Author: Gareth Jack Sansom

Science Fiction and Fantasy Author from Melbourne, Victoria currently residing in New Town, Tasmania. My first full-length Novel, 'Alluvion' will be completed, self-published and made available in print early in 2018. Please also follow me on Facebook and Twitter:

Here is the Sixth Chapter from Alluvion:

06. Return to Nevalı Çori

Battered, bruised and beyond exhausted, Skara ran as fast as his legs would carry him out through the city gates, putting as much distance as possible as quickly as possible between himself and the ramshackle sprawl of Çatalhöyük. As scattered and confused as the city guard now were, he knew that it would only be a matter of time before He-Tauhasa’s soldiers had either cornered and trapped, or else put the monster called Murmesh to death before then realising that he too had made his escape. He knew also that there were an almost endless number of seasoned hunters and trackers in the service of the king, and that with their skill and better knowledge of the wide, flat lands surrounding the city they would likely close in on him within hours.

He ran due north for several miles, following the largest of the many rivers that fed the estuary before branching east and making his way quickly and quietly back up the long and gradual incline that his captors had brought him down several days earlier. He was very careful to mask his footsteps, backtracking in several places as he went but he knew that this would do little to slow down the skilled hunters of the south who would be spurred-on by the promises of great reward for his recapture.

He realised that his only real hope of evading them would be to reach the rolling hills west of the valley, hills which he knew like the back of his hand and where he might at least have a chance at finding refuge either in the company of other southern families nearby the valley, or else otherwise in the thick forests around the edges of the lower lands. It didn’t help that he’d had to make his escape in broad daylight, and although there were dense woods dotting the landscape around the city, there were all too many long stretches of open grassland that he would have to cross before finding any real cover.

He gritted his teeth and simply ran and ran for hours until his legs ached, his lungs burned and his heart felt as though it would give out at any moment. Already mid-afternoon, the wind was blowing east which favoured him, but carried on every strong gust were the far-off calls and voices of those in pursuit, ever so faint but growing louder as the hours wore away. Eventually, he followed a small stream which he knew would lead him toward higher ground and stopped to rest once he had reached a particularly thick crop of trees, perhaps only one quarter of the way to safety.

At the top of a rise within the wood he came across a large limestone outcrop from which a small waterfall cascaded, fed from somewhere within the rocks and he knew he could safely stop and drink the water, rest his legs and wash the dozens of small cuts and open wounds on the soles of his feet that he had suffered running barefoot from the city. He drank his fill from where it landed, taking care not to overdo it and run the risk of a cramp before he needed to again press on. To get a better view of the path he had taken and to also discreetly scan for his pursuers, he carefully climbed to the top of the rise and from behind the thick scrub, peered out over the lower lands and across the incline behind him for any sign of movement. Far off in the distance, he could clearly see the dark blotch of Çatalhöyük on the horizon and the telltale plumes of smoke which rose from the many open hearths of the city, and could also make out the tiny, dark shapes of what must have been large hunting parties moving slowly away from it. “Good,” he thought to himself, “they’re such a distance away still that I might actually have a chance at losing them.”

After several long minutes spent making sure that all were in fact a safe distance away and accounted for, he rose from his position behind the thicket and turned to make his way over the rise and continue on his journey. As he turned to leave however, he heard an unmistakeable whistle shoot past his left ear, followed immediately by a faint splash as something struck the stone behind the waterfall next to him and dropped into the stream below. “Arrows..!” his mind screamed, “They’re already here..!” He froze for two-tenths of a second, terrified his poor legs would not react and carry him to safety as he knew the next one’s aim would be true.

Thankfully without another moment’s hesitation, he bounded through the dark trees leading out of the rise and launched himself into the thick forest above it, quickly finding a second wind and moving at a speed he didn’t even think was possible. Thoughts raced through his mind as he heard a man’s voice calling out for him to stop, and he considered among many things turning around and facing his attacker head-on. He remembered then that he had nothing practical with which to defend himself, and in spite of his size and strength was at that moment very hungry, weak and almost completely out of breath.

The forest was dark and damp, and branches whipped and tore at him as he fled. Old cedar trees rose up everywhere, and the higher branches of these interlocked above his head to form a thick ceiling which only let a small amount of light through where gaps had formed. Large slabs of granite jutted out intermittently from the forest floor, which was itself uneven and in places held large pools of murky water. Several times Skara nearly came crashing to the ground as he slipped on fallen logs and rocks all covered in a bright green, slick moss that seemed to grow over everything, and those wounds that he had washed on his feet again tore open in several places as he failed to safely navigate sharper stones and branches. After sprinting for a time, he could no longer hear the footfalls or cries of his pursuer and started to believe that he just might succeed in outrunning him.

He considered then finding refuge in the canopies above, his eyes darting about as he ran searching for a strong and reliable tree that he might climb to stop leaving tracks, at least until his attacker had caught up to him but he knew that there was still not enough of a distance between them that he could risk doing so unseen. His only option was to run, and the only way to run was forward. He began to tire as he weaved through the trees, his legs now burning and his lungs feeling as though they might explode. “Surely I can’t go on much further,” he thought to himself, “I’m not built for running, and not for such long distances.”

As his strength faded completely he realised that it was only a matter of time before he would have to slow, and then eventually stop altogether. Just as he was considering whether surrender might in fact be a viable option, the wood through which he was being chased thinned out, and eventually opened into a wide clearing which rose toward what he could only guess were the early beginnings of the rolling hills. He had travelled a great distance, but was still too far away from safety. As he cleared the wall of trees, he immediately veered left and slid haphazardly behind a large group of granite boulders which might have at least offered coverage and protection for several seconds. He had no idea how close his assailant now was (he had not heard his footsteps or cries for several minutes), but exhausted and physically spent, he lay still where he landed and caught his breath as carefully as he dared.

