Chapter 32: Ambush
Chapter 32 of The Light-Father: the Phoenix leaves the railyard to take to rails neglected during six years of ceaseless rain. Luck is with them as fogs form but as they reach Beorminghas, the City of Towers, their luck runs out…
“Damn, I forgot to test the release,” Harold muttered as he reset the brake control. “Without a vacuum in the pipes, the brakes in the carriages will not work when we need them.”
“Surely the Phoenix is heavy enough to stop three carriages?” Saul protested as Ibrahim shovelled more coal into the firebox. “Why did we waste time connecting all the brake pipes?”
Harold shook his head. “No, if we have to stop suddenly, three fully-laden carriages could still shove the Phoenix along the track. God, I just hope the non-return valves and the ball-valve don’t jam. Wait – I need to drain water out of the cylinders. Where’s the damn cylinder cock-lever? It should be near the floor somewhere. Ah, here it is and we turn it so.” Great clouds of steam shrouded the pistons and wheels as he reached up to release the throttle. “Now that’s how a steam-train should leave a station, Saul.”
The Phoenix trundled out of the shed and slowly moved towards the main line exit at the eastern end of the yard. Harold had set the points and taped a railway map to the side of the cab with the route to the Great Abbey marked in red. The sun was already free of the southern skirts of the great pall and the rain was easing with the thunder reduced to a muted rumble. “Fern, warn the Mothers that I’m going to test the brakes in three. Ready? Three, two, one.” He yanked the lever and the train ground instantly to a juddering halt. “Perfect, the carriage brakes engaged,” he sighed with relief, resetting the throttle and releasing the brake. “At least I know we can stop the train quickly and safely.”
“Look – a fog is forming to the south,” Fern said, pointing.
“How is that possible in this heat?” Harold exclaimed as the Phoenix began to gather speed. Ah, of course! There’s been a hell of a lot of hail in the night – the ground is covered in so much ice that any moisture in the breeze is condensing over it. It won’t last long in this hot sun, Fern, but if we’re lucky, it may last long enough to hide the Phoenix from Schimrian’s rotor-craft. Maybe Gaia is helping us after all.”
Fern gave him a devastating smile: “I can see why Moss had such faith in you. Had you not been here, this would not have been possible and as sure as night follows day and day precedes night, we would have all been hunted down and killed but now we have a chance to strike back at the Order. Bless you – at least we can make an end that will be worthy of a song or two. I’m sorry; did I say something to amuse you, Light-Father?”
“Not really,” he smiled. “What you said was almost word for word from a famous film – a cwickoo – in my world. Ah, we’re picking up some decent speed but I’m still not sure about these controls – they’re similar to those in my world but I only studied the principles. I don’t think the fire is burning properly – there must be a blower valve. Ah, I see – there are twin valves! Now left or right? Yes, that’s it,” he grinned with relief. “The smoke is now white and the boiler pressure went up – so that’s the boiler pressure valve.” He tapped a gauge glass tube. “This measures the water level in the boiler which has to be around half full to make a decent head of steam if I remember rightly.”
“You’re not filling me with confidence, Light-Father,” Ibrahim said darkly as he added more coal to the firebox. “It took you ages to work out how the fuel injectors got the fire going.”
“I know, I know. I’m not filling me full of confidence either but at least we’re moving,” Harold conceded as they emerged onto the main line. “I can’t go any faster than this just yet – we have to watch out for any points not being set and there could be trees or rubble blocking the line. The rails haven’t been maintained or cleared for six years – we could hit anything.”
The walls and buildings of the yard receded quickly as Shield watched from the footplate. “That was our home for six years.”
“Such as it was,” Saul said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “But the Keep was never safe and the yard even less so now. We have to find somewhere new to live and make it safe.”
“Look at all this hail,” Fern shivered as the Phoenix ploughed through great drifts of melting ice. “It’s made the air so cold in this cutting but the way this mist is forming around us makes me feel that Moss is protecting us somehow.”
Minutes later, they were crossing a shallow valley where the fog shrouded them but high above them to the south, almost invisible against the last of the clouds, they could see two rotor-craft heading westwards closely followed by another four.
