Chapter 02: Scatterlings
The second chapter of The City of Gargoyles – second book of the Light-Father trilogy
Chapter 02: Scatterlings
The Tower of the Sun, once the home of a powerful merchant dynasty, rose above Uppermost as did fourteen others and all of them as tall as the Tower of Grieving. Uppermost was a town built upon the highest level of Milverburg and looking down from the towers, guests of these wealthy families could not believe that twenty levels of workshops, homes, factories, taverns, smithies, docks and stations existed below the genteel streets laid out before them. There was literally a separate town on every level all wrapped around the titanic columns and buttresses carrying the colossal weight of the merchant city and its towers.
Uppermost boasted mansions, fountains, theatres, ornamental gardens, parades, galleries, shops and government buildings but the wealthiest of all vied to live in the huge towers to cast their shadow over their peers. Every building was adorned with sculptures both classical and modern but there was little theme or context from one avenue to the next or even one house to the next. Eventually, the senses were overwhelmed by the sheer lack of taste shown by merchants who cared little for aesthetics just as long as each could outdo their neighbour with a statement of wealth and status.
Through these garish streets Harold and Fern ran as quickly as they could towards the glittering tower that dominated the centre of Uppermost. There were four more such towers situated at the centres of each quarter but none were as magnificent as the Tower of the Sun. The ten defensive towers were set into the walls were drab and functional in comparison yet even these had been coveted by wealthy families as elevation here had meant everything.
Six years of constant rain and growing moss had not detracted much from the artwork and stonework that adorned every structure but in the rare, bright sunlight, it made them both feel particularly nauseous. Eventually, the overgrowth spreading from the parks and gardens would claim all of Uppermost and obscure its vast array of art and sculptures but not for decades to come.
They were sweating profusely and thankful for the first of the clouds slowly shrouding the merciless sun when Harold called a halt and placed his hands upon his knees to catch his breath. “Damn it, Fern,” he panted. “I keep forgetting how big this place is. We’re only halfway there. Is Kai with them?”
Fern leant against the plinth of a giant statue of a cherub and took out a cloth to wipe her face then she placed both hands to her temples and concentrated. “No. The wound Pious gave him is healing well but he spends all his time with the Ferals for he regards looking after them as part of his penance.”
“That has to change,” he said firmly. “Without his help we would have died at the Great Abbey and he did save Fria.”
“True but the others still don’t trust him for all his bravery because Shield and her sisters saw him lead those children to their deaths. His nightmares and guilt are killing him.”
“I have to talk to him as he can’t go on like this. Are the rest of them in the Library?”
“They are. Nightshade said that Mouse has become adamant that we all venture out along the causeway as soon as possible.” She opened her eyes suddenly to stare at him. “She keeps telling Nightshade that the Angels will kill them all unless we stop them. She is becoming somewhat hysterical.”
“I should have spent more time with her too: she misses Fierce,” he sighed as the first distant peal of thunder tolled around the sky and the light began to fade. “It’s not surprising that Michael turned traitor after being shoved into that meat-grinder by Azrael but I can’t believe Schimrian survived as well – his skull was crushed to a pulp! Damn it to hell: this is not good. Let’s get moving.”
They resumed their run towards the Tower of the Sun that dominated the government buildings nearby. It was surrounded by a huge circular garden full of statues, ornate ponds and winding pathways. Around the perimeter of the park were set gold Bath stone mansions that reminded Harold uncannily of Bath Circus. These lesser merchants had no choice but to gaze out at the baroque masonry of the circular tower which bore twenty bands of stylised suns with ornate balconies separating each sun. The whole edifice of twenty floors was still a dazzling white despite years of ceaseless rain while each carved sun was covered in gold leaf so that whatever the angle of the sun, one district or another of Uppermost used to be reluctantly bedazzled by this opulence.
The Scatterlings loved the tower as they all had dry luxuriously decorated bedrooms and clean sheets to sleep in for the first time in six years. The rainwater cisterns were full so they enjoyed baths and showers but they could not forget that day at the Great Abbey. The Ferals, Kai, Ivy and Nightshade had their chambers nearer the street level but Harold had fretted constantly about them setting up a base in such a vulnerable building. If the Order ever reached the Uppermost, they would all be trapped in the tower with nowhere to run but by unspoken agreement the children had wanted to be as close to the sky as possible to enjoy the fresh sea air – whenever the wind did not pass over the Dead Marshes that is.
