Chapter 16: Strange Rains
Chapter 16 of the City of Gargoyles: Book 2 of the Light-Father Trilogy
Kendra and Bordan desperately try to protect their little albino daughter but meet their match in a brat called Cedric at a roadside service station…
“Is that a vortex up there?” Mouse said nervously, pointing at a snaking funnel illuminated by lightning. “We saw one six years ago from the museum in Crawcester where we were hiding from the Order. Huge hailstones smashed all the skylights and statues to pieces! They were much bigger than the ones earlier and they whistled as they fell: they were the size of boulders!”
“By Helios, you’ve had some adventures,” Nightshade smiled. “That’s not a vortex but a waterspout and look: it’s dissipating already. Milverburg cannot be hurt by any vortex so we’re safe here. The worst of the lightning is moving north too but this rain is like watching a waterfall. Listen to it pound upon the flagstones! I can’t recall rain as heavy as this.”
“Six years ago was bad,” Mouse insisted. “That was when the first great flood swept away the Copper Bridge in Crawcester. We’ve had many storms since then but not one this heavy for a long time. Even the storm three weeks ago was nothing like this.”
Amidst the deluge, something heavy thumped down onto the flagstones in front of them and that something flapped and slithered but the dim light beneath the clouds had faded so they could not discern what was making the sound. Nightshade whispered an arcane chant in a long-lost tongue and the lion’s head atop her staff began to emit white light. Then she laughed as more objects landed on the flags before them and on the causeway until there was hundreds of them writhing about, scales glistening in the pale light. “Fish!” she cried out as another series of lightning flashes dispelled all doubt. “Strange rain in a strange world: we’ll eat fresh fish tonight. Praise Diana and the Triple Goddess for their bounty!”
“I hope it’s a good omen, Mother Nightshade.”
“Food when a belly is empty is always a good omen, dear heart! That waterspout was sent by Gaia to aid us, I’m sure of it. It sucked these creatures high into the air and dropped them into our laps. We’d better find some baskets to collect as many as we can before the seabirds take to the skies and descend upon this feast.”
They hastened back into the bowels of Milverburg and within minutes twenty excited Ferals were romping through the relentless downpour with boxes and woven baskets, filling them to the brim with fish whilst chattering and teasing each other. Mouse began to appreciate how good their night-vision was as she could barely make out their fleeting, darting shapes except during the more lurid lightning-flashes that left their images seared upon her retina like a photograph. Two minutes later they retreated bearing their prizes to show Kai and the others, leaving Mouse and the enigmatic Wiccan alone at the entrance once more, listening to the dull roar of the rain and wrapped in the faint white glow of the staff.
They felt a warm wind on their faces and they retreated under the arch as veils of rain angled towards them. Nightshade sniffed the air: “Even this cascade cannot wash out the ashes of Africa,” she mused aloud. “But the wind is shifting to the east and the storm may lose energy: I fear it will dissipate before dawn. That’s only six hours away and we must get some rest. If the weather sets fair tomorrow, who knows what devilry will come our way?”
Mouse dropped her spear and buried her face in the bosom of the Wiccan catching her by surprise. “What ever is the matter, dear heart?” she said, holding Mouse close to her with her free hand. “I had hoped you’d tell me of your tale of that Crawcester museum and how you met up with Amos and the others.”
“A cruel memory, Mother Nightshade,” Mouse sniffed, the tears coursing down her face. “Four years ago we were searching for food in the centre of town and we were attacked by a huge pack of dogs. Leo and Jana could not run as fast as us as they were still unwell from eating bad food. The dog pack ate them alive and as we ran away, we could hear them screaming and begging us to save them. Saul and David never forgave themselves and we all cried for days until Mother Moss told us that we did the right thing as their sacrifice allowed us to survive when they could not.”
Mouse buried her face in the albino’s bosom again and shuddered and howled. “Peace, little one,” Nightshade said. “The Light-Father is right: whenever a memory like this afflicts you, you must speak of it and let others lend you their strength by listening. Cry, dear heart: I’ll always be here for you. We’ll face the dark memories and the nightmares together. We’ll prevail together.”