For several long moments, Skara lay behind a large boulder at the edge of the clearing. “If the archer was as close behind me as I think he was,” he thought to himself, “then there is no way that when he reaches this clearing he’ll believe that I have crossed.” He dared not move however, and keeping his head cocked low strained his ears for any noises from the forest wall. He heard nothing. Not footsteps, not the telltale snap of branches underfoot. Several more minutes passed, and he raised himself up into a crouching position, still careful not to allow any part of his body to be seen over the top of the boulder. His gaze fell upon a strong and sturdy length of cedar branch where he hid, and very slowly and carefully picked it up, waiting even longer before making the decision to peer over the rock to see if there was any sign of his assailant. “Perhaps,” he thought with a brazen optimism, “I did lose him in the woods, and the way ahead is safe for the moment. If it is, surely it would be foolish to continue to wait here, while the others catch up to me..” He nervously placed a palm on the boulder and slowly eased himself up.

Just before he could raise himself higher to take a look however, several nesting grouse were disturbed at the edge of the clearing only several yards from where he hid and the sound of quiet cursing could be heard. The archer had indeed trailed him, and was now standing directly on the other side of the huge boulder, searching the clearing for signs of Skara’s entry into the open. His mind raced as he considered his situation; within seconds, the other man would find his tracks and notch his bow, leaving him without any defence whatsoever. The hunter might of course be armed with a long blade, which he could also at that moment be wielding and prepared to use as soon as he dove out from his sanctuary to meet him.

“In either case,” he thought to himself, his mind already made up, “my only chance is to strike now, and continue running for the hills. Lingering here can only be a death sentence.” And so after saying a quiet prayer to Anu, he began to square himself up, gripped the heavy branch tightly in his massive hands and tensed his muscles for what would be his one and only chance of escape.

Like a coiled spring, Skara leapt over the boulder he had hid behind and swung the large branch with all his strength at the unsuspecting hunter, who himself was only seconds away from peering over the top of it. The blow was true and caught the other man completely by surprise, striking him square on the right side of his head and sending him crashing into a pile of rocks and branches. Skara was shaking as he composed himself, but could not take any chances in risking that the hunter might continue his pursuit or alert the others and so struck the man several more times with the branch to ensure that if he did survive, it would be more than just a few minutes before he awoke. Skara puffed heavily and threw the branch into the woods, pausing only momentarily to catch his breath before searching the hunter for weapons.

As he struck the pile of rocks, the hunter had landed on his bow, snapping it clean in half. “Damn it to hell,” Skara swore under his breath. In addition to being able to accurately fell game from a half-mile away with a spear, he was a more than capable archer and the bow would have come in handy in warning off the rest of his pursuers.

He pulled several barbed arrows and a medium-sized ivory blade from the hunter’s tunic, and making sure that there were no other items which might assist him, left the body where it lay. He draped several leafy branches to cover it and made his way across the clearing and into the gentle hills beyond. “That was too close,” he thought to himself as he entered the safety of the forest once more. “If one of them managed to sneak up on me like that, surely there can’t be others too far away, perhaps already in the woods. I’ll need to move more quickly, and take better care not to leave an obvious trail.” He tore several strips of cloth from his tunic before pressing on, and tied these around his feet in an effort to protect the worst of his injuries. It was mid-afternoon now, and he knew that he needed to find some sort of shelter wherein he might light a small fire once the Sun had gone down. He scoured his surroundings as he ran on, peering through the dense forest for any signs in the landscape that he might have recognised.

“I remember that there were kin from the valley that settled in the hills west of Nevalı Çori, many years ago. I wonder if they are still near, and whether I might find refuge with them.” Skara was remembering his father’s brother, Omer who had left the green valley following his father’s death to chance his fortune and the livelihood of his wife and three sons in the wilderness, alone. He had not seen his uncle in many years, as they had seldom had cause to return to the village and had taken issue with the growing influence of the capital on the day-to-day affairs of its people. This, Skara felt could work in his favour given his current situation, if of course they were still local to the area and if they even wanted any part in the mess that he had gotten himself into. He pressed on deeper into the forest, finding the landscape to gradually steepen as he progressed further into the undulating hills southwest of his home.

After another couple of hours navigating the woods, he came to a single barren peak that jutted out of the surrounding forest and which might serve well to provide him a clear and uninterrupted view of his surrounds. Careful to listen for any sounds of movement through the undergrowth before he did, he ascended the stony crag and carefully looked about him to find his position. The forest canopy below stretched as far north and south as he could see, and the clearing to the west that he had crossed earlier was now only a lighter patch of green in the very far distance. Looking out east, he noticed that the undulating hills preceding the valley rose only steeper, but he could just make out the definite shape of the final summit ridge on the horizon, after which he could begin his descent into the valley. Curiously, in the quickly fading light he also noticed a faint plume of smoke rising from a fire that had been lit at the southern end of the ridge. The smoke was too far away for him to see whether people or any sort of shelter surrounded it, but he decided that if he hurried on his way, he just might be able to make it to the source before darkness completely closed in.

He climbed down from the rocky crag and prayed quickly for speed and safety, before setting off east once more. He had not heard the sounds of his pursuers since leaving the clearing, and allowed himself to relax a little and focus more of his attention on safely navigating the steeper terrain rather than just blindly covering it. As he reached a higher elevation, the trees became larger and the undergrowth wilder and more invasive. He used the blade that he had taken from the archer at the clearing to machete his way forward, cutting away at branches that appeared to have stitched themselves together. After another couple of hours of this, he stopped momentarily to rest within the shelter of a large juniper tree, crouching inside a wide hollow in its trunk. He had not rested for more than five minutes before he again picked up on the faint sound of voices somewhere in the lower forest behind him. He immediately sprang-to from his hiding place, and set off once more in the direction of true east. “If I can’t make it to that settlement,” he thought to himself, remembering the plume of smoke atop the valley ridge, “then I’m well and truly done for.”

The last hour of twilight turned out to be a game of cat and mouse, with Skara desperately trying to ascend to the far ridge and the voices and calls in the woods behind him growing stronger and louder as he went. Just as the last rays of evening light sank beneath the horizon, the forest suddenly became deathly quiet and Skara stopped and held his breath to listen for his pursuers. To his horror, the familiar whistle of an arrow flying by broke the silence, and several voices – four or five if he heard correctly, called out for him to stop where he was immediately and surrender. He ignored their warnings, as he didn’t doubt for one second that He-Tauhasa had demanded he be brought back to the city dead or alive (and in however many pieces they deemed practical), and bounded up the side of the ridge which steepened drastically as he neared the summit.

