Chapter 10 – Stone Ghosts
Chapter 10 of City of Gargoyles – the second book in the Light-Father trilogy. Deep within the bowels of Milverburg, they await news of the Light-Father while Amos and Fria discover a brief spark of humanity and meet their match.
Chapter 10: Stone Ghosts
Muted rumbles of thunder could be heard even in the depths of the lowest level of Milverburg. In the dim emergency lighting that the Light-Father had restored to the docks and stations, Amos could not take his eyes off the Phoenix that had brought them here. It was three weeks ago but it was an eternity of clean sheets, soft beds, baths, security and being free of lice for the first time in years.
The forty surviving Ferals played and swarmed amongst the bullet-scarred carriages and the engine cab of the Phoenix but he could see they were on edge: suddenly standing stock-still for moments at a time, peering into the vast and endless shadows about them like meerkats on a Kalahari mound.
He had been arguing with Mother Ivy about why he wasn’t allowed to help the Light-Father rescue his sister until she had glared at him and put a finger to her lips. He could not utter a sound until he had withdrawn to the entrance of the Western Merchant Dock where the merchant vessel the Light-Father had serviced was waiting to take them away.
He could hear countless other vessels fretting gently at the quaysides now that the dock-gates to the Great Harbour were open even though water lapped over the wharves at high tide. It worried him: the open gates meant they could easily escape but the Order could also slip into the lower levels while they were all asleep in the Tower of the Sun. Nightshade had set Ferals to watch the estuary and the docks but he feared this was not enough.
He also knew it would take too long to fire up the faithful Phoenix in an emergency so the gaudy merchant boat was their only chance of escape but he would miss riding on the train: the wonder of that epic journey would never fade despite all the nightmares he had witnessed at the Great Abbey.
He stiffened as that vile memory resurfaced: the Tally-man pressing a pillow down on the face of his little sister. Grasping the shaft of his sledgehammer tightly he vividly relived bludgeoning the Tally-man to a bloody pulp and spattering his little sister with blood as he did so. He remembered the look on Fria’s white face as she stabbed at the Tally-man. He shuddered: what was it the Light-Father had called it? Post-traumatic stress – that was it: a lifetime of cold sweats and night terrors to look forward to.
“I saved her, God forgive me. What else could I have done?” he murmured at the shadows with tears in his eyes. “I still have too few years to understand why you’ve let this happen to us, to everyone, but Saint Peter, I vow that I will get stronger and protect my sister – yet here I stand as helpless as a maid.”
“Do you want to see how helpless this maid is?” said an icy voice behind him. “Now the Light-Father has cured me.”
He turned to see Fria glaring at him with both her long knives in her hands and pointed at him. “You are no helpless maid,” he said carefully, hefting his sledgehammer again. “You carry three sharp blades strapped to your back, one to your left thigh and you tread as silently as Bas does.” The corner of his mouth lifted in a rare half-smile. “And you can fight.”
Her green eyes narrowed dangerously. “Don’t coddle me with weasel-words, Amos. I know you were reliving how we killed that Tally-man but I keep telling you: it’s pointless. I will not dwell on that or how badly you treated us before Mother Moss saved us because if I did, I would stab you over and over again.”
He sighed heavily, let his shoulders slump and turned away to stare into the docks that were occasionally floodlit by lightning flashes that sent huge flaring shadows amongst the boats and cranes. “I am sorry, Fria, but I knew not of your anaemia and I was without heart and hope until the magic of the Light-Father healed me too. You also dream of that hospital where your friend, Bethwin became a Feral and you walked upon rats and corpses to find food…” he choked. “Mother Mary, we are but children yet here we stand in the bowels of this monstrous city, hunted by monsters and haunted by the memories of monsters.”