“I’ll never forget Leo and Jana,” Mouse sobbed. “And now I’ve lost my sister as well as my parents. It’s not fair!”
“I know, Mouse, I know. I lost my parents as well but I will never forget them: they will always be in my memories.”
Mouse wiped her eyes as the rain slackened only for the heavens to be rent by fusillades of lightning flashes, some of which struck the rails on the viaduct sending flashes sparking past them along the tracks. The discharges worked their way into Milverburg itself making one of the Ferals by the Phoenix leap into the air as he was playing on the tracks, still wet from harvesting fish.
The display distracted Mouse and, after the rattling thunder had faded northwards, she looked up at the Wiccan: “The Light-Father is right: I have to confront each memory as it surfaces. If you don’t talk about it, he said, it’s like bottling poison inside you.”
“This is true. He’s really perceptive for a man.”
“I love him, Mother Nightshade. He’s like a father to me and you’re now like a mother to me. Thank you.”
Nightshade was taken aback: “Ah, you do me a real honour, dear heart. I don’t know what to say.”
“How about telling me what happened after Schimrian almost caught you and your parents at the roadblock.”
Nightshade pursed her lips and then sighed. “I suppose I, too, must honour the Light-Father’s dictum though the tale does not end well – like so many in this dark grimoire of a world.”
“Phaw!” Ellete snorted in disgust. She had her head out of the rear car window like a hound savouring the breeze but the day was already swelteringly hot. “What is that stink?”
“Mind your hat doesn’t blow off, Ellete,” Kendra smiled, glancing over her shoulder.
“Yes, Ma, but what’s making that awful smell?”
“We’re on the Dead Marshes Road, Ellete,” Bordan explained. “See that big fortress and those harbours in the Estuary? That’s Milverburg. You can just about see it through the haze.”
“Un-geh! I can see it! I thought it was an island, Da!” Ellete chirped. “Oh, this is like going on holiday! Honey Bear says he’s excited. Honey Bear wants ice cream!”
“Ha! I bet he does,” Bordan laughed. “That smell is the Dead Marshes and it’s always worse in hot weather. They say people get lost in there and it sucks down birds and animals too. The corpses and the rotting vegetation create that foul odour.”
“Yrch! I hate it,” Ellete grimaced. “Mouldy cabbage and rotten eggs smell nicer than that… or a kack after a bad tummy.”
“That’s enough about toilets, dear heart,” Kendra admonished. “I don’t want you getting travel sick again.”
“Speaking of toilets, we can go when we pull in to get some scyfol at the highway station this side of Rackgate,” Bordan said decisively, tapping at the fuel gauge. “This car uses a lot of fuel and we could use some food, coffee and ice cream. It’ll be another thirty minutes or so. Can you wait that long?”
Ellete flopped back into her seat, folded her arms around her Honey Bear and pouted: “Hmph! I suppose so!”
She turned and knelt on the back seat to stare out of the rear window. “I’m glad that awful man back there isn’t following us. I could hear these horrible voices whispering to him. His hand was as cold as ice. He made me so scared.”
“He scared us too but you were a great actress, dear heart,” Kendra said kindly. “You made us both so proud of you!”
“But why was I born like this, Ma?”
“Hmm, I’ll leave that one to you, Kendra,” Bordan grinned.
“Thank you so much, dear heart,” Kendra said sarcastically, digging an elbow into his side. She turned in her seat to stare at her daughter. “It’s called genetics, dear…”
“Oh, that’s a good start,” Bordan interrupted only to receive another sharp jab to the ribs.
“Ellete, when a man and a woman come together they each give a little part of themselves, mix it together and start a baby growing in the woman’s womb and then, nine months later, she gives birth to a little boy or a little girl.”
“Yes, but why am I so different? If part of me is you and part of me is Da mixed together then I should have brown hair and brown eyes! Am I really your daughter?”