As they crossed the drawbridge set down over a moat teeming with carp, three male Ferals scampered out to greet them with grins upon their ruined faces: “Ligghhfaahrer home, Ligghhfaahhrr ahhn Ferrrrnn arrrh luffers arh arh” said the leading male Feral. Harold could barely understand the gibberish spoken by most of the Ferals but he reddened at the suggestive nature of this one especially as he was nudging the other two in the ribs.
“Shhh, Godwin, such thoughts are not for one such as you,” she chided good-naturedly, ruffling his matted hair. “Our rest is over, dear heart. Tell Kai and the others to ready their weapons. We are going to fight the Order again.”
A battle-lust shone in the eyes of the Feral who nodded eagerly. His clothes in tatters and his face almost dog-like, Harold could only imagine how handsome this Feral must have been before the virus had triggered his redundant DNA code. The mutations had been horrendous and incredibly varied but most Ferals gradually lost the ability to speak while those beyond the help of the Mothers lost the ability to eat. He shuddered at the thought that amongst the ruins of this world; in remote reaches and crumbling, weed-choked towns and villages the holocaust ground on; slowly purging the last of the tragic Ferals from the face of the Earth.
Fern stood up as the Ferals retreated through the gateway with their instructions. She again brushed at her tears with the back of her hand. “Let us not think of that any further lest we go insane. Come,” she teased, taking his hand. “Only eighteen flights of steps to climb to the library.”
His shoulders sagged. “Have mercy,” he groaned comically. “I’m still badly wounded, you know!”
She did not return the smile but squeezed his hand hard. “The Order has no mercy, Light-Father! We must get everyone organised and save as many people as we can. Come!”
“I really wish you would call me Harold,” he grumbled as he began the ascent up the wide marble stairs that spiralled around the central column opening out onto circular landings at every level. Not for the first time he imagined this central stairwell acting as a chimney if the tower ever caught fire and he had to shake his head to clear it drawing a glance over her shoulder from Fern.
“Hurry up, Harold!” she urged with a wry smile.
“Now you call me Harold,” he wheezed. “When I’m on the verge of a cardiac arrest!”
“You need more stamina,” she said bluntly, waiting for him. “Being bested by a woman is not good for the male ego.”
“You won’t get a rise out of me,” he said, drawing in a deep breath. “I’m all for equality of the sexes!”
“So no whips and chains for me, then?”
He stopped dead when he realised how pointed that barb was: Wiccans like Fern had been persecuted for centuries. Never many in number, they had always sought to expose the real intentions of the Order and had paid a heavy price in a misogynistic world. Many fell to whip and flame including one of Fern’s ancestors for exposing the Minister for Alms Houses who was selecting poor and orphaned children for experimentation by the Order.
He climbed past her and turned. “No,” he said simply. “I would give my life for you, Fern, you know that.”
She flung her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately until he really did think he was going to have a heart attack. She only disengaged at the sound of a discrete cough from the albino Mother leaning over banister above them. “When you’re done,” Nightshade said pointedly. “We have children to rescue.”
They entered the main library which covered the eighteenth floor in four large connected rooms. At the long reading table in the North Room, Mother Ivy sat in an intricately-carved high-backed oak chair with her staff upon the table in front of her. “Welcome, Light-Father,” she said and stood up to bow to him.
“Please stop doing that, Ivy,” he begged, taking a seat opposite her as Fern sat to his right. “It’s embarrassing. How are your injuries? I’m afraid I’ve been a bit distant lately…”
“This much is obvious,” Ivy said bluntly and the children sat around the table nodded in agreement. “Brooding in your tower serves no purpose but thank you for asking: my ribs have knitted well and as you can see from my face, the bruises are all but gone but, alas, nothing can bring my poor Ferals back,” she added, her face becoming grim again. “But now the four little ones making their way here is a miracle beyond my wildest hopes.”