“Almost there,” he thought to himself, as several more arrows whistled past him and lodged themselves into the trunks of trees behind. He gritted his teeth and for the last few hundred yards, broke into a wild sprint, climbing to the top of the valley ridge as if he were part animal. Once over the summit, he continued his marathon in the direction of the plume of smoke that had caught his eye earlier and as he neared the clearing and headed for the source of the fire, the thick trees of the forest thinned out and he broke into a brisk walk, in an attempt to finally catch his breath. For a brief and fleeting moment, it seemed as though he had finally broken away.

He was no more than twenty or thirty yards from breaking through the wall of the forest when he heard a loud cracking sound in the darkness behind him, and the unmistakeable stretching sound of a bowstring being loaded. “Stop right where you are, thief,” called a voice from somewhere in the shadows. The voice seemed a little unsure of itself and sounded like it belonged to a younger man, but Skara dared not turn around, stopping immediately and stretching his arms wide in a gesture of submission. Already the dark shadows of the woods around him were ever so wanly illuminated by the roaring fire in the settlement ahead, the light from which broke through the trees in front of him. As he stood motionless and before he could speak, another voice called out to him, “Drop your weapon, and get on your knees. You’re surrounded and outnumbered – don’t try to do anything foolish.” It was another young man, and again Skara obeyed, dropping his long knife quickly onto the ground beside him and half turning his head to respond.

By this time, Skara was almost beyond caring. He was completely exhausted, spiritually drained and had finally come to terms with the fact that the fight, for him, was well and truly over. “What has your king Ihreikas promised you for my capture..?” he called back hoarsely, “I truly hope it is enough for the work I’ve put you through.” He gasped as he struggled to fill his lungs, continuing, “If you’re going to kill me, then hurry up and kill me. I could use the rest.” He then dropped to his knees, and coughed violently as he finally regained composure and his powerful heartbeat began to slow. Strangely, the voices from the dark said nothing more to Skara for several moments. Instead, he heard low whispers from the two as they bickered among themselves, one of them sounding quite exasperated as they argued.

He could not quite make out what they were saying, but before he had a chance to ask who they were, the second voice again called out to him: “Are you.. of the valley..?” Skara was immediately confused, as the young man continued, “What is your name, stranger..? If you’re not a raider, then who are you, and what are you doing wandering so close to our home..?” Skara thanked the Gods..! He realised straight away that he hadn’t been captured by those huntsmen set out to return him to the city. These must have been men from the settlement up ahead and so he relaxed ever so slightly, but chose his next words extremely carefully:

“I am only an honest hunter from the valley, like yourselves. I have come from the capital to escape punishment for defying the king where I felt his Seers had failed him. My name is Skara Tau, and if you would help me return to the valley which is my home, I would tell no-one that you did.” He stiffened slightly, and felt it necessary to provide a little more information to the two, for all their sakes, “I have been pursued from the lowlands west of here for a day now, and those who would seek to take me back to the capital cannot be very far behind. I beg you, please help me find safe passage home, and keep me from their slings and arrows.” He was placing a high amount of faith in his own dealings with the more isolated families that lived in the hills around and beyond his village, knowing that while most of them had either feared or despised the leadership of Ihreikas whose rule they saw as an interference in their affairs, there might too be those more loyal to the house of the king that might very well fire arrows into his back regardless for such talk.

He did not have to wait too long to find out, however, as no sooner had he finished speaking he was knocked clear off his feet and onto the ground by one of the young men in the dark, the other laughing as he yelled, “Skara, our cousin from the valley..! Is it really you..?” He was shocked and confused for several seconds, before the words sunk in and he realised who it was that had captured him. “Skara..!” the other voice called out, “What in all the Gods names are you doing here..? We thought you were a raider..!” the other adding, “And what’s this talk of punishment now, and of that pompous upstart, the king..? Come, follow us into our home and the light and let’s get a look at you..!” Somehow, Skara had managed to bump into two of his three cousins, the children of his father’s brother and had nearly stumbled right on into their encampment atop the valley ridge. The three of them moved out of the darkness of the forest without and after their eyes adjusted to the light of a roaring fire in the clearing, he laughed and clasped the two of them tightly. It was the first time in days that he had felt anything near to genuine happiness.

The two young men that had confronted him were the eldest of his uncle’s children, Asher being the oldest and Zemer the middle child. They were in their late teenage years now, and had already had many years of experience hunting with their father, Omer. Skara soon learnt that Madala, their Mother had passed-on shortly after the family had left the village, leaving the four men to look after themselves and the family home. Yemah, the youngest of the three brothers was only just at an age where he was allowed to join them as they hunted the forests around their small wooden house, however was still not yet able to accompany his brothers as they hunted by night. Skara and his two cousins moved around the fire and into the wooden house to greet Omer, and talk more of the road that Skara had taken and what threat might yet still find them at the house if they did not take precautions.

The three of them entered the house, and Zemer immediately called out to his father, announcing, “Father, we have returned, and you will never guess what we have found in the woods..!” There was a small fire pit in the far end of the larger, central room of the dwelling, which itself was a rough but solid collection of large wooden logs, piled up and interlocked at every corner so as to keep the chill winter air of the upper ridge at bay. Animal skins were piled throughout the floor of the house and secured to cover any gaps in the walls and ceiling, which itself was a thick layer of stretched auroch hide. Skara was more than thankful to be out of the cold, and nearly wept with happiness when offered a cut of wild rabbit that was roasting over the inner hearth. After a minute, Omer could be heard moving around from within the smaller rear room of the dwelling, cursing as his foot struck something hard and heavy in the darkness. He emerged from the back room, immediately regarding Skara with a mixed look of faint recognition and mistrust.

Skara’s only memories of Omer were always linked to those of his own father, as the two twin brothers were almost inseparable while he was growing up and they both still lived in the valley. Agar, his father and his brother were not unlike Skara and his own half-brother Andar in a way, both sets of brothers somewhat of a living legend among the people of Nevalı Çori. Both of them were also extremely tall and brutishly strong, and had always tried to outdo each other when it came to any physical labour or challenges that might have been issued by their friends, family and each other. Whenever a task such as reinstating the wheel of a broken cart arose, or the opportunity to demonstrate their strength was given, they both leapt at the chance to prove themselves. It was unfortunately this friendly competition that in the end, worked to break them apart, and which resulted in Agar’s untimely death.