“Shhh, stay those tears, dear heart,” Kendra soothed, taking her daughter’s hand. “It’s complicated and you need many more years to understand it all but every so often, something goes wrong in the mixing that makes babies. Da and I both have a part of us that’s defective and if those parts come together, the baby can’t make the pigment that gives colour to skin and hair so they stay white and the irises can turn a blood-red colour like yours.”
“Oh! So I’m defective!” Ellete sobbed, yanking her hand away and burying her face in her Honey Bear.
“That went well, ow!” Bordan yelped. “Hoi! That is going to leave a bruise! Perhaps we should have waited a few years.”
“I think we should just let her cry it out,” Kendra said, staring despondently at passing clumps of bulrush, reed mace and cattail that marked the living boundary of the Dead Marshes. “She has to know she’s our daughter and we love her!”
“She has but six years, Kendra,” Bordan said placatingly. ”How much did you understand of the world having tallied but six years? You probably can’t remember anything.”
“Oh, I do, Bordan. In primary school, they taught us of such things at her tally but she hasn’t been to school yet.” She turned to her daughter. “Listen, Ellete: you are not defective; you’re an albino and our rare and precious and beautiful daughter. How could anything so beautiful possibly be defective?”
“But I can make magic and you can’t,” Ellete whinged. “So I must be made wrong. Is that why those men want to hurt me?”
Bordan wisely kept his council as he knew Kendra would probably break a rib next time. Something caught his eye in his rear view mirrors. “Kendra, there are two black rotorcraft flying low along the road behind us,” he said with some concern. “Surely the police can’t be after us already?”
Ellete immediately took an interest, wiped her eyes and knelt on the seat to gaze out of the rear windscreen. The Angels roared overhead causing vehicles travelling in both directions to swerve so that it was a miracle that no collisions occurred.
“Ach,” Bordan snorted in disgust. “Those were Order rotorcraft not the police. I know they must be ferrying patients to hospitals for emergency treatment but their pilots always fly low to show their contempt for us lesser mortals; the Unworthy as they call us.”
“Oh, I thought we were going to be taken,” Kendra fretted. “Bordan, I’m so frightened!”
“Be at peace, dear heart. I’ll put the car radio on.”
Kendra rested her head against the car window and, despite her despair she was lulled into a doze by the tepid mass-produced melodies of several Government-approved folk bands. What felt like a moment later, she was being gently shaken awake by Bordan: “We’re coming into Rackgate,” he explained. “Look: there’s the highway station. You’ll feel better after some tea and something to eat and I believe Ellete still wants her ice-cream.”
“And one for Honey Bear!”
“And one for Honey Bear,” Bordan laughed. He pulled into the car park that was already shimmering in the intense late-morning sunshine. “We mustn’t use bankcards or cheques if we can avoid it,” he said, counting the bills in his wallet.
“But these ‘Asphalt Sovereign’ places are so expensive!”
Bordan gazed at his wife and grinned. She had said it in such a petulant and matter of fact way that he briefly had the illusion that they were simply an ordinary family on a vacation.
“What’s so amusing, Bordan?” she frowned.
“Nothing. I just realised how beautiful you are.”
“Pfft! Flattery is the discourse of fools and demons.”
“Aye, there’s some truth to that,” he sighed. He opened the rear door and helped Ellete and her Honey Bear out of the back seat.
“It’s so hot!” Ellete complained. “This hat is making my brain melt like cheese on toast and my clothes are hot too!”
“You have to wear trousers and the long-sleeved top, dear heart,” Kendra explained. “And the hat and those glasses. You’ll have to play the actress until we get to Crawcester, understood?”
“Yes, Ma,” Ellete grumbled rebelliously and stomped off ahead of them, leading the way to the cafeteria part of the station.
They entered a large hall full of plastic furniture and tacky wall paintings depicting Celtic, Norse and Saxon legends. There were serving hatches at the far end behind a counter made to resemble a battlement. Waiters in black shirts and trousers wore aprons each bearing the motif of a crown surrounded by stars and runes as they flitted to and fro amongst the hubbub, wiping tables and clearing away used plates and cutlery. To Kendra and Bordan, it was the epitome of poor taste and crass consumerism but to Ellete, cosseted and coddled all her life, it was a magical palace.
