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.
Muted rumbles of thunder could be heard even in the lowest level of Milverburg. In the dim emergency lighting that the Light-Father had restored to the docks and railway stations, Amos could not take his eyes off the Phoenix; the magnificent Cambrensis Class Locomotive that had taken them from their Keep in Crawcester to the Great Abbey and from there to Milverburg. Even though it had stood untended in the railway sidings in Crawcester for six years, the brass fittings still gleamed as new in the dim light apart from a ricochet mark on the cabin roof from sniper-fire as they’d barrelled though Beorminghas, the City of Towers. The interiors of the blood-stained carriages were another matter: the two hundred Ferals they’d taken to the Great Abbey had not travelled well.
The forty Ferals who’d survived the Great Abbey played and swarmed atop the 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 meerkat sentries on a Kalahari mound.
He had given up arguing with Mother Ivy about why he was not allowed to help the Light-Father rescue his sister after she’d glared at him and put a finger to her lips. He couldn’t utter a single sound until he’d withdrawn to the colonnaded entrance of the huge Western Merchant Dock where the stout merchant vessel the Light-Father had serviced was waiting to take them away.
He could hear the countless other vessels fretting gently at the quaysides as the dock-gates to the Great Harbour were open even though water lapped over the wharves during the higher tides. It worried him: the open gates meant they could escape but the Order could also slip into the lower levels while they were asleep in the Tower of the Sun. The Ferals kept constant watch on the estuary and the viaducts but he feared this was not enough.
He also knew it would take too long to fire up the faithful Phoenix in an emergency even if anyone could stomach riding in the carriages 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 the visceral horrors he’d witnessed at the Great Abbey.
He stiffened as that vile memory resurfaced: the one where the Tally-man was 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 splattering his little sister with blood as he did so. He remembered the look on Fria’s pale determined face as she stabbed and 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. O joy.
“I saved her, God! What else could I have done?” he growled, shaking his fists at the shadow-shrouded masonry above him. “I still have too few years to understand why you let this happen to us, to everyone,” he raged. “But by Saint Peter’s bones, I vow that I will get stronger and protect my sister and not be left behind like some quivering maiden.”
“Do you want to see how helpless this quivering maiden is?” said an ice-cold voice behind him.
He turned to see Fria glaring at him with both the long knives in her hands pointed at him. “You’re no helpless maiden,” he said carefully, taking a step away from her knife-tips. “You carry three sharp blades strapped to your back, three to your thighs 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 again 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.”
He let his shoulders slump and turned away from her to stare at the docks that were fleetingly floodlit by lightning flashes through the dock-gates sending complex flaring shadows amongst the boats and cranes. “I knew not of your anaemia and I was without heart and hope until the Light-Father’s magic began to heal me. You often dream of that hospital where your friend, Bethwin became a Feral and you walked upon rats and corpses to find food…” he choked down a sob of self-pity. “Mother Mary, we’re only children yet here we stand in the bowels of a monstrous city, hunted by monsters and haunted by the memories of monsters!”
Fria remained silent as he dabbed at his treacherous tears and studied the vast vaulted spaces of the West Central Core but the gloom could not hide the massive columns supporting the colossal weight of the nine levels above. Three railway lines crossed the viaducts with each passing through a station before entering the Core and, around the titanic central column decorated with carvings of ash trees and dryads, they were inter-connected to allow through-trains to shuttle between Port Kent, Beorminghas and Brigstowe. Freight-trains could be diverted into siding so they could exchange cargoes with the ships in the docks radiating from the Core. She would’ve given her eye-teeth to have seen all the hustle and bustle of a world trade centre at its peak.
Amos pointed at the oppressive bulk of the central column, seeking a diversion from his brooding: “That one is called Askr Yggdrasil,” he told her. “The Norse Ash Tree of Life.”