When Skara was only thirteen years old, he had accompanied both Agar and Omer, among others on a hunting trip in the eastern flats above the valley. The group had been tracking a large heard of bison that had wandered down from the north and were waiting until dusk, when the animals had settled in to sleep before deciding to strike. As the group waited by the fire in the shelter of a sandstone outcrop, out of sight of the herd, their conversation had inevitably turned once more to bravado as the two continued to promise to outdo the other at whatever feat could be suggested. Greater and greater were the boasts of strength that the two claimed to have been able to accomplish until finally another member of the group suggested that they settle their dispute once and for all by climbing to the top of the steep cliff, and lifting and hurling the largest stones over the top that they were able to. Neither of the brothers could resist the challenge, and both Agar and Omer made their way around the rise and to the top of the cliff face, where rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes lay.

Once settled, the two brothers then took turns at heaving and hurling stones over the edge of the rock face, each one slightly larger than the last and each brother challenging the other to follow until they were lifting and dropping boulders of a mass that even they found excruciating to carry. Eventually, the two would reach a stone that either one or the other would be unable to lift, and this would be when a victor could finally be decided. At last, Omer had reached one final massive boulder, roughly the width of his shoulders and the shape of a human torso. With an almighty heave, he tried with all his might to lift the stone, and while he might have moved it several inches off from the ground and was able to drag it closer towards the edge of the cliff face, he simply could not muster the strength to lift it up and hurl it over. Finally, Agar had been given a chance to either defeat or draw with his brother, and the latter in his mind was never even an option.

With an almighty heave, Agar was himself unable to lift the stone off from the ground, and he tried and tried again to move it. Agar was only slightly taller than Omer, and his brother rounder in the belly, and Omer roared with laughter as his brother failed to do what he himself could not accomplish either. “It would seem, brother,” he had taunted, “that you and I are an even match after all – with neither of us the better man..!” Agar was incensed at the notion that he had once again been unable to best his brother, and spurred on by his taunts leaned in for one final and desperate attempt at moving the monumental stone.

He roared into the cold night air, his breath clearly visible and with one last heave finally succeeded in lifting the boulder clear off of the ground. None of the party could believe what they were seeing – he had done it..! Agar’s barrel-like arms were bursting and the veins on his neck jutted out as he looked upon his brother with the greatest satisfaction of his life. Omer’s heart sank, finally realising that he had lost, and could only shake his head. Agar’s triumphant laugh boomed across the rise, and he smiled at his brother one last time before turning to send the stone over the edge of the cliff face.

It was at that moment that the section of ground upon which he stood gave way, sending both Agar and the boulder crashing down over the edge and to the earth below. It happened so quickly that neither Skara nor any other member of the hunting party at first realised what had happened, standing dumbfounded. At one moment, his father had stood before him, appearing to him to be the strongest man in the world and the next – he was gone.

Skara would always remember this as being a turning point in his life, which contributed heavily toward the feelings of duty and responsibility that had shaped his commitment to his family, friends and people. His uncle Omer on the other hand never truly recovered, falling immediately into a deep and dark depression for many years from which Skara had not been around to see him recover.

Clearly, the loss of his brother as well as the many difficult years that followed had taken a heavy toll on the other man. As he moved out of the shadows and into the weak light of the hearth, Skara saw not the strong and proud uncle that he once knew standing before him, but the tired and weary frame of a much older, weathered and beaten man. In truth, the years following the death of his brother had not been kind to Omer. He had always blamed himself for what had happened, and in losing his twin he had also lost a large piece of himself. Omer’s decision to move his family away from the village had been in part to escape the constant reminder of his folly, and although there had always been a competitive element to their relationship, he had loved his brother Agar very dearly.

Omer hobbled out of the doorway and into the room, and placed a large left hand on Zemer’s shoulder before looking Skara up and down, remarking, “Who are you then, stranger, and what brings you up onto the ridge at this hour and to our home..?” Skara took a moment to allow his uncle to search his face for something in it that he might have recognised, before replying, “Uncle Omer, I am Skara, your brother’s son. I have travelled far from the capital, and I would greet you this night and ask for your help in finding safe passage back to the valley. I have come to harm on my journey, and there are hunters all through the woods without that would see me dead, or else returned to He-Tauhasa for accusations of heresy. I plead with you to help me in my journey.” Skara bowed his head, and waited for the other man to respond. Omer mused for a moment, narrowing his eyes and looking the valley man up and down as if trying to ascertain if he really was who he claimed to be.

After a long pause, he grunted softly before moving closer toward Skara and, placing a strong right hand on his shoulder, searched deep into the other man’s eyes. “So, Skara.. it has been many, many years since last we met. What in Anu’s name have you done, to have your so-called king send out his hunters to find you..?” He seemed to be distracted by the appearance of the other man, Skara had guessed it was because he had in many ways grown to resemble his father, and was possessed of the same strong features; long, flowing dark hair and piercing blue eyes. From a distance, he could have easily been mistaken for him, although Skara was slightly shorter and did not quite possess his father’s monstrous build. Skara replied, “It has indeed been a long time, uncle. I had heard word that you had taken your sons west of the valley, and hoped that I might find you still close by.”

He then went on to recount the events of the past few days to Omer, his sons watching on and hanging by every word as he told them of the council of Watchers and their ill-omen, of He-Tauhasa and the Seers and of his flight from the capital. When recalling Murmesh and his experiences in the great arena, Asher and Zemer were left wide-eyed and incredulous, and their younger sibling Yemah must also have been listening from the other room, as he quickly rose to join them in front of the hearth to hear the remainder of Skara’s retelling. Throughout this recollection Omer mused, cleared his throat and sighing several times and tut-tutting when Skara spoke of Ihreikas and his response to Skara’s telling of the Watchers’ interpretation. He spoke quickly and eloquently, and made it very clear to Omer that it was only a matter of time before those same hunters that had followed him from Çatalhöyük realised that he had not lingered to hide in the forests at the foot of the ridge and would arrive at his home to inquire as to his whereabouts. Once he had finished speaking, he looked to Omer with concern and waited for his uncle to process everything that he had been told.