“Let’s get this over with,” Kendra said, grabbing Ellete’s hand. “People are staring at us already.”
Bordan shrugged his shoulders as they joined the back of the queue. “No, that’s just normal paranoia, dear heart. We’re just a normal family on a normal vacation so relax.”
There was a family in front of them with a young blond boy in a plain shirt and shorts holding his mother’s hand. He was staring at Ellete but he could only see his reflection in her mirrored lenses. “Ma, Ma, there’s a strange blind girl behind us,” he said several times, tugging at her hand. “She’s weird.”
“Shh, Cedric, it is not polite to point at people or call them names,” she said curtly, wagging a finger at her son. She turned to Kendra. “I’m so sorry but he’s usually so well-behaved.”
“That’s okay,” Kendra said, greatly relieved. “It happens all the time. My daughter isn’t blind or weird but she suffered a viral infection as a babe that damaged her retinas so she can’t bear bright light as it causes her so much pain.”
“Oh, I see,” the woman said, guiding Cedric away from Ellete. “But does she need to be bundled up like that? Cedric! Stop staring at the poor girl. Be grateful that you have your health and you can run about without sunglasses.” She knelt down and put a hand on Ellete’s shoulder. “I apologise for my son’s rudeness. You’ve been through some hard times, dear heart. Please accept my blessings for your good fortune and your good health.”
Kendra nudged her daughter. “Manners, Freda, what do you say to the nice woman?”
“Thank you,” Ellete simpered and bobbed a curtsy.
The woman stood up and was in raptures: “Oh, how precious,” she gushed. “How I wish I had a daughter to go with my three boys but we had to stop at the three boys unfortunately.”
Her husband laughed good-naturedly at Bordan. “The spirits were willing but the bank balance was weak! Families these days often have more children than they can feed then they expect our government and our taxes to pay for them but not us!”
“Very commendable,” Bordan nodded, deciding that he felt he should dislike the man immensely but the man’s round face and engaging demeanour had caught him off-guard. “We, alas, have but one child yet we count our blessings.”
“Ah, yes, I expect the medical bills for the poor child were crippling, no doubt,” the man sympathised. “But good for you: too many parents surrender custody of their disabled children to the orphanages run by the Government and the Order…”
“It’s scandalous: we hear such rumours about their treatment even in Accyngate,” his wife interrupted in a quiet voice, looking around nervously to see that they could not be overheard. “The local orphanage was shut down last year as some of the children went missing. Some in Accyngate say that the Government and Exodus were using them in experiments!”
“Ah, I wouldn’t know,” Bordan dissembled. “We’ve heard nothing of this in Brigstowe and we have three orphanages there. Accyngate, you say? I thought you were from the northern reaches of the Middle Cities from the accent,” Bordan smiled. “I’m afraid that we’ve never visited your home town.”
“Oh, we have a new Cathedral,” the man huffed proudly. “We’re no longer just a market town on the northern borders of the Middle Cities. Accyngate became officially chartered as a Middle City in its own right last Whitsuntide!”
“Congratulations,” Kendra said brightly, enjoying the banality of the conversation. “We’re taking a vacation in Crawcester but we might take a trip north to Accyngate.”
“Then you’d be most welcome,” the man nodded, proffering Bordan a business card with both hands. “Please look us up if you do make the journey. If we’re free, we would be delighted to show you the more interesting sights. I am sure we can disprove the myth that Middle City folk are inhospitable and wary of strangers. We have a lot of tourists these days. We…”
“It’s our turn to order, Aaron,” his wife interrupted, indicating the counter. “The boys want the meat pates and potato chips.”
“Thank you,” Bordan said, bowing slightly and accepting Aaron’s card with both hands in the manner of the traders of the Japanese Empire. “I hope you enjoy your vacation too.”