“They didn’t see us,” Fern gasped with relief. “Praise Diana! Even with our powers combined, I don’t think we could stop the chain-guns of all six rotor-craft if they attacked us.”
“Why are we slowing down?” Ibrahim asked angrily. “If we stop, we’ll be an easy target for the Order.”
“We’re an easy target on the move anyway,” Harold replied sharply. “If we hit a tree at speed then it’s game over – I can’t see more than three yards in front of us!”
“Be at peace, Ibrahim,” Saul said placatingly. “They’ll destroy the buildings with chain-guns and when they find no bodies, they’ll check the roads and search the buildings around the yard. It will take them several hours so we have plenty of time before they’ll think of looking for us along the railway tracks.”
“No, Saul, you’re wrong to believe that,” Shield said grimly. “You forget that David was watching us and will tell them where we are. We have a quarter of an hour at the most.”
“And now the damned fog is thinning,” Harold said bitterly, applying the throttle. “Jesus, it’s getting hot now. This air feels like it’s coming straight from the Sahara.”
“You should try shovelling coal,” Ibrahim retorted. His shirt was being dried by the breeze then re-soaked with sweat.
“We have enough pressure now,” Harold declared, checking the gauge. “Rest for five minutes and pray the line is clear ah….damn it, Fern, we have a wall collapsed onto the track! I’m slowing down again so I can use the shield at the front to shove the rubble out of the way without damaging it too much – I hope.”
The noise was horrendous but the shield held and the wheels pulverised numerous bricks before they were clear. “Thank Saint Peter,” Saul said gratefully. “If we were forced to get out and clear the tracks by hand, the rotor-craft would have caught us.” He fell silent as the train passed through a thicket of denuded trees with their bark stripped away then they beheld a village reduced to roofless ruins. “Look, Light-Father,” he said, indicating a bare trunk with a plank of wood driven through it making a crude cross that overlooked the track. “I hope that’s not a bad omen.”
“So do I,” Harold agreed fervently. “What you call a vortex and what I call a tornado did this. I still can’t go any faster because it may have ripped up the track ahead or blocked it.”
Fern tapped his shoulder. “Mother Veneris says Surl is becoming very agitated. She says that she knows the track is clear ahead and we should hurry but we have to be extremely careful in Beorminghas and not just because of the rotor-craft – she says that ‘something very bad’ is waiting for us there.”
“There are bad things waiting for us everywhere so I wish she could be a bit more specific,” Harold said irritably, trying to peer through another bank of swirling mist. It was disorienting to plunge into a bank of thick clammy fog only to emerge briefly into broiling sunshine before being completely enshrouded again. “Saul, I know you’re fascinated by the gauges but please get back over to the other side and watch for ambushes and debris on the track!”
“How can Surl know what awaits us in Beorminghas?” Ibrahim demanded of Fern. “She’s never warned us about any dangers like this before… she…” He halted as he thought back. “But then she never talked to anyone much until the Light-Father appeared. Are you saying she is of the craft?”
“Possibly – but her limited prescience does not make her a Mother,” Fern said carefully. “I think she does have a gift that is becoming more acute as the tension and the danger builds up around her.” She turned to Harold. “I think we don’t have a choice, Light-Father – we have to abandon caution and get into the city quickly. Once we get amongst the cover of those tall buildings, it will be harder for the rotor-craft to attack us.”
“It won’t make much difference,” Harold said grimly as he opened up the throttle. “They’ll just fly along the track and attack us but for now, let’s place our trust in Surl and Mother Moss and pray we don’t hit anything before we reach the city.”
The locomotive shuddered and leapt forward making Ibrahim’s eyes light up with joy. “Oho! She wants this,” he grinned. “She knows this is her last journey so she wants to show us what she can do. What a truly beautiful engine she is!”
“She is at that,” Harold agreed as the Phoenix picked up speed. The hot sun struck the side of his face making him perspire. He removed his baseball cap to mop his brow with a red handkerchief only to suddenly recall it was a Christmas present from Andrea. They emerged from the last of the fog and the wind now whipping through the cabin was unbearably hot and humid and did nothing to cool them down. “This could be South Africa,” he sighed. “The only decent holiday we ever had…”
“What was that, Light-Father?” Fern inquired, grasping his right arm. “Did you say something? You appear distracted.”