Omer thought for a long while, carefully contemplating everything that Skara had said as he stared into the vibrant embers of the hearth. His mind raced with concern for the events that the Watchers had predicted, and with the fear of what fate might befall his sons if he did not help Skara leave the ridge and return to Nevalı Çori before the king’s hunters caught up to him. Before he could speak, Skara looked across and asked of him, “Will you help me, Uncle..? I have never needed the help of any man more in my life than at this moment. If I leave you now and continue on my way alone I fear that I will not make it back in time, if at all.” Omer paused before looking up at Skara, and responded, “I will help you.” He gestured toward his sons, “We will help you, and not just because I have no great love for Ihreikas and his order of grey ghosts. You are my brother’s son, and through his passing I am indebted to protect you,” he frowned then, “as much as I had failed to do him.”

The four of them sat solemn then for a time, before Omer rose, addressing his three sons, “Asher, Zemer – collect your spears and slings, and make sure you take all the stones you can carry. Find your sharpest blades and give one small knife to Yemah. Gather your heaviest cloaks and prepare yourselves, we are leaving for the valley and then to follow your cousin north, by way of the Eastern pass.” He turned to Skara, adding, “My boys have set traps all along the widest way through the hills and down into the valley in the hopes of bringing down larger game. It might not give us the best cover, but it will work in our favour to navigate what they have set, and hopefully slow a few of the king’s hunters down along the way.” Skara smiled a nervous smile, but was extremely grateful to his uncle for making the decision to follow him. Though their aid in reaching the valley was vital, it would have only been bittersweet if they did not join him at Uru-Mah, once Sura and his own children had been brought to join them.

In a flurry of activity, the four of them collected weaponry and provisions for their journey, and after extinguishing the fires of the settlement both inside and out, settled quietly in the dark for the remainder of the night, waiting patiently for first light before they started out. Skara himself meant to rest only for a moment, falling immediately into a deep and well needed sleep however as soon as he closed his eyes.


A Seven Letter Word for Divine Intervention..

‘DEGREE OF SEPARATION’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

“A seven letter word for divine intervention,” Kylie mused aloud over the daily crossword in the Thursday edition of Porter County’s Post-Tribune. She had stopped in to a cafe during her lunch break to meet up with an old friend who had just moved back home to Indiana after having spent almost four years working her way around Europe – a dream she’d had since they both skipped classes together in high school. Carmen was late. Kylie had already been waiting ten minutes and was beginning to assess the time it would take to walk back to her office, but this was not entirely unusual behaviour for her friend who had always operated on a slightly different plane of existence than those around her. Carmen was something like the Porter County police; rarely around for the little things but always there when you really needed them.

“Tequila!” sang a familiar voice from behind her, causing Kylie to spit a mouthful of hot macchiato out all over the newspaper. She spun around quickly in her chair and was greeted by the smiling face of Carmen who had been reading over her shoulder for almost a minute. Kylie got up out of her chair and squealed in delight, the two embracing in a scene that raised several eyebrows amongst the other diners before they sat down to order. “I can’t believe it’s really you..!” Kylie started, “It’s been such a long time – how was your trip, and when did you get in..? Where are you staying..?” She suddenly had so many questions that her friend’s Facebook updates just hadn’t covered, and found herself gushing almost like a school girl once again. The joy at seeing such a familiar face had almost made her forget entirely about her own problems that she had been mulling over before she arrived.

“The trip was fabulous!” Carmen replied, “Absolutely everything about it, from the hostels and bars to the nightlife, the places and people and the men – don’t even get me started!” She gave a knowing wink. Having been the sensible one of their group in college, Kylie had always lived somewhat vicariously through her friend who was, let’s just say something of a free spirit in her younger years. It seemed as though little had changed either, as she launched into the first of many sordid stories detailing boozed up nights in back-alley bars, a stint hitchhiking across Spain and a week-long cruise in the Mediterranean. Kylie had jumped straight into a degree after graduation before her marriage to husband Dominic last year, and couldn’t help but feel as though she had missed out a little on what it might have been like to take a breather before getting her ducks in a row. Eventually Carmen ran out of steam, asking, “Enough about me though, surely you’re tired of hearing about my childish antics. Tell me about you and that gorgeous husband of yours, I can’t believe I wasn’t here for the wedding..!”

Kylie smiled awkwardly, “Dominic and I are doing well. The proposal was a big surprise, we’d traveled to Chicago for a weekend to see his parents, and one night he took me up to the roof of our condo where a table, wine and wait staff were already waiting for us. I was a complete mess when he got down on one knee. The view, the night air – it was just surreal. He’s been amazing, and we’ve got our little place in Portage, well I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, which Carmen immediately picked up on, “What is it, honey..? Is everything alright..?” She took Kylie’s hand and leaned in with a look of concern. Kylie hesitated, and then continued:

“Well, until about a month or so ago everything was fine. Just amazing, really. I’d just started on at Findlays and he was on the road less often, we finally had more time than ever to spend together. Lately though,” she paused to best articulate herself, “He’s been a little distant and working a lot of long hours, he says to meet with clients and the like. Despite having him around more, it somehow seems as though we’re spending less and less time together, just the two of us.” She sighed and collected herself, “But enough about that, you didn’t come here to hear about my paranoia. I’m sure I’m just blowing things out of proportion, which I’ve never done before, right..?” She laughed and Carmen smiled, replying; “Well I’m sure it’s just nothing, but you have always been good at reading people. Sometimes maybe a little too good – remember Jordy..?” Kylie laughed, “Well, in my defence he WAS a shady character. How was I to know he had a sister..?” The two spent the rest of the hour catching up, Kylie filling her in on the exciting world of business accountancy and Carmen telling her all about her little sister Nadine and the new mystery man she’d been seeing. “Chin up, honey,” she said as they eventually called for the cheque and left the cafe, “It’s like we used to say – some days you’re the pigeon, other days the statue. But if anyone can smell a rat, it’s Kylie Tavares. Kylie Tavares.. that just sounds weird to say..!”