“We hope so,” Aaron shrugged as his wife ordered for the family and grudgingly so as it was obvious Aaron preferred to talk to Bordan. “We are planning to go through Fosskeep and head down to the Tamemere Piers where all the amusement parks are. We were going to Arthburg for the festivals and shows but they were cancelled following those incidents with the Cymrig brigands. It’s a national shame that King John the Merciless showed so much mercy to those Cymrig swine!”
Bordan’s eyes widened at the casual racist callousness of the statement. “It was called the Great Massacre for a reason,” he pointed out delicately. “Even after centuries of recovery, there are but twelve thousand Cymrig alive today.”
Aaron tutted: “Yes, I know and every one an inbred genetic nightmare according to the Order. Why else would they attack and murder innocent citizens?”
“Why else, indeed,” Bordan replied blandly. “After all this time, they still seem to harbour an irrational hatred towards Britannic citizens for the Massacre. You’d have thought they would’ve let it go by now. After all, history is history.”
“Well said,” Aaron grinned, completely oblivious to the irony. “They are more vexatious than the Fellholmers and Longspit clans could ever be. Anyway, our food is ready. It has been a pleasure to meet you. I do hope that we will meet again in Accyngate but please forgive me: I know not your names.”
“Geoffrey Geowine, at your service,” Bordan said formally, shaking Aaron’s hand. “This is my wife, Cassandra and my daughter El… I mean Freda.”
Aaron looked puzzled for a moment then smiled broadly. “Well met then, Geoffrey and Cassandra. My wife’s first name is classical too: Hera; obviously an omen that we shall meet again. May God bless you and your vacation.”
Kendra and Bordan returned the bow: “And you and yours,” they responded in unison. Bordan watched Aaron pick up the second tray of food and then the family wandered off in search of a table with Cedric racing pell-mell around his stoic brothers.
“Hera indeed!” Kendra scoffed. “That little Cedric is a nest of vipers to be sure but if I am to be Cassandra then those two are Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus.”
Bordan ordered their sandwiches and ice creams but the counter assistant apologised that the coffees and chocolate milk would be awhile: the machines had broken down so they were making the drinks with kettles. He gave them glasses of water for free. “We’ll bring your drinks to that corner table over there in about ten minutes,” he said, pointing. “We’ll discount the tea and coffee because of the inconvenience,” he added, bowing.
They carried their trays to the table and seated themselves after waving at Aaron and Hera who were two tables away from them and struggling to control Cedric who was racing around with the toy aeroplane given away free with the children’s meals. Ellete took a token bite out of her sandwich before launching into the ice-cream. Bordan could not resist a dig at Kendra: “So who am I?” he teased. “Am I your Apollo or your Agamemnon?”
“Huh! Neither,” she said in a tragic voice. “More like Ajax the Lesser snatching me away from my helpless family.”
Bordan laughed. “You are indeed the queen of tragedies but for some reason I can’t explain I fell hopelessly in love and married you despite all the fey glamours about you.”
Cedric ran past their table making aircraft engine noises and was evidently irritating most of the other families around them. “I almost feel sorry for his parents,” Kendra whispered. “They call it hyper-activity like it’s some kind of disease but it’s all down to failures in parental discipline. Ah, here come the drinks!”
“Thank Almighty Zeus,” Bordan said, continuing the mythological theme. “I desperately need some coffee!”
The harassed and overworked waiter had several other orders balanced on his tray so he didn’t see Cedric dart between two tables to trip him up as he approached their table. Bordan felt the world was moving in slow motion as the man tumbled forward and all the cups and their contents were propelled towards Ellete. He saw the look of horror on Hera’s face as she rose from her table then something miraculous happened: for one moment, the cups and most of the hot liquid had simply stopped dead in mid-air but not all of it: some reached Ellete and she yelped in pain.
The cups and the suspended liquid fell to the table in a cascade but Kendra reacted instantly and hurled their water at Ellete where the hot tea and coffee had splashed her. She tore off Ellete’s glasses and hat to hastily wipe her face and neck, making sure there were no scalds but removing the make up in the process.
