordalayn turned to Jared. “Keep your hands and feet inside this boat, if you do that then the boat will not overturn, even in a storm. Do you understand?”

   Jared was white, still terrified by what he’d seen.

   Mordalayn could see his fear and said more gently. “The lake is guarded, as is the perimeter. None may swim or hunt here, although that in itself is not a death sentence.”

   “What happened to him?”

   “He tried to harm me.” Mordalayn replied. “For that he paid with his own life. The guardians of the border lakes do not tolerate aggression…unless of course they are the ones dispensing it.” 

  Jared glanced at the shore. The remaining soldiers had returned to their master who was already on his horse and signalling them to join him.

   Jared looked back at Mordalayn. “You tried to save him? He was trying to kill you,” he asked, confused.

   Mordalayn looked grim. “The man was a soldier. His master is cruel. I only kill if I have to.” He unhooked his cloak and placed it around Jared’s shoulders. “Here, it’s a long journey and it may be cold. Take this.”

   With no further word, he turned and sat on the bench in front of Jared and took the oars. Heaving hard to take the strain of the current and the weight of the water, he began to row towards a destination that was for Jared unknown.

  Chapter 5

   

  The sun, though huge in the sky was only as warm as a spring day and Jared wrapped the cloak he'd been given around himself, more to feel safe than anything else. The dock was now empty and the soldiers had gone. Mordalayn rowed hard, the oars slipping into the water in perfect unison as he heaved. For a long time there was no conversation then he glanced back towards Jared.

   "Are you tired boy? Sleep if you wish, there are cushions in the hatch at the back near your feet.”

   “How on earth does he think I can sleep NOW?” Jared thought angrily.

   "No, I can't sleep, in fact I don't think I'll ever be able to again" he snapped, pulling the cloak around himself.

   Mordalayn half turned. "Look, I know you must feel overwhelmed by this but.....”

   "You'll tell me later. I know.”

   Mordalayn paused for a few moments then pushed the oars into the locking position and stood. He sat to face Jared and the boat rocked slightly.

   "Jared....please be patient. I am sorrier than I can tell you that you have become involved in this but...." he looked up as a flock of crimson birds squawked past them noisily, wheeling up into the sky.

   "This world is in turmoil. We cannot sustain ourselves while the queen is in this state.” He paused then said, "She is Our Lady, the guardian and keeper of this world. While she is hurt we are greatly vulnerable.”

   "That...man you stopped in her room. Who was he?"

   "He comes from the dark, a weak individual with no honour. Our enemies gather and they have great reason to believe that this world should end in its current form.”

   The boat rocked slightly in the water. Jared glanced over the side and saw the water rippling gently in the wind.

   "I have to get you to the Shores" Mordalayn said, taking the oars again. He sat down and began to row hard. "Around to your right you can see what we're heading for.”

   Jared stared sullenly at the floor of the boat for a few moments and then looked out to where Mordalayn had pointed. In the distance and still obscured by the mainland was some sort of large building, a vast entrance gawping at its front. As the boat slowly edged round the curve of the land Jared saw that it was huge. The construction was dark grey stone, gleaming wetly like it had recently been rained on. The opening was rounded but came to a point and a large tip of narrow stone pointed out from the apex of the doorway.

   There was no door visible, only a dark maw. The building continued back from the vast entrance like a gigantic snake, the view of the mainland currently blocking the sight of the rest.

   As Mordalayn rowed Jared glanced around him. To their left was dark green land mottled with red. The land itself was very high with tall, thin trees dotted about and slightly ahead and to the right a small hut, alone on the hillside. A path ran in a rickety fashion, crookedly zig zagging along the steep face until it terminated at the top. A few animals could be seen clinging to the cliff face, munching on the grass that grew in abundance on its surface. On the other side of the boat the water ran out into an expanse of blue, the mist about a mile beyond them hiding the land on that side. There were only grey shapes visible through the fog.

   As Jared turned back he saw more of the huge building they were headed for. The impression he'd had of the opening resembling a mouth turned out to be accurate. With a start Jared sat up and realised that he was looking at an enormus, sculpted recreation of a face with the mouth wide open.

   They gradually inched up on it in the boat under Mordalayn's constant hauling.