They parted ways, promising to get together that weekend for a decent drink and to hear more about each other’s busy lives and plans for the future. Despite the momentary respite, Kylie couldn’t help but feel rattled at having finally voiced her concerns out in the open. Dominic had been her only real long term relationship, and they had married relatively quickly despite her usual caution in getting close to people. She spent the remainder of the afternoon with her head in the company books, trying hard to keep her mind off of anything other than her work.

Across town, Carmen’s sister Nadine was working absent-mindedly at another bar and cafe where she trained as a barista most afternoons. She was only nineteen, and had decided to take a leaf out of her big sister’s book, working straight out of school to save for a long trip abroad before then deciding on which college to apply for. It seemed like the sensible choice, and given her own active social life she felt quite a way off from being ready to knuckle down and focus on building a career. Slinging drinks and coffee was easy, and the hours suited her perfectly. Today, even more than usual her thoughts were miles away from the task at hand. She had been seeing an older man, Sebastian, for several months and unlike any other boyfriends she’d had in high school, this just felt different. He was mature, grounded.. he made her feel safe and seemed genuinely happy to see her, as often as his schedule allowed. Sebastian worked often, but every time he was able to get away and the two of them could head out for dinner or drinks in the city, he would shower her with affection. They couldn’t get enough of each other, and it made her feel special.

He had texted her that morning to say that he would have the evening free to share a meal and a couple of drinks, and the smile she couldn’t shake had become contagious among her co-workers. “So, Nadine,” Lauren, another barista teased, “I’m guessing by the stupid look on your face you’ll be seeing your mystery man again tonight..? What will it be this time – dinner at the Mayfair, or maybe cocktails and a private show on his yacht..?” She laughed, and Nadine responded by flicking water playfully at her. “For your information, smart ass, we’re meeting at the Mexican place on fifth. Just dinner, and anything else is for me to know and you to only dream about.” She cocked her head toward the counter, “Make yourself useful for once and fill up the machine.” She was used to this, as she had been unable from the outset to keep her new relationship to herself. Things were going well, and she saw no reason to be worried that it wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, she was quietly hoping that that night he would ask her in to spend the night, and had come to work made up and wearing her best, prepared for whatever might happen.

Soon enough, the doors closed and everything had been cleaned, stacked and swept away from the day’s trade. Nadine quickly changed out of her apron in the back office, put on a fresh coat of lipstick and allowed the two other girls working her shift to attend to her hair and give their opinion on how she looked. Lauren finished preening and took a step back to size her up, “You’ll owe us one for tonight,” she boasted, “If he passes up a knockout like you, you’ll have much bigger things to worry about than whether he’s into you. Get out there and do us proud.” She winked, and slapped Nadine on the behind as they giggled and went to turn out the lights before going their separate ways. Nadine turned the corner and made her way to the restaurant that she had settled on, lighting up a cigarette while she waited outside. It was 7pm exactly, which his text had specified and it was unusual that he hadn’t arrived yet. She tried her best to act casual as she glanced left and right, and then stared ahead indifferently so as not to appear nervous or desperate. She hadn’t been worried that he would stand her up, as he’d always been waiting for her whenever they’d met up before but as a soft, cool breeze picked up and she began to shiver, her mind started to wander.

All of a sudden, she felt a tap on her right shoulder and a gentle voice in her ear which said, “Excuse me, young lady – I’m looking for a pretty woman I’m meant to be meeting here. Have you seen any walk by..?” She turned without hesitating and threw both arms around him, saying, “Don’t ever sneak up on a girl like that..! I might have slapped you on instinct.” “What, with these..?” he replied, holding up her tiny hands in front of his face, “Why, these couldn’t hurt a fly!” She scrunched up her nose and punched Sebastian playfully in the stomach, to which he almost doubled over laughing. “Come on, gorgeous. Let’s get in out of the cold. How was your day – did you miss me..?” The two walked hand in hand into the building, and Nadine was almost skipping out of happiness to once again be walking alongside her handsome stranger.

Sebastian led her past the counter and into the annex in the far corner of the restaurant, which confused Nadine, prompting her to ask, “Where are we going, I thought we were stopping here to eat..?” “Oh, plans have changed,” he replied, “Didn’t you get the memo..?” She scowled, “Ha-ha, smarty pants. Where are you taking me then..? There’s nothing else in this building, I’m sure of it.” “That’s why we’re not staying in the building,” he responded cryptically as he pressed the button for the elevator and they went inside. “Now, I’m taking you up to somewhere special, a place only I know about. But I can’t let you see where so you’re going to have to trust me here,” She was confused and excited, but eager to know what it was he had in store. He pulled her close, and rested her chin on his shoulder. She suddenly felt so warm all over as she wrapped herself in the folds of his coat, and the smell of his cologne caused her to fight her impulse to pull away and ask a million questions. She instead held him tight and closed her eyes as the elevator whirred and travelled skyward, and couldn’t recall a time she’d ever felt so safe.

After what seemed like hours, the elevator dinged and the doors opened with a rush of cool air which indicated that they were no longer inside the building. He looked down into her big blue eyes, and said, “Okay, you can turn around now.” Nadine detached herself and spun around to see that they were now on the roof of the tower, which must have stood some forty floors high. They stepped out from the doorway and as they did, she stopped and raised both hands to her mouth. Across the rooftop, Sebastian had arranged for a dining table and two chairs to be set up adjacent to the far ledge, and even from where she was she could make out a bottle of champagne chilling in a bucket of ice and a full crockery spread set out beneath two tall gas heaters that had been fired up to chase away the chill night air. She squeaked in delight and clasped his hand tightly and he smiled, leading her across the roof before pulling out her chair and beckoning her to sit. “After you,” he said with a bow, and they both sat down to take it all in.

“This is AMAZING,” She said, after taking a minute to make sure she could stay composed, “How did they let you do this..? Is this even allowed..?” “I have friends in building management here,” he replied with a grin, “and in a few of the other buildings in the area. I know you were keen to grab a bite downstairs, so I thought I’d make our date a little more exclusive. One of the staff will be up in a minute to take our order, which they’ll bring straight up. How do you like the view..?” he asked, looking out over the cityscape below them. She turned herself to admire the lights and windows illuminated in the other office towers in the city center, and replied, “It’s breathtaking. This is so nice – you’re so nice. Thank you.” She smiled and took his hand across the table, and they continued talking long after their meal, well into the evening. Despite her expectations, and after sharing a long and passionate kiss when they were done, Sebastian dropped her outside of her home in the suburbs just before midnight, promising that they “would have a lot more time to spend together over the weekend, as I’m completely free then.” Nadine quietly crept into her parent’s house and once he had driven away, sat down with her back against the front door with an unshakeable smile and let out a long, wistful sigh.