To her right sat a girl who had eleven years with braided yellow hair and a headband with mouse-ears upon it. She had two large knives strapped to her two belts and a wicked-looking spear placed upon the table in front of her. She was dressed in stout leather shorts and a crudely-stitched green leather jacket fastened with two buckles. She stood up and started shouting at Harold, demanding to know why he wasn’t searching for her friends already.
“Be quiet, Mouse!” Nightshade commanded impatiently, taking the last vacant seat to Harold’s left. “We cannot rush out there without a plan otherwise all will be lost!”
“Yes, Mother Nightshade,” she said timidly and sat back down. She looked sheepishly at Harold again and smiled, gaining confidence in his presence. “I’m sorry, Light-Father, but I really want to go out and look for them! I miss my sister so much! Don’t be angry with me, please, Light-Father!”
“I’m not angry, Mouse, but Nightshade is right. We don’t know where they are but they must be close to the eastern causeway. We need to pinpoint where they are first.”
“All paths lead the Order here to Milverburg,” Nightshade said enigmatically. “Few is better, I think, and no Ferals.” She pointed in turn at four of the children. “Saul, Ibrahim, Bas, Shield shall go with Fern and you, Light-Father: you need to lead them.”
Harold stood up. “Listen. The Order is coming and I don’t want us to get trapped in Uppermost where the Angels can get at us. The rest of you get your weapons and packs and only take things that you will need and get down to the docks. Come on!” he barked, clapping his hands twice. “We haven’t got all day!”
A squat youth with a livid scar disfiguring his face stood up and glared at Nightshade. “Why can’t I go?” he demanded angrily. “Am I not good enough to fight alongside the Light-Father?”
Nightshade shook her head: “You are not, Amos,” she said curtly. “You are too hot-headed. The Brothers will kill you unless you defeat the demon within you as Ibrahim has done.”
“No!” Amos shouted. “I need to go! Surl is my sister!”
“Enough!” Ivy said in a voice with odd overtones to it. “I have discussed this with you before as has Fern and the Light-Father. Be seated, Amos – your time will come soon enough.”
Amos perspired suddenly and tried resisting the compulsion to sit down to no avail. He gripped the sledgehammer on the table and his knuckles whitened. “She’s alive but now I know you will take her from me! That’s why you don’t want me to go! As soon as I have learnt what it is to be a brother to her, you will make her a Wiccan and she will no longer be my sister!”
“Enough!” Harold shouted, silencing the comments around the table. “I see I need to spend a lot more time with you, Amos, but now is not the time. We will get her back!”
Amos folded his arms and turned his face away. “It seems I have no choice, Light-Father!”
“I am sorry that you feel that way, Amos…”
“It’s because we’ve hardly seen you since we settled into this tower, Light-Father,” a tall, pale girl interrupted, staring down at her four long knives upon the table before her. Harold noted again how the Scatterlings always placed their weapons to hand especially at meal-times: six years of brutal survival had shown them that an unarmed child was a dead child in this lethal dystopia. “We all need your magic but you spend all your time in your tower or with Mother Fern,” she added meaningfully.
“I know and I’m sorry, Fria,” he conceded. “I blamed myself for losing the little ones but now we have a chance to save them, it changes everything.”
“We always knew that the Order would come for us,” Fern added. “We all hoped we would have months of peace but that devil, Schimrian, is still alive and we are in great peril.”
Saul, the eldest, stood next to Amos and placed a hand on his shoulder. “We have been through the same travails as you, Amos, but I have come to terms with Shield being a Daughter. Be at peace: their gifts will save us all. I am convinced of it.”
“You only say that because you’re sleeping with her… aiee!” Amos yelped as Saul tightened his grip.
“I have no time for your silly jealousies, Amos,” Saul said dangerously. “You and I need to talk later as well.”
Amos surged to his feet, his face red with fury as he rubbed at his shoulder. “It’s not right!” he protested. “Surl is my sister!”
Fern stood up and he subsided at the fell light in her eyes. A powerful breeze suddenly erupted around the room carrying scraps of paper with it. “Shield!” she commanded. “Do not let our anger and doubts tear us apart! Control your power!”