“It was just a memory of my time with Andrea before the baby was born,” he explained. “We went to South Africa but there were food riots and protest marches that ruined the holiday for us. We had a United Nations organisation but wars, riots, revolutions and famines kept on happening all over the world.”
“That was how our world used to be before the Great Accord,” Fern said wistfully. “But, as I said, my mother knew I was marked as a child so I’ve never had a holiday.”
“The Mothers just whisked you off and you went through all that training with no childhood to speak of?”
“Yes – but I did once put glue on Moss’s chair as a child because she punished me for using my craft to steal food from the local bakery. I still remember the sweet taste of that apple pie and how much I resented the two thrashings she gave me.”
A shadow flashed above them and there was a load thump on the cabin roof. Harold was amazed to discover he’d drawn his sword only a fraction after Saul had drawn his. A familiar face appeared upside-down over the back edge of the cabin roof. “Surl insisted that I come up front,” Bas grinned broadly. “My eyes and ears are better than yours. She’s fretting about an ambush – Amos was telling her to stop until Mother Ivy threatened him.”
“Good for her. What about the Ferals?” Shield asked, readying her cross-bow. “They’ve never been in a train before.”
“Oh, a few are being mightily sick,” Bas shrugged. “But the others are enjoying themselves. Take a look behind you.”
Harold was surprised to see Ferals crowding at every carriage window – some with their tongues hanging out – relishing the sights, scents and the sensation of the hot wind upon their faces. “They’re like dogs leaning out of car windows,” he laughed.
“They’re not animals, Light-Father,” Fern said sternly. “Despite the corruption of the Order, they’re still children.”
“Ah, yes, I forget that at times,” he admitted, red-faced. “Keep a sharp lookout, Bas – here’s Beorminghas!”
The track threaded through suburbs and between hundreds of high-rise apartment blocks that made him feel as though he was back in the Midlands of his own world. Huge factory chimneys stood idle but everything was still stained black from the heavy industry – the incessant rains had merely added green and mossy stains to the grimy facades. He reduced speed to negotiate a sharp bend that led into a train station which had numerous corpses upon its platform benches where people had simply sat or laid down to die. “Jesus,” he muttered. “What possessed them to come here of all places to spend their last moments?”
“Familiarity,” Fern said with tears in her eyes as they passed the grotesque gallery at a walking pace. “They sought out a familiar place in which to part with their physical forms. They must all have had a connection with the railway – maybe they were rail workers or they simply travelled to work by rail every day. Maybe their families had all died so they came here to wait in vain for a train that was six years late.”
He looked at her with some amazement, realising what a complex woman she was: compassionate, empathic and beautiful – everything he once saw in Andrea and never in himself. “Saul, on the other side of the station is a set of points according to the map,” he said, tearing his eyes away from her perfect face. “You need to make sure they’ll take us south onto the Milverburg line.”
The train slowed to a crawl then Saul jumped down and raced ahead. “Bas!” Harold called out. “Watch his back!”
“I am,” she replied, readying an arrow. “There’s no ambush here and there’s nobody watching us from those buildings.”
Saul changed the points with difficulty as the lever mechanism had almost rusted shut. He was drenched with sweat by the time the Phoenix inched onto the Milverburg line. “I never thought I’d say this, Light-Father,” he panted heavily as he climbed up into the cabin. “But I’m beginning to miss the rain.”
“I don’t – despite the heat,” Harold replied as the Phoenix picked up speed again. “What’s the matter now, Fern?”
“Telepathy – Veneris has a message for Bas from Surl.”
Bas peered over the edge of the roof. “What is it?”
“She says she just had a vision of a tall building where a Father is watching you through some kind of telescope.”
Harold reacted instantly and hauled Bas off the roof of the cabin. Sparks exploded from the place where she’d been lying then the rolling crack of a rifle shot reached them. “There’s a sniper in that tower block on the right!” he spat. “He’ll probably be radioing the rotor-craft. Damn it, we’re in real trouble. Fern, warn the Mothers to get everyone under the seats!”
Shield gazed up at the tower block as it loomed closer. She ducked on seeing a muzzle flash but the bullet struck the roof of the cabin before ricocheting harmlessly away. “He’ll kill us if we don’t stop him,” she said, readying her cross-bow.
