Chapter 02: Scatterlings
Chapter 02 of The City of Gargoyles – the second book of the Light-Father trilogy
Uppermost was a town built for the elite upon the roof of Milverburg. It boasted mansions, fountains, theatres, ornamental gardens, parades, galleries, banks, shops and government offices. Every building was adorned with art and sculptures but there was little theme or continuity to be found anywhere. The senses were overwhelmed by the jarring contrasts created by global merchants who cared little for context or aesthetics just as long as each could outdo the other with a statement of wealth and privilege.
Six years of constant rain and growing moss had not detracted much from the paintings and stonework but in the rare, bright sunlight, they made Fern and Harold feel particularly nauseous as they ran towards the Tower of the Sun at the centre of the township. They were sweating profusely when Harold called a halt and placed his hands upon his knees to catch his breath. “I keep forgetting how big this place is,” he panted. “We’re only halfway there. Can you contact Nightshade again to see if Kai is with her? He needs to be with us when we talk to the others.”
Fern leant against the plinth of a tasteless pink statue of a cherub and wiped her brow with a shirtsleeve. She placed both hands to her temples and closed her eyes. “No. The wound Pious gave him is healing well but he refuses to leave the Ferals for he regards living with them as part of his penance.”
“That has to stop,” he said firmly. “He saved Fria and without his help we would have died at the Great Abbey.”
“True but the others won’t trust him for all his bravery because he still wears the field robes of a Brother and Shield and her sisters saw him lead children to their deaths in Crawcester.”
“He was a postulant back then. He had no choice! Can you tell if the rest of them are in the Library yet?”
“They are. Nightshade has gathered them together and told them what Ivy has sensed and how we’ve seen Angels hunting along the northern shore.” She opened her eyes suddenly to stare at him. “They want to rush out along the viaduct to look for the little ones and poor Mouse is becoming hysterical.”
“I should have spent more time with her too: she misses Fierce,” he admitted guiltily. He glanced up at the sky as first distant peal of thunder sounded. Complex wisps of cirrus were streaming north and the sunlight began to fade. “I’m not surprised Michael turned traitor after being shoved into that meat-grinder by Azrael but I can’t believe Schimrian survived after having his skull crushed to a pulp! I’ve got my second wind now so let’s get moving.”
They resumed their run towards the Tower of the Sun that loomed over the imposing government buildings nearby. It was surrounded by a huge circular garden full of statues, ornate ponds and winding pathways. Around the perimeter of the garden were arcs of Bath stone mansions that reminded Harold of Bath Circus. These lesser merchants had no choice but to gaze up at the baroque majesty of the circular tower which bore twelve bands of stylised suns with ornate balconies separating each sun. The stonework had been painted a brilliant white while each carved sun was covered in gold leaf so that whatever the angle of the sun, one quadrant or another of Uppermost had been bedazzled.
The Scatterlings loved the tower as they‘d all had luxuriously-decorated bedrooms and clean sheets for the first time in six years. The Ferals, Kai, Ivy and Nightshade used the servant quarters on the first three floors but Harold had fretted constantly about setting up a base in such a vulnerable building. If the Order ever reached Uppermost they’d all be trapped in the tower with nowhere to run to but the children had wanted to be as close to the sky as possible to enjoy the fresh sea air – except when the wind swept 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 leers upon their ruined faces: “Lighfaahrer home, Lighfaahher 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, going down on one knee and ruffling his 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. He shuddered at the thought that amongst the ruins of this world; in crumbling, weed-choked towns and villages the Order’s holocaust ground on as the viral mutations progressed and slowly purged the remaining Ferals from the face of the Earth.
The Ferals retreated through the tower entrance with their instructions as Fern stood up and bared her teeth in frustration: “Let us not think of that any further lest we go insane. Come,” she urged. “Only ten flights of steps to climb!”
“Have mercy, Fern,” he groaned comically. “I’m still badly wounded, you know!”
“The Order has no mercy! We must get everyone organised and save as many souls as we can. Come, Light-Father!”
“I really wish you would call me Harold,” he grumbled as they 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.
“Now you call me Harold,” he wheezed. “When I’m on the verge of a cardiac arrest!”
“You need more stamina,” she said sweetly as she waited for him. “Being bested by a woman is not good for the male ego.”