“Yes, Mother Fern,” she said humbly and lowered her head. The torus of wind roaring about them suddenly ceased and the papers fluttered down to the floor.
“Good,” Fern nodded as Saul, Ibrahim and Bas headed for the door. “Join them and wait for us outside the door. I need to speak to Fria, Mouse and Amos.” She waited until they had left the room and turned to the three Scatterlings who quailed before her anger: “Amos, I cannot allow you to turn against us when you have finally understood what it is to be a brother to Surl. If we have to flee Milverburg, she will need your protection again.”
“I will protect her as well,” Fria said bravely, clenching her fist to her chest. “Just as Bethwin protected me.”
“Yes, Fern, I am sorry,” Amos muttered with ill grace. “But you must get her back for me or I will never forgive you.”
“Much will change when you see her, dear heart,” Ivy assured him. “Hers is a truly dangerous power and carries with it great pain and risk if she remains untrained. If we do not guide her, Amos, the visions will drive her insane; they will tear her apart. We will not do this simply to spite you but because it is the right thing to do for her. Saul is right: she could be the saving of us all.”
“Yes, yes, I know this,” he sighed, turning to Harold. “Father, what should I do? I don’t want to lose her again!”
“You won’t lose her, son. You have my word,” Harold replied, glancing at Ivy. “Look, as soon as we get the little ones back you and I will go fishing, agreed?”
“Yes, Father,” Amos smiled and relaxed, releasing his grip on the sledgehammer. “I beg you: just save her.”
“I will but now you must lead the others and the Ferals down to the main dock; the one next to the rail yard where the Phoenix is. I want you to keep our two escape options open. Gather food and water and wait for us there. We’ll take a boat from the fishing dock but we might have to retreat on foot along the causeway.”
“But the Angels will see you,” Fria protested suddenly. “They will see the boat and shoot you all dead with their chain-guns!”
Fern stood up and displayed her staff. “You and Amos need to trust in our craft a little more,” she smiled. “You recall how we fooled those men in the Angels? I can do the same again.”
“May God favour you, Mother Fern,” Amos said impulsively. “I know I have much already to thank you for but…”
“Gaia looks to us, Amos,” Fern smiled. “But you have a good heart and Surl loves you. We will save them all.”
“Then by St Peter’s teeth,” he shouted. “What are you waiting for? My sister and the others need you! Leave the evacuation to me, Father. We’ll be waiting at the main dock by that large boat you refuelled last week. You have my word.”
Fern and Harold nodded to each other and joined the four Scatterlings on the landing. “We need to get to the docks quickly,” Harold said. “Do you have all your weapons?”
Shield gave him a hurt look. “Honestly, Light-Father,” she sighed, displaying her stocked quiver of bolts, arm shield, sword and crossbow. “Do you still take us for babes?”
Ibrahim patted one of his axes. “We’re ready, Light-Father. May I suggest we use the shafts? It will be quicker.”
Fern laughed as Harold made a face. “The Light-Father finds the shafts unnerving but they are indeed quicker.”
“Let’s do it,” Harold conceded reluctantly.
After another run, they were at one of the elevator entrances set around the perimeter of Uppermost. They were essentially huge dumb waiters used for raising goods up from the docks below and from the factories and shops on the other levels. Installed before electricity reached Milverburg, they could be operated in pairs by winches: one cage rose up as another descended. If the cages rising were empty, full cages descending could then rocket down at great speed with only the brake wheels running against the static hawsers set against the shaft wall to slow them down.
The Scatterlings had more faith in the brakes than Harold who was gritting his teeth as their cage plummeted down the pitch black shaft with Ibrahim reading off the level markings with a torch. It was only with two levels to go that he pulled the lever and sparks flew from one of the shrieking brake wheels. With his heart in his mouth, Harold felt the cage slow rapidly with the inertia all but pressing them to the cage floor. “We didn’t need to fall that quick,” he muttered. “I almost lost my breakfast.”
Ibrahim shrugged in the torchlight as the cage locked into the dock platform and the cage-gate opened automatically. “Forgive me, Light-Father,” he said throwing open a switch to his left. “Haste favours the bold as Mother Moss used to say.”