   The huge face appeared to be helmeted. The artwork was unbelievably detailed and flawlessly sculpted. The nose guard extended down to form an overhang in the entrance and the eyes of the soldier were open wide. It looked as if anything entering the mouth of the face would be swallowed. The sun played in vivid spills over the metal, splashing over the surface. Jared stared awestruck.

   As they came nearer and rounded the land on their left Jared could see people working. Some appeared to be tending to fields while a few men were riding on horses near them as if supervising the work. Mordalayn rowed closer, taking their small vessel to within about 100 metres of the dock. No-one paid them the slightest notice at all. Eventually they came to a docking area close to the gaping entrance. Mordalayn whistled to a group of scruffily clothed men standing near the dock. They looked up and moved to the silver, riveted mooring points.

   Mordalayn threw them the ropes from the bow of the boat and two of them reeled them in, lashing the lines securely around the metal with a complicated series of knots. Then he leapt nimbly from the boat in one fluid skip. He turned, tossed the nearest of the men a coin then extended his hand to Jared who stood, unsteady on his feet and handed the cloak back before stepping up. He took a deep breath and lunged forward. His shoe scraped on the loose grains of stone as he gained purchase on the solid floor and then staggered forward. Mordalayn took him by the shoulder.

   "Come boy, we need to hasten. I promised you an explanation and one you shall have.” They moved towards the huge entrance before them. A small, bright purple creature with an unbelievably long nose passed them pushing a small hand cart loaded with odd looking vegetables of some kind, the smell rich and sharp in Jared's nostrils. The creature was mumbling irritably to itself as it pushed the cart on, the wheels trundling noisily against the stone, one of them squeaking intermittently. The creature grumbled on, seemingly loathing whatever it was doing.

   There were people milling about in every direction. It reminded Jared of ants entering an ant hill. The huge entrance was now completely over them. Jared craned his neck to look around. The inside of the entrance was like a dome, dark red in colour and his eyes took a while to adjust to the change in light.

   Most people ignored them or failed to notice their passing. One or two bowed their heads or spoke a greeting to Mordalayn A tall, spindly creature with long skinny legs and webbed feet even bowing as he passed.

   The entrance hall reminded Jared of when his family had gone to Rome and visited the Vatican. The ceiling there had nearly caused him to fall over backwards trying to look at it all at once.

   Ahead the hall narrowed to a large tunnel. At the entrance to it were several soldiers. As Mordalayn and Jared approached a tall man in silver armour stepped forward. He nodded acknowledgment to Mordalayn, saluted then looked Jared up and down quickly, appearing agitated.

/>    "Greetings Takoba" the man. “May I ask who is the boy?"

   "Greetings to you Captain. I need to take him to The Council chamber.” He put his right hand on Jared's shoulder reassuringly.

   "Who is he?" the Captain asked again, looking nervous.

   "Wait here" Mordalayn said quietly to Jared then gestured to the Captain to step to one side. He spoke quickly and rapidly in the man's ear. The soldier looked at first surprised and twice glanced over in Jared's direction. He nodded at whatever Mordalayn was saying and then signalled to two of the other guards who had been watching them.

   "Take the Takoba and the boy to the council chambers" the Captain said, staring intently at Jared.

   The two soldiers the Captain had nominated as escorts moved silently in sync to step either side of them. They began walking to a large wooden and ornate door. The Captain said something to another officer who glanced with a shocked expression at Jared. Mordalayn put his hand on Jared's shoulder and gently nudged him forwards. As they approached it the door on the left hand side swung inwards with a groan and hit the wall with a loud bump. The guards moved, one taking up a position to the front of them and the other to the rear. They were expressionless.

   The corridor on the other side of the door was dark and Jared's eyes took some time to adjust to the gloom. Some way ahead of them was a brighter area that looked like a larger room. The guard at the front marched quickly, Mordalayn keeping up easily, Jared stumbling along briefly as he tried to increase his step. The walls either side seemed to be made of jagged rock but it was very dark and Jared couldn't really see.

   They came into a brightly lit area that took Jared's breath away. Hanging from the ceiling was a huge chandelier like a crystal tree hung upside down. The jewels in it glittered with a dazzling display of white light, cut with flashes of rainbow colours. The floor was paved with what appeard to be white marble and in the centre of the room in a circular pattern below the vast chandelier was a dark, ruby red pattern of tiles. There were various soldiers and people moving about, one or two wearing white and gold robes, like priests. Doorways in arched frames led away in several places, via little flights of steps.

 
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