The next morning, Kylie rose early to shower and get ready for another day at the office. Dominic was still sleeping soundly at 8am when she left the house. He had been forced once again to work late at the firm in order to connect with a representative from a big Japanese conglomerate that his corporate legal team had been working tirelessly to satisfy as far as reaching a resolution in an ongoing labour dispute, or so he said. She wasn’t an idiot however, and despite marinating in cologne she could still smell the faint traces of cheap perfume on a ruffled shirt he’d stuffed deep into the washing machine. Her heart had sunk as she ran a cycle before leaving, but as usual she stopped to take several deep breaths, closed her eyes and pushed the situation out of her mind before getting in her car and taking to the freeway. “Keep going,” she thought to herself as she battled the peak hour traffic leading into town, “The world doesn’t stop turning just for this.”

The day dragged on, and in spite of the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach she immersed herself in her day to day tasks. It was easy to embrace the monotony of accountancy compared to the complex and uncontrollable speculation of the state of her marriage, and although she knew the situation would still be waiting for her when the day was through, it was all she could do to keep from standing up and screaming at the top of her voice at nothing and everything. “How could he do this to me..?” she thought to herself, over and over. “I’ve given back one hundred percent. Every stress and hurdle, every opportunity to try my best to make him happy, to show him just how much I care I’ve been there. Everything we’ve talked and dreamed about, and all of the promises he’s made. Why would he do this..? What did I fail to do to make him look elsewhere..?”

It felt like the longest day of her life when the hands on the office clock finally found their way around to 5pm, but despite the working day having drawn to a close, Kylie still dreaded walking out the door and returning home. When she eventually did, she was approached nervously by her supervisor who asked if she might be interested in working a few hours the next day, Saturday. “I know it’s the weekend, but if we can finalise month’s end before Monday, we’ll all be able to breathe easier come next week.” Without hesitating and to his surprise, she accepted the offer almost immediately. “Any chance to take my mind off Dominic,” she conceded, texting him briefly and drily as a courtesy to let him know.

Across town, Carmen’s sister Nadine had taken the Friday off from work to spend researching options for her eventual trip overseas. She had been torn between following her sister’s recommendation to travel around Europe and spending a couple of months in South America, backpacking across the continent. She had decided finally on the latter, feeling that she would find more value on the road less travelled, and was excitedly bookmarking pages and hostels online for most of the afternoon. Eventually as it approached the evening, she closed her laptop and reached excitedly for her phone that buzzed loudly on the dresser beside her bed. It was Sebastian, and her heart skipped a beat as she opened his text to see that he was again free for the evening, and wanted to catch up for a quick drink in a short window that had opened up in his schedule. She leapt up and jumped in the shower, throwing on her favourite jeans and what was a seriously inadequate tank top for the time of year, and raced out the door to catch the next bus into town.

Sebastian and Nadine met up at a wine bar in the heart of the city, just a few blocks east of where he claimed to work. He had been reluctant to talk too often or at length about what it was he did for a living, only saying that he was a practising lawyer for a medium sized firm, and that while he enjoyed what he did (and was more than adequately compensated for doing), he wished that the hours were a little less intense. She didn’t mind that he wasn’t open to talking more about his personal life, and was happy enough at being able to rub it in the faces of her equally young friends and co-workers that she was “dating a lawyer, an older man who has his act together.” Nor did she mind that he was able to cover the bill for most of their nights out together. While she was happy with the pace and flexibility of her job at the cafe, the pay didn’t leave much wiggle room after the essentials (hair appointments, clothes and makeup etc.) for much of anything else. Sebastian also seemed greatly satisfied at being able to take care of her in this way, and so the relationship seemed like a win-win, as far as she was concerned.

The two enjoyed a few quick drinks at the bar and then Sebastian suggested they take a drive out to the lake to sit and share a bite to eat before he dropped her off. As they sat together on a bench by the foreshore, his arm wrapped around her he turned and said, “As much as I’d love to just stay here with you all night, I’ll have to head back into the office to take an important conference call with a client in Asia tonight.. I hope you understand. Given the time difference, unfortunately we don’t have many options if we’re to talk face-to-face, is that alright..?” “Of course,” she beamed, although she was beginning to wonder if she would ever get him alone to spend a full evening (and morning) together, but he quickly followed-up, “I’ll have tomorrow free, though – all of it. I know it might be a little soon, but I wonder if you might want to come around to my place in the morning..? I was hoping we could spend the day together, just you and me.” Heart pounding, she replied through a smile, “Yes! I’m not working until late in the afternoon, I could come by early, definitely – yes.” He smiled back, and they sat and watched the waves lap gently at the sand below, and the moonlight reflect softly off the surface of the lake.

The next morning, Kylie was operating on auto-pilot as she quietly rose from beside her sleeping husband once again, crept out of the bedroom and went through the motions of her daily routine. She couldn’t stomach the thought of breakfast, and didn’t bother with any chores – washing the dishes that sat in the sink from yet another meal Dominic had missed or running laundry, and stopped in to wake him momentarily and let him know that she was leaving. “I’m heading in to the office for a few hours, can you take care of the washing and what’s in the sink while I’m gone..?” she asked softly as he groaned and rolled over.

“I’m not sure I’ll have time,” he mumbled. “What do you mean you won’t have time..?” She asked, “What are you doing today..?” “No plans whatsoever,” came his reply. “The guys are finalising the project from Chicago, I’m taking a personal day. Can I get back to sleep..?” he muttered rudely. “Yeah, right. Whatever you need, honey.” she replied sarcastically, frustrated and suspicious that he’d waste an entire Saturday lying in bed. Despite recent events, she still believed she knew him better than to buy into the idea that Dominic would ever waste an entire day lazing around the house. She slung her handbag over one shoulder with a sigh, locked the front door and started out to the car.