The emergency lighting units about the small dock burst into life. Even after six years, their batteries had retained a charge which, Harold conceded, was minor miracle in itself. There were diesel generators in the dock but he was wary about starting them up without servicing them first.
The dock had been exclusively reserved for the boats of the fishermen of Milverburg who trawled the Milverbore and the Gael Seas. Harold had spent some time exploring the lowest level and had fuelled the sturdiest of the boats in several of the docks and tested their engines as he knew their respite was only temporary. He selected a boat that could accommodate twenty or more people but he made the mistake of reading the Runic name on the bow: Ellendaed. It translated as ‘Deed of Valour’ in his head but not before pain had ripped from one temple to another.
“Are you ill?” Shield enquired with some concern. “Your nose is bleeding a little, Light-Father.”
“It’s nothing, Shield,” he said, pulling on a mooring rope to draw the boat flush to the dockside. “This is not my native tongue and new words are always painful: whatever Moss did to hammer your language into my brain wasn’t subtle. Get in everybody,” he commanded. “Fern? Are you ready to camouflage us?”
Fern sat cross-legged on the deck and set the staff upon her thighs. “As soon as we open the dock-gates you must all keep quiet. If I lose concentration for a second, they will see us.”
Ibrahim ran to the end of the dock and threw his huge strength into turning the large sluice-wheel that drew the dock-gates apart. Water poured through the gap as the tide was full and thus higher than the docksides. It would flood the whole dock area; the sea levels having risen still further since they were built a century ago but Harold had no time to worry about that now.
He fired up the engines and the powerful boat surged forward with Ibrahim jumping aboard as it reached the gates. The smell of brine and the humid warmth hit them as they emerged from the cool interior of Milverburg. Although the light was fading, they could see the Angels circling like vultures. Fern closed her eyes and began a lilting chant in a long-dead tongue that made them feel light-headed as Harold steered the boat parallel to the causeway striving to keep as much of the ancient stonework between them and the sinister black machines as possible.
Powerful gusts from the bellies of the approaching storms were already buffeting them as Harold slowed the boat down to approach the quay that jutted out from the muddy banks next to the causeway. There were one-storey buildings set some distance from the shore that Harold guessed had once housed the masons and labourers that had constantly repaired the gigantic causeways that linked Milverburg to the north and Nuncernig; to Cairhold in the south and to the Great Abbey and Port Kent in the east.
As Harold moored the boat, he was gazing up at the hovering Angels which were now further inland and circling slowly. He motioned Saul to the bow and pointed at the masons’ cottages. “Your eyes are sharper than mine,” he said. “The quay hides most of the boat but there’s no cover between us and that village.”
“I cannot see any Brothers amongst the trees,” Saul reported, shading his eyes. “They would have seen the boat and raised the alarm by now. Hoi! The Angels are moving to the east! When they get beyond that tree line we can run across to the cottages.”
After what seemed like an age, the Angels dipped out of sight. Shield hauled the exhausted Fern to her feet then helped her ashore as Harold tied off a second mooring rope.
“Can you run, Fern?” he asked with some concern. “We have about a hundred yards of open space to cross to get to the shelter of those buildings. Can you make it?”
“Yes, Light-Father,” she panted and with that she grasped her staff and set off at a loping run.
The others sprang forward to follow her leaving Harold to bring up the rear, puffing as he did so. He patted the tin in his pocket. “Cigars are so not good for me,” he muttered ruefully. He caught up to them as they crouched down behind a garden wall that ran between two of the cottages. Saul placed a finger to his lips and motioned for him to keep low. He crawled up to the wall and peered over it into the cobbled street beyond and his heart sank: a black half-track of the Order parked there with groups of Tally-men and Brothers searching the buildings and storehouses on the other side of the small settlement.
He sat down heavily with his back to the wall and looked at Fern. “We got lucky as they’ve started on the far side so they didn’t see the boat or spot us coming up from the quay,” he said grimly, drawing his sword. “We could try and circle around them but they could cut us off when we retreat back to the boat with the others. What the hell do we do?”
“We do what we always do,” Saul said grimly. “We fight.”
(c) Paul D E Mitchell 2017