“That was too close,” Fern said quietly. She closed her eyes and concentrated. “I have him – he’s on the right-hand side of the roof in front of that chimney.”
“Yes – but how did he know the train was coming?”
“I know not, Shield,” Fern sighed, opening her eyes. “All he’s thinking of is how to shoot as many of us as possible. He’s waiting for a better angle. The Mothers are getting the Ferals away from the windows but he could still shoot down into the carriages.”
The Phoenix was almost at the base of the tower as Shield took aim but Ibrahim was incredulous: “That’s at least eight chains for the bolt to fly up there. There’s absolutely no chance of hitting him from a moving train at that distance!”
Shield fired and the bolt whistled upward the instant they drew level with the tower block. Ibrahim gaped as a small figure stiffened then toppled over the parapet to plunge screaming to the ground. “That’s impossible!” he exclaimed. “He failed to hit us with a sniper rifle and you got him with a crossbow bolt!”
Harold was at a loss as to how to deflect Ibrahim from his inevitable conclusion but Fern took the initiative: “I guided the bolt with my craft but it needed Shield to fire it with sufficient force so that I could make sure it reached the target.”
“Bless you both then,” Ibrahim said with a grateful smile. “I know you disapprove of such feelings, Mother Fern, but my inner demon took some small pleasure from his death.”
“I take no pleasure from death!” Fern snapped with such venom that he almost dropped his shovel. “If you did then remove that ‘inner demon’ from your heart otherwise you will never become the noble warrior that the world needs right now.”
Ibrahim’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the shovel. “I am trying, Mother Fern,” he insisted, looking down at the floor of the cabin in shame. “But like Amos, I have long revelled in the demise of those who have hunted us. Why should I not rejoice at the death of a fiend who has killed and maimed billions?”
Fern put a hand on his shoulder and without any apparent effort, forced him to his knees. “I felt nothing but sorrow for the man, Ibrahim,” she said coldly. “I thought of the conditioning that had made him thus and the circumstances of his death for as he fell, he fell as a human being desperately begging God to receive his soul and forgive his sins. Cruel necessity must never beget a cruel heart lest you lose yourself in that cruelty. Think of how we spared Kai who will now be fighting alongside us and guiding us whereas you would have killed him had we not been with you.”
“I do not trust him,” Ibrahim said bluntly. “But I will consider your words. Don’t forget that I and my sister were brought up by cold unloving parents and we have lived in fear of death at the hands of men like that dead Father for six years and we have done nothing to deserve any of it! These Fathers and Brothers derive great pleasure from their Inquisitions and they spent many hours torturing Mother Moss to death.”
“I have never forgotten that,” Fern said wearily. “But to revel in the violent death of one of the Order is to become the Order.” She released him and he slowly got to his feet to be comforted by Bas. “When the time comes for you to decide between revenge and mercy, you will find the true fulcrum of your life, Ibrahim: you will face a decision as to whether you embrace a delight in savagery, revenge and death or you choose to reject that ‘inner demon’ and live a long and fruitful life.”
“A wise man in my world once said ‘an eye for an eye and the whole world ends up blind’,” Harold added, scanning the track ahead. “He’d purged his heart of hatred despite the injustices and horrors he’d witnessed and the certainty that his enemies would one day kill him. He was both a warrior and a saint.”
“I will follow his example then,” Ibrahim vowed. “Try as I might, the demon within me still cries out, Mother Fern, but I vow I will do my best to make him a very small demon.”
“As we’ve said to Amos before, the greatest victory is over one’s self,” Fern smiled. “It is not easy to find a balance that allows the flame of mercy to burn in your heart while the world turns to ashes around you. Show no mercy to the Order but retain mercy for those seduced by it. Bas, there are more towers coming up, please get up there and keep an eye on them.”
“Yes, Mother Fern,” Bas nodded and leapt up onto the roof.
Ibrahim was deep in thought as he returned to his shovelling while Saul climbed up onto the tender to keep watch as well.
Harold turned to Fern after checking the gauges. “You’ve given them a lot to think about,” he said, applying the brakes again. “The lines all cross each other ahead,” he explained to Ibrahim. “I have to go slowly until we clear all those points.”