“You will not 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 opposed the Order and had paid a heavy price. One of Fern’s ancestors had been burnt at the stake for exposing the Minister for Alms Houses who was selecting poor and orphaned children for experimental procedures by the Brothers-Surgeon of the Order.
“No,” he said simply as caught up with her. “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 a banister above them. “When you’re done,” Nightshade said pointedly. “We do have children to rescue.”
They entered the main library which completely covered the tenth floor and was divided into four large connected rooms to reflect the quadrants of Uppermost. At the long oak 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, standing up and bowing 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 occupied lately…”
“That much is obvious,” Ivy said bluntly and the children sat around the table nodded in agreement. “Brooding in your tower served no purpose but thank you for asking: my ribs have knitted well and the bruises are all but gone but, alas, nothing can bring my Ferals back,” she added mournfully. “I can sense the little ones are indeed making their way here but I fear they may be being hunted by those Angels you saw.”
To her right sat an eleven year old girl with braided yellow hair and a headband with mouse-ears upon it. She had two large knives strapped to her two belts and an ornate Iberian 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 was not 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 thought otherwise all will be lost!”
“Yes, Mother Nightshade,” she said timidly and sat back down. She looked sheepishly at Harold 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 yet but if they have escaped with Abbot Michael then they might be close to the eastern causeway.”
“All paths lead the Order here to Milverburg,” Nightshade said enigmatically. “Few is better, I think, and no Ferals.” She pointed at the four oldest Scatterlings: “Saul, Ibrahim, Bas, and Shield shall go with Fern and you, Light-Father: you need to lead them.”
“Listen, all of you,” Harold said urgently. “The Order is coming for us and I do not want us to get trapped in Uppermost where the Angels can get at us. We have to leave this tower so the rest of you get your weapons and packs and only take things that you need and get down to the docks. I’ve serviced three boats and we still have the Phoenix if we need her. 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?”
“You aren’t ready, Amos,” Nightshade said curtly. “You’re still 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 you will take her from me. That’s why you would not let me return to the Great Abbey to search for her! Now I’ve learnt what it is to be her brother, you’ll make her a Wiccan and she’ll no longer be my sister!”
“Enough!” Harold roared, 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 in disgust. “Ach! It seems I have no choice, Light-Father!”
“I’m sorry that you feel that way, Amos…”
“It’s because we’ve hardly seen you since we came here, 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 just work on the boats, mope in your tower or lie 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 might have a chance to save them, it changes everything. As much as I wanted to, it would have been suicide to attack the Great Abbey again and rescue them.”
“We always knew that the Order would come for us,” Fern added. “We all hoped for months of peace here but that devil, Schimrian, is still alive and we are in great peril.”
Saul, the leader of the Scatterlings, stood behind Amos and placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve been through the same travail as you but I’ve accepted that Shield is a Wiccan. Be at peace: their gifts will save us all. I’m convinced of it.”
“You only say that, Eldest, because you’re sleeping with her… aiee!” Amos yelped as Saul tightened his grip.
“I have no patience 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 fair!” he protested. “Surl is my sister!”
Fern stood up and he subsided at the fell light in her eyes. A powerful wind suddenly whirled around the room carrying papers from nearby reading-desks. “Shield!” she commanded. “Do not let our anger and fear 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.
“That’s better,” Fern said as Saul, Ibrahim and Bas headed for the door. “Join them and wait for us outside. 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’ll need your protection again.”
“I’ll protect her as well,” Fria said bravely, clenching her fist to her chest. “Just as Bethwin protected me.”
“Yes, Mother Fern, I’m sorry,” Amos muttered with ill grace. “But you must get her back for me or I’ll never forgive you.”
“Much will change when you see her,” Ivy assured him. “Hers is a truly dangerous power and carries with it grave risk if she remains untrained. If we do not guide her, Amos, the visions will drive her insane; they’ll tear her apart. We will not do this simply to spite you but because it’s the right thing to do for her. Saul is right: she and Shield 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 will not 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 but I beg you: 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 across the viaduct.”
“But the Angels will see you,” Fria protested suddenly. “They will kill you with their chain-guns!”