Fria remained silent so he stared around the vast vaulted space of the West Central Core but the gloom could not hide the massive columns supporting the colossal weight of the levels above. Three main railway lines entered the Core and, around the gigantic central column which was decorated with carvings of ash trees and dryads, they were inter-connected to allow various through-trains to shuttle between Beorminghas, Port Kent and Brigstowe. He looked at the oppressive bulk of the central column, barely visible in the emergency lighting, and shook himself free of his brooding. “That one is Askr Yggdrasil,” he noted. “The Ash Tree of Life.”
Fria re-sheathed her long, ultra-sharp knives slowly for even in the dim light she could see the livid scar disfiguring the left side of his face and it still made her blood run cold. “Yggdrasil shivers, the mighty ash; the old tree groans and the giant slips free,” she murmured. “From the lake beneath, the Fates unchained: Urd, Verdandi, Skuld; the maidens three.”
“I’ve never heard those rhymes before.”
“If you’d spent more time with Mother Moss instead of sulking you would have learnt much at her feet. Songs of Viking and of Celt she sang to us and such sagas! Oh, I miss her…”
“She would not wish you to shed tears, Fria,” he said kindly, wiping at his own eyes with the back of his hand. “She despaired of me and kept telling me to wait for the Light-Father and his magic so for five long years I waited and waited…”
Fria saw him place a hand to the scar as he often did when he was reliving all the dark times they had lived through. As a result of the horrors they had witnessed, he had almost lost himself in an alter-ego called Scar and refused to answer to his true name until, in a blinding flash, the Light-Father had stepped into their world and given them all such hope again.
She had followed him down to the docks only last week to watch him work on a fishing boat. He explained to her as he worked that he needed to ensure every dock had a boat that they could use to escape. Finally, he had wiped his hands with an oily rag when he had finished coaxing the powerful engines back to life then he waited patiently while she bombarded him with chatter and endless questions about his magic.
“There is no magic, Fria, just the empathy that I have learned once more from you Scatterlings.”
“Yes, but why did Amos call himself Scar?”
He ran his hand through his thinning hair and replaced his cap. “You see: the subconscious can create alternative personalities to protect the conscious mind from the memories of all the horrors that person has experienced. You can lose your real name and your sanity by doing this and my wife use to work with people in this situation as a counsellor. Even Peter called himself Claw for a while. Amos has regained his true self but he still has a lot of healing to do as do you, Fria of the Long Knives.” She had to admit his point and drew her long blades to study them as she knew her soul was now bound to her weapons.
He had escorted her to the stairs and as they’d begun the long climb to Uppermost and the Tower of the Sun, he’d told her of his life in his world of Great Britain. He told her of the loss of his infant daughter and why he no longer had any regrets about being dragged into her world to find a new purpose in life as he now loved her as the daughter he would never see grow up. She had yearned to hear so much more but he had repeatedly withdrawn to the Tower of Grieving so she could not question the hug he’d given her nor the tears in his eyes… oh, Father!
She stood next to Amos and his nose wrinkled: “Phaw! What have you been doing? You smell like a tub of flowers!”
“Huh! Nightshade and Fern decided that I should smell of something other than kack, dirt and rotting leather. You should try it some time!”
“Perfumery?” he teased. “Gaia’s most fearsome warrior: Fria Rafson of the Long Knives reeking of lavender and of roses? I fear the readers of our great saga would not believe this! They would flip over the page in disgust!”
“You are still a bull-pat, Amos Crawin, and you still smell like one” Fria huffed. “I have only thirteen years yet I am still a girl for all my martial arts and fast approaching my birthing age.”
Amos caught the tone in her voice and for the second time in six years he did something intentionally kind for her and in a gentler tone, he said: “Mother Nightshade whispered this to me but I had noticed on my own, Fria. Please do not tell the others I am saying this otherwise they will think I’ve gone soft in the head but when you embraced me and called me brother after all I had done to you and Surl, my heart was lost for you are my dúnelfena: you are more than a sister to me.”