“It puts us at great risk,” Fern protested. “We must…”
“Go faster, Light-Father!” Bas cried out. “There’s a bridge ahead with dozens of Brothers and Tally-men waiting for us!”
“Shit! I see them!” he groaned. He heaved the throttle over and the train accelerated. “We have to pray that all the points are open! Can you see if they have guns, Bas?”
“No, they haven’t,” Bas reported, releasing an arrow. “Hah! got one!” she crowed then jumped down as three heavy spears clattered off the cabin roof. One narrowly missed Saul as he brandished his sword at the approaching bridge. All too soon they passed under it and as they had feared, Brothers and Tally-men began dropping down onto the roofs of the carriages behind them.
A Brother leapt from the roof of the first carriage onto the tender and thrust his spear at Saul’s abdomen but the youth blocked the blow easily and ran his blade along the spear shaft to slice into the hands holding it. The Brother screamed in agony and hatred as he realised that he had lost several fingers but he could not scream a second time because Saul’s sword tip had fatally torn his aorta. He dropped his spear then staggered backwards clutching at his chest before tumbling down onto the track to be torn apart by the wheels of the following carriages.
Two more Brothers on the carriage roof fired their dart guns at Saul but they found that their darts were going awry until they realised to their horror that they were in the presence of a Mother. They ordered the Tally-men with them to jump onto the tender as they climbed down to attempt to decouple the carriages from the Phoenix. Saul and Ibrahim quickly found themselves on the defensive but not for long as bolts and arrows whipped past their ears and into the throats of their opponents.
“Die!” Ibrahim howled gleefully as their enemies toppled one after another onto the tracks. He glanced over his shoulder at Fern who was frowning at him. “He’s still only a little demon!”
“Keep your guard up!” Saul screamed and soon both he and Ibrahim were hard pressed to avoid being speared by another three Tally-men whose coats flapped dramatically behind them.
“Fern!” Harold cried in alarm. “If those two Brothers manage to decouple those carriages, we’ll lose everyone!”
“That’s being taken care of,” Fern assured him as the savage fight behind them continued.
Bas leapt back onto the cabin roof as the Phoenix gathered speed to try and shoot the Tally-men attacking Saul and Ibrahim. There was too much risk of hitting the two battling youths so she and Shield targeted the Brothers and Tally-men still on the roofs of the carriages and took a heavy toll.
“There could be others climbing down between the second and third carriages,” Harold fretted helplessly but Fern just smiled at him. “What are you looking so smug for?” he accused. “Get the Mothers to stop them!”
“There’s no need – Amos and Fierce have just killed the two Brothers behind the tender,” she reported as Bas shot another Brother and Shield managed to kill a Tally-man about the join the three attacking Saul and Ibrahim. “Look there’s Fierce now,” she pointed out as Fierce climbed over the back of the tender with her slim sword clenched between her teeth. She crept forward then slashed at the legs of the Tally-men, hamstringing them. “She has the heart of a lion as well, bless her.”
“There are none left on the carriages!” Bas shouted down as Saul and Ibrahim finished off their crippled opponents.
“What about the ones down between the carriages?” Shield said. “They could still split the train apart.”
“Oh, Surl got one,” Fern smiled distantly. “She cut off the hand he was holding on with and Peter stabbed another as he tried to climb in through a window then the Ferals killed the others.”
“My inner demon is still smiling a little,” Ibrahim panted as he jumped down into the crowded cabin followed by Saul and Fierce who were now liberally spattered with blood.
“You fought well,” Fern said. “As a true warrior should when defending the people he loves…”
“Aiee!” Bas cried out in despair, pointing to the north-west where six small dark shapes could be seen against the towering clouds. “The rotor-craft are coming! They’ve found us!”
“We have to outrun them,” Harold declared. “Can you do that bird trick with all six?” he demanded.
“I’ll try but even I can’t guarantee to get them all,” Fern said bluntly as the sinister shapes drew closer. She turned to the ashen-faced Ibrahim who had uttered a strangled cry of anguish and despair. “Are you ill, dear heart?”
“No, Mother Fern,” he said bravely, grasping his axe. “But I think my inner demon just crapped itself.”
(c) Paul D E Mitchell 2012-13 ISBN copyright protected