Fern leant forward and retrieved her raven-headed staff and jacket from the centre of the table. “You and Amos need to trust in our craft a little more,” she said, getting to her feet “You recall how we fooled those Brothers 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 favours us, Amos, not the God of the Order but you have a stout heart and Surl loves you. We will save her.”
“Then by Saint Peter’s teeth,” he said impatiently. “What are you waiting for? Leave the evacuation to me, Father. We‘ll wait at the main dock and keep close to that large boat you repaired and 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?”
Bas adjusted her bow and quiver of arrows. Harold saw her ears twitch then she grinned, displaying her elongated canines.
Ibrahim smiled down at his younger sister and patted one of his axes. “Our inner demons are ready, Light-Father. May I suggest we use the shafts to get down to the fishing dock?”
Fern laughed as Harold made a face. “The Light-Father finds the shafts unnerving but they are indeed quicker.”
“Fine, let’s use the shafts,” Harold agreed reluctantly.
After another loping run that left Harold gasping for breath again, they were at one of the elevator shaft entrances set around the perimeter of Uppermost. The elevators were essentially crude cages used for raising goods up from the docks 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 walls 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 a large switch to his left. “Haste favours the bold as Mother Moss used to say.”
The emergency lighting units about the dock area burst into life. Even after six years, the immense batteries had retained a charge which, Harold had to admit, was a minor miracle in itself. There were several diesel generators but he was wary about starting them up without servicing them first.
This 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 serviced three of the sturdiest vessels in various docks and tested their engines as he knew their respite was only temporary. One of these was a small fishing boat with a powerful engine but he made the mistake of reading the Runic name again 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,” 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 was not subtle. Get in,” 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 wheel that drew the dock-gates apart. Water poured through the gap as the high tide was full and thus a little above the dockside levels. It would flood the whole dock area; the sea having risen again 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 and although the light was fading, they could see the Angels now circling like vultures near the eastern causeway. Fern closed her eyes and began a lilting chant in a long-dead tongue that made them feel light-headed while Harold steered the boat as close as he could to the viaduct, striving to keep as much of the ancient stonework between them and the sinister machines as possible.
The sun was almost hidden behind the clouds and powerful gusts of wind buffeted the boat as Harold slowed it down to approach the quay that jutted out from the muddy shoreline next to the causeway. There were one-storey buildings and cottages set some distance inland that Harold guessed had once housed the masons and labourers required to constantly maintain the gigantic causeways and viaducts.
As Harold moored the boat, he gazed nervously up at the Angels but they were now moving further to the east. He checked on Fern who still had her eyes closed as she recited her chant over and over again. He beckoned Saul to the bow and pointed at the cottages. “Your eyes are sharper than mine. Can you see anyone? There’s no cover between us and that village so we’d be sitting ducks.”
Saul looked at him quizzically then shaded his eyes to peer at the cottages and the woods beyond: “Why would we turn into ducks? Fear not: I can see no Brothers in the village or amongst the trees. They would’ve seen the boat and raised the alarm by now. Bless Mother Fern: the Angels keep moving to the east! When they get beyond that tree line we can get 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. “I’m too exhausted to scry for the little ones are in the village,” she told him.
“We’ll search the buildings and if they’re not there, we’ll scout along the road and the rail track. Can you run?” he asked with some concern. “We have a hundred yards of open space between us and the cover of those cottages. Can you make it?”
“Yes, Light-Father,” she gasped and after two deep breaths, she grasped her staff and set off at a fast pace.
“I wish you’d call me Harold!” he called after her. The others sprang forward to follow her leaving Harold bringing up the rear and struggling for breath. 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. Saul placed a finger to his lips and motioned for him to keep low so he crawled up to the wall and peered over it. Between two cottages, he could see into the cobbled street beyond and his heart sank: two black half-tracks of the Order were parked there with groups of Tally-men and Brothers systematically searching the buildings and storehouses on the opposite side of street.
He sat down heavily with his back to the wall and looked at Fern. “We got lucky: they started their searches on the north side so they haven’t seen us or the boat yet,” he said, drawing his sword. “We could circle around them but they would cut us off if we had to retreat back to the boat or the causeway. We’ve got no time anyway because as soon as they see the boat, they’ll know we’re here so what the hell do we do now?”
“We do what we always do,” Saul shrugged. “We fight.”
(c) Paul D E Mitchell 2019