Hera approached the table with a look of mortification on her face. She had literally hurled the bawling Cedric into his father’s arms then helped the waiter back onto his feet while apologising profusely to him, bowing Japanese-fashion until he was placated and left to fetch a mop, pan and brush to clear the debris.
“By Saint Basil’s bones, forgive me: I am so sorry,” she began, wringing her hands as Kendra dabbed Ellete with paper towels from her bag. “Your sandwiches are ruined as well. I’m so sorry; we cannot get Cedric to sit still! Um… is Freda unharmed? I hope she’s not scalded. Bu… bu…” she gurgled to a halt and stared open-mouthed as Kendra had moved out of the way so she could see the little girl clearly. Glaring at her was a child with pure white hair, snow-white skin and blood-red irises that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up on end. “Oh! She’s an albino!” she gasped and almost fainted. “An albino! God preserve us!”
“Now you know why we lie and why we cover her up,” Bordan said angrily, indicating Hera. “We do it because we are sick of seeing reactions and prejudice like that. We live in modern times, Hera, but people hang on to their mindless superstitions.”
Hera had her hands to her mouth but she rallied quickly and her face became serious. “I can only humbly apologise again. We are not medieval in Accyngate, I can assure you but,” she paused and broke into a smile. “She is striking and she caught me by surprise.” She bent down to speak to Ellete: “I think you’re beautiful, Freda. Sometimes, being different is good. You’re going to have so many boyfriends when you grow up!”
Ellete harrumphed, pouted and stared out of the window. Hera stood up again and put her hands on her hips. “I don’t blame her for not speaking to me but let me make it up to you. I insist on replacing your ruined food and drinks. Will you at least let me do that much by way of making amends for Cedric?”
“That’s very generous of you,” Bordan told her as three waiters arrived and started mopping up the puddles and clearing away the broken cups and plates from both floor and table. “But we need to get some scyfol and resume our journey.”
“No, you just move to the next table while they clean up and I’ll be right back with fresh sandwiches and more ice-cream for Freda. Would you like some of their special double chocolate ice-cream, Freda? They say it’s worth going to war over it!”
After a nudge from Kendra, Ellete nodded: “Yes, please.”
Hera scurried off leaving them to move to the next table with more paper towels handed to them by the waiters to dab at their clothes. Kendra noted with spiteful satisfaction that Cedric was still crying his eyes out but she doubted that he was seriously hurt. He was also the object of angry glares and comments from many other diners who clearly shared her opinion of him.
“A lot of people were staring at Ellete. Thank the stars we’re not in Cheal or Oldhayne,” Bordan muttered. “This is not good: we only need one person to call the police and we’re troll-meat but if we flee, I’d expect Hera to call them herself.”
“Then we stay and accept the Accyngate peace offering,” Kendra sighed, resigned. “You can take the top off as well, Ellete, now that everyone’s seen you. We’re on holiday after all and you get the expensive ice-cream that we can’t afford.”
“Ah, that’s better,” Ellete grinned after removing the wet over-shirt. She had a Honey Bear t-shirt underneath that was coffee-stained but presentable. She stiffened and put a hand to shade her eyes from the bright light streaming in through the nearby windows. “That woman is talking to the people at the counter and pointing at us and those waiters were talking about me too.”
Hera arrived with fresh sandwiches and coffees and the biggest bowl of chocolate ice-cream Ellete had ever seen. She was blushing furiously. “We’ve been asked to leave,” she explained. “They can never grasp what makes him like this so I understand how you feel about the prejudice you experience.” She bowed again and fought back tears: “May God bless you and your journey.”
“And you,” Bordan responded suspiciously. “The counter staff seemed to be asking a lot of questions about our daughter. What were they saying? Are they afraid of her?”
Hera saw that Aaron and the boys were at the exit and waiting impatiently for her. “They were just ignorant dullards: I had to explain to them what causes albinism and that she wasn’t about to curse them. Hopefully they’ll leave you alone. Be well.”
Bordan watched them leave and saw that the curiosity of other families seemed to be satisfied. “That could’ve been worse,” he said. “But, praise her, we’ve got time to enjoy our food.”
He was wrong.
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