Fria re-sheathed her long, ultra-sharp knives slowly for even in the dim light she could see the ragged scar, inflicted six years ago by a brutal and sadistic Father, 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, Saxon, Celt and Cymrig 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’d lived through. As a result of the horrors they had witnessed, he’d almost lost himself in an alter-ego named Scar and had 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 and made him Amos once more.
She had followed him down to the docks only last week to watch him work on a fishing boat. He’d explained to her as he worked that he needed to ensure every dock had a boat that they could use to escape and this was only the third. Finally, she remembered how he’d wiped his hands with an oily rag after coaxing the powerful engines back to life and waited patiently while she bombarded him with chatter and endless questions about his magic.
“There’s no magic, Fria, just the empathy I’ve learnt from my wife and being with you Scatterlings.”
“Yes, but why did Amos call himself Scar?”
He ran his hand through his thinning hair and replaced his cap while trying to figure out how to explain something this abstract to a traumatized and heavily-armed child. “Do you know what the conscious and sub-conscious mean?”
She wrinkled up her nose in concentration, transforming her from warrior to keen elementary student and for one precious moment he savoured that. “Um, Mother Moss told me the brain has a conscious part that looks after your mind so that you can make the body do things like fight and eat. Yes?”
“Not bad,” he told her. “So what does the other part do?”
“All the stuff you don’t want to think about like breathing, keeping your heart beating, digesting food and balancing?”
“Excellent!” he exclaimed, making her beam with pleasure. “But the subconscious is very complicated. It can create alternative personalities to try and protect the conscious mind when that person has been overwhelmed by trauma and horror.”
“Like a kettle boiling over, the subconscious lets the water flow in separate channels down its side.”
She recalled the look of absolute astonishment on his face before he laughed out loud. “I keep forgetting Exodus enhanced the whole package: brains as well as brawn! Anyway, like your kettle, the conscious mind loses its identity when this happens.”
“Amos used to say he deserved that injury for failing to save his family and Surl went mute so she didn’t have to call him Scar. Even Peter started calling himself Claw for a while.”
“I know. 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 understood what he was getting at and drew her long blades to study them and knew that her soul-name; her Scatterling-name was now bound to her weapons.
He then escorted her to the stairs and as they began the long climb to Uppermost and the Tower of the Sun, he told her of his life in the strange world of Great Britain. She learned 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 and how he loved her as the daughter he’d never see grow up. She had yearned to hear so much more but he’d repeatedly withdrawn to the Tower of Grieving or the docks so she could not question the hug he’d given her nor the tears in his eyes… oh, Father!
She stood next to Amos who held his nose: “Phaw! What have you been doing, Fria? You smell like a field 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, peasant!”
“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 and fan their faces!”
“Ach! You’re still a bull-pat, Amos Crawin, and you smell like one,” Fria huffed. “I have but thirteen years yet I’m a girl for all my martial skills and fast approaching 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 this on my own, Fria. Please do not tell the others I am saying this otherwise they will think I’ve gone addled in the head but when you embraced me and called me brother after all I had done to you and Surl, my heart was forever lost: you are my dúnelfena; you will always be more than a sister to me.”
Fria’s elven features went crimson with shock then she flung her arms around his neck. Her scent was completely overpowering his senses so he could no nothing but embrace her fiercely.
“Forgive me,” he whispered.
Her eyes were closed, her face upturned and he felt 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 Ferals grin expectantly atop the Phoenix and its carriages. With all the leering and nudging, he knew they needed no translation.
He ignored them and only slowly disengaged from her arms at the sight of Kai smiling and Ivy waving at them in approval. “Let us wait by the boat,” he urged, his face reddening. “Too many prying eyes are watching us.”
“Let them watch!” Fria declared. “I care not what they think of us.” Nevertheless, she followed him further into the gloom of the Western Merchant Dock. The high tide was receding and the wharves were now 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 the merchant boat that slowly chivvied at its moorings. The Beorminghas sidings 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 the 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 his first real kiss.
Their mutual bliss lasted but ten seconds as there came a noise on board the vessel 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’ve slain countless Brothers and Tally-men!”