Fria’s elven features went crimson and she flung her arms around his neck. He found the smell of her scent overpowering his senses and he embraced her fiercely. “Forgive me,” he whispered. Her eyes were closed, her face upturned and he felt the faint stirrings of arousal; it was exciting and the blood began pounding in his veins. He was about to kiss her when he saw forty Feral faces staring expectantly from the Phoenix and its coaches. From all the grins and the nudging, he knew he needed no translation.
He ignored them and only disengaged himself from her arms at the sight of Kai smiling and Ivy cheerfully waving at them in approval. “Come let us wait by the boat,” he urged, his face reddening. “Too many are watching us.”
“Let them watch!” Fria declared. “I care not what they think of us.” Nevertheless, she followed him beneath the great arched portal and onto the magnificent Western Merchant Dock. The high tide was receding and the wharves were above water, glistening in the feeble emergency lighting. Here, the thunder was louder and they could see the gentle waves lapping in from the Great Harbour that protected the gates and entrances to all the southern docks.
They stood by their merchant boat that slowly chivvied at its moorings. The Beorminghas spur line on which the Phoenix rested ran alongside the north western edge of the dock and they could see the hulking shapes of the dockside cranes that had once transferred the cargoes of the merchant ships directly onto railway wagons. The lighting in the dock was less than in the Core and emboldened, they embraced each other tightly before Fria took the initiative and kissed him full on the lips. The pounding of his blood became a tsunami and he passionately returned the kiss.
Their mutual bliss lasted but ten seconds as there was a noise on board the ship and they pulled apart, weapons instantly at the ready as they crouched in defensive stances. “Beware, thieves and foes, for we are armed! Reveal yourselves!” Fria cried out. “We are the Scatterlings of Crawcester and we fear nothing. We have slain many Brothers and Tally-men!”
“We fear the light!” said a young female voice from the door of the wheelhouse. “For the light brings the Order and Death upon us. You will bring them here! We will not reveal ourselves but we will kill you all if you stay any longer in our city.”
“Milverburg is ours,” another voice added, again a young female with an odd accent: “We are déathscufan. We know you both well, Fria Rafson and Amos Crawin: we do not fear you; we will kill you because you will bring the butchers here.”
“You call yourself death-walkers?” Fria said contemptuously. “Shadow-mice are what you are.” She regretted it instantly as an arrow whipped past her right ear, the fletching nicking the edge and drawing blood. Without hesitation or thought, they both dropped to their bellies to present smaller targets. “We are not your enemies,” she shouted angrily. “We follow the Light-Father and we have Wiccans with us! We attacked the Great Abbey and killed many Tally-men and Fathers and Brothers!”
“But you did not kill them all,” the first voice said angrily. “The Angels still fly and they will come for you. They will come for us. We could have lived here in peace for ever but now, because of you, they will destroy Milverburg with their flying machines and the Tally-men will hunt us forever!”
“How many of you are there?” Amos demanded as Fria dabbed at the nick to her ear and ground her teeth in frustration.
“We are déathscufan. We are many.”
“No you are not. Our Ferals knew you were watching us and their senses are keen. They named you stone-ghosts and they told us of your whisperings in the air shafts and tunnels.”
“Liar! We are the ghosts that bring death. Your beast-children have keen senses but they are as dull as clay.”
“You are but two girls,” Amos retorted. “They said they only heard two female voices but we did not believe them at first.”
Fria frowned. “If you want nothing to do with us, what are you doing on our boat?”
“The Beomodor is our boat!” the second voice cried out. “My father and her father owned it and we sailed the seven seas with our families and our cargo. We will not let you take her!”
Amos and Fria turned to see Ivy and a few curious Ferals approaching them. “Stay back!” Amos warned. “They fired an arrow at us. They are but two girls like us!”
“Ah, yes, the Ferals know of them,” Ivy replied, striding forward. “They wanted to hunt them down but we denied them that dangerous pleasure. Come forth, children, for we mean you no harm! You have my word as a Mother!”
“Wiccans are evil. Our friend was taken by Wiccans and she came home in a coffin as white as snow!”