For some reason, perhaps a lapse in thought or for the gnawing doubt in the back of her mind, she started the engine and backed out into the street where she drove only thirty or forty meters down the road and parked on the far side of it, letting the engine idle. All of a sudden, she found her breathing to grow short and quick, and that her heart was beating at a million miles an hour, like it could burst out of her chest. “What am I doing..?” She said quietly to herself, as she merely sat and gazed intently into the rear vision mirror at their house behind her. “This is crazy, Kylie. Just take it out of park and get moving.” She couldn’t though, despite knowing that she would soon be late for work. First for five minutes, and then ten she stayed perfectly still, the engine running and her not taking her eyes off the front of their house in the distance for even a moment. Eventually fifteen minutes went by, and then twenty. “You’re a fool,” she said aloud, reaching for the handbrake as she prepared to move, but still keeping her sight fixed firmly on the house.

It was just as she was about to take off that she saw her round the corner.

Kylie’s heart sank as a young, blonde and flighty looking woman approached the front door to the house, HER house that she and her husband shared and knocked on the door. From the distance where she was she could only make out that she was a small girl, who couldn’t be much older than twenty to twenty-five years old, dressed in tight jeans and an immodest and colourful singlet, the sort of thing no-one her age would dare to be seen wearing out in public anymore. After the unknown woman had waited on the porch for about a minute, Kylie saw the door open and Dominic move out from within the house to greet her.

Without looking around he stepped out and embraced the woman, planting a long and passionate kiss on her lips, the sort of kiss that he and Kylie shared so long ago and that she had longed for in recent months, before they both went inside and the door clicked shut. She could not believe what had happened, despite knowing without a doubt. In shock and without thinking, Kylie turned her eyes to the road, took the car out of park and slowly merged into traffic, bound for Findlays. Not a single thought or emotion entered her mind for the entire commute.

She was still stony-faced as she navigated her way through the open plan office and found her station, and immediately she immersed herself once more in her work. Before she knew it, she looked up at the clock on the wall and realised that it was already well past noon, and so took herself out of the bullpen and to the break room where she reheated leftovers from another meal that Dominic had missed and just sat there expressionless, barely touching it. After several minutes Bradley Johnson, the company’s weekend accountant wandered in and sat down to join her, immediately and frustratingly making small talk. He was one of those painful co-workers that somehow just couldn’t function in silence no matter what the circumstances, which on any other day irked Kylie to no end. Today, however, it was the absolute last thing she felt prepared to deal with.

“So Kyles,” he started cheerfully, “How’s that hubby of yours..? I’ll bet you guys are well and truly settled into the new place by now..?” She didn’t respond, only propping her head up in her right hand and staring absently into the reheated risotto she was toying at with a fork. Bradley coughed awkwardly but somehow missing the signal, tried again, “It was real nice meeting Dom at the get-together last month, real nice. He seems like a stand-up guy that husband of yours. I’ll bet you feel like a real lucky woman there, hey..?” Finally and all of a sudden, maybe at the sight of the leftover effort or the mention of Dominic, or a combination of the two she found herself only seconds away from bursting into tears.

She quickly rose and kicked out the chair behind her, managing only to mutter, “Sorry, excuse me,” as Bradley looked on in surprise and ran to the bathroom, where she rushed into a stall, locked the door and began sobbing loudly and uncontrollably. She clasped a hand to her mouth to stifle the sound as tears streamed down her face and her mascara ran, and wept openly for what seemed like forever. It felt like she was wrestling against tides of despair, as wave after wave of grief overcame her. Betrayal, inadequacy and worthlessness, fear, anger and nausea. How could she be so stupid..? How could he do this to her..? It was all just too much, and she knew she had to get out of there immediately.

Bleary-eyed, she fumbled for her phone and scrolled through her contact list for a name.


For some reason, she knew that there was nobody else that she could talk to at that moment, nobody else that would know what to say. She was a wreck, and she couldn’t be alone. She finally found the number and dialled, and as soon as Carmen heard her voice on the other end of the line she immediately knew what was happening. “Darling, Kylie, what’s the matter – where are you..? Oh Kylie.. stay where you are, I’m coming to get you. Get your things, I’ll meet you out the front in ten. I’m so sorry, don’t go anywhere.” Kylie hung up the phone and leant her head against the wall of the cubicle, taking long and erratic breaths to try and calm herself down. “Damn him for doing this,” she thought to herself, “Damn him to hell.”

Several minutes later, Carmen came screaming around the corner, almost collecting a cyclist as she did, and flew into a parking space in front of her friend who was standing in a shadowed corner of an alcove outside Findlays, and motioned her to come over. Kylie dropped down in the passenger seat, and the two talked there for almost an hour, Kylie explaining through sobs what she had seen that morning, and Carmen cursing Dominic with every tone and colour possible, and otherwise just listening intently to what her friend had to say. Eventually, Kylie more or less regained composure, and they reached a point in conversation where neither of them could do more than just sit in the car, staring directly ahead and almost cathartically observing the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that stirred in their minds.

After a long and unbroken silence, Carmen turned and insisted she take her across town to her favourite coffee shop for something sweet and a spot in the sun to sit and talk some more. “I’m so sorry to drag you into this so soon after you came back,” Kylie sniffed. “Nonsense..!” came Carmen’s reply, “There’s no way I’d be anywhere else right now. My sister will be starting her shift soon,” she added, “I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to hook us up with something special.” “That sounds great,” Kylie replied, and they finally veered out from the parking space to make their way over.

Nadine had just arrived at work, sporting a grin from ear to ear. She had spent the morning and most of the afternoon at Sebastian’s house, where they had finally for the first time become intimate. She was amazed at how nice his house was, and in such a perfect neighbourhood, too. He was so loving, so tender – so generous. It had been the perfect day, and absolutely nothing could bring her down from where she was. She walked into the break room to prepare for her shift, and immediately her co-workers could tell that something was up. Sarcastically, Lauren called back to her from the counter, “To anyone who just noticed the skinny blonde clocking-on for the afternoon, the one with the dopey grin I apologise – we don’t serve what she’s having!” The others laughed, and so did Nadine as she rummaged through her bag for her spare apron. As she did, her hand came in contact with something unfamiliar. She reached in and pulled out a heavy leather wallet