“We fear the light!” said a young female voice from behind the door of the wheelhouse. “For the light brings Order and Death upon us. You will bring them here! We will not reveal ourselves but we will kill you 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. “Pah! Shadow-mice are what you are.” She regretted it instantly as an arrow shot 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 rotorcraft still fly and will come for you. They’ll come for us. We chased them out of Milverburg and we could have lived here in peace for ever and ever but now, because of you, they will come again and destroy Milverburg with their flying machines and the Brothers and the Tally-men will hunt us again!”
“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’re not. Our Ferals knew you were watching us as their senses are keen. They named you stone-ghosts and they told us of your whisperings in the air shafts.”
“Liar! We are the ghosts that bring death. Your beast-children have sharp eyes and ears but they are as dull as clay.”
“You are but two girls,” Amos retorted. “They said they only heard two female voices but we didn’t 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 won’t 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 Scatterlings 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; her face white as snow!”
“I have an arrow aimed at your heart, witch,” the first voice said dangerously. “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 from the shadows when you’ve spied upon us these last 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 from her silver pendant of three moons; waxing, full and waning. Fria and Amos watched open-mouthed as she began to strain, her knuckles whitening and perspiration beading her brow, as if the arrows were somehow possessed and seeking to bury themselves deep within her chest.
After what seemed an eternity, she relaxed and let the arrows fall before retrieving her staff from the flagstones. “It’s safe to stand, children,” she said thoughtfully. “They’re 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 she could see the traces of blood even in the dim light. “We’ll have to kill them if they ever do that again,” she seethed, her eyes glinting dangerously as she drew her knives. “They could’ve killed us.”
“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 exclaimed in awe then he turned to Ivy who was sill peering into the shadows on the boat. “Those arrows were alive with magic, were they not?”
“Good. You’re beginning to develop an open mind,” she replied absently. “Yes, the craft is at work in those two! They’re untrained so I can’t tell whether they’ll be useful or a threat to us yet they’ve survived in this dangerous place for six years without parent or guidance. It would be better if I dealt with them.” She turned to stare candidly at them both. “You must not seek them out for I fear you’ll be no match for their craft or their archery.”
“We’ll see about that!” Fria snarled, leaping aboard the boat to search the wheel-house and cabins. Ivy waited patiently as Amos fidgeted anxiously, ashamed that he could not bring himself to follow Fria. A few minutes later, she 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. They had bows in their free hands and were surrounded by corpses full of arrows.
Ivy took the drawing and studied the Runic letters scrawled 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 Gaia after all.”
“But they tried to kill you!” Amos protested. “Why should we not hunt them down and kill them for that? We cannot let enemies wander about unchallenged in Milverburg!”
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 has tried to kill you and your sister. They are not our enemies; do not be too quick to judge. Did you not try to kill Shield when you first encountered her in Crawcester?”
Amos pursed his lips and guiltily lowered his eyes for Ivy was both terrifying and beautiful with the pearls adorning her long brown braids gleaming in the feeble lighting. “The Light Father has healed some of my pain and I suppose he could work his magic on them,” he conceded grudgingly. “Like us, they have but few years and have no doubt seen far too much for ones so young.”
Ivy bent forward to kiss him upon the brow as lightning once more illuminated the entrance to the docks. “Gaia bless you, Scatterling, you have come so far in such a short time but I fear that you will yet test the patience of the Light-Father.”
A deep booming rumble of thunder silenced them for a moment as it seemed to shake the very flagstones beneath their feet. Ivy cocked her head as if listening to distant voices. She pocketed the drawing and placed an arm about Fria’s shoulders. “Come, children; let us return to the others. This will be a night full of sadness and storms and in such darkness tales unfold into shields against the fell creatures at the edges of our dreams.”
Amos looked over his shoulder at the Beomodor as if expecting a hail of arrows at any moment. “And now we’ve got two stone ghosts to add to those tales,” he said nervously.
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