“I have an arrow aimed at your heart, witch,” the first voice said. “Go away! We are déathscufan.”
Ivy threw her arms wide as she stood above Fria and Amos. “Then kill me, child. I care not what you call yourselves but you are not murderers. If you had meant to kill me you would have fired upon me as soon as I approached for you have spied upon us for three weeks. You could easily have killed Fria had you wanted to. Come forth into the light where we may gaze upon such fearsome creatures. We mean you no harm.”
There was an expectant hush where even the nudging and jostling of the boats and the lapping of the water seemed to cease. Then came the whip of two arrows from the shadows and Ivy let her Crescent Moon staff fall to snatch both of them out of the air; one in each hand. The arrow tips were poised mere centimetres above her silver pendant of a crescent moon set with pearls. Fria and Amos watched as she frowned and began to strain, her knuckles whitening, as if the arrows were somehow possessed and seeking to bury themselves deep into her heart.
After what seemed an eternity, she relaxed and let the arrows fall before retrieving her staff from the flagstones. “It is safe to stand, children,” she said thoughtfully. “They are gone from the vessel. How? I know not but I can sense them no longer.”
Fria got to her feet put a hand to her injured ear and could see the traces of blood even in the dim light. “We will have to kill them if they do that again,” she muttered, her eyes glinting as she drew her knives again. “They could have killed you.”
“But they did not, dear heart,” Ivy smiled, placing a hand to Fria’s ear. There was a short stab of pain and Amos drew close to study the injury.
“The bleeding has stopped,” he said in awe then he turned to Ivy who was sill staring at shadows on the boat. “Those arrows were alive with magic, weren’t they?”
“Good. You are beginning to keep an open mind,” she said absently. “The craft is at work in those two. They are untrained so I cannot tell whether they will useful or a danger to us yet they have survived in this dangerous place for so long without parent or guidance. It would be better if we dealt with them.” She turned to stare candidly at them both. “You must not seek them out for I fear you will be no match for their craft or their archery.”
“We’ll see about that,” Fria snarled and drawing her blades again she leapt aboard the boat and began searching the wheel-house and cabins. Ivy sighed and waited patiently as Amos fidgeted anxiously next to her, ashamed that he could not bring himself to follow her. A few minutes later, Fria rejoined them brandishing a parchment with a crude drawing of two girls holding hands: one with short black hair and one with short fair hair. Bows were in their free hands and they were surrounded by corpses.
Ivy took the drawing and studied the Runic letters beneath. “At least we now know their names,” she smiled. “I must tell my sisters of this discovery. It seems we may not be the last Wiccans left alive in this forsaken world after all.”
“They tried to kill you!” Amos protested. “Why should we not hunt them down and kill them for that?”
A fell light shone in Ivy’s eyes as she gazed down upon the youth. “The whole world has been trying to kill them just as the Order tried to kill you and your sister – so do not be too quick to judge. Did you both not try to kill Shield when you first encountered her and her sisters in Crawcester?”
Amos pursed his lips and lowered his eyes for Ivy was both terrifying and beautiful with pearls adorning her long brown braids. “The Light Father has healed some of my hurt and he may work his magic on them, I suppose, for they have but few years and have no doubt seen too much for ones so young.”
Ivy bent forward to kiss him upon the brow as lightning once more illuminated the entrances to the docks. “Gaia bless you, Scatterling, you have come so far so quickly but I fear your full healing will take all the skill that the Light-Father can muster.”
A deep booming rumble of thunder silenced them for a moment as it seemed to shake the flagstones beneath their feet. Ivy cocked her head as if listening to distant voices as she pocketed the drawing. She placed an arm about Fria’s shoulders. “Come, children, let us return to the others. This is indeed a night full of sadness and of storms and of stories unfolding.”
Amos looked over his shoulder at the Beomodor as if expecting a hail of arrows at any moment. “And now we have two stone ghosts to tell tales about,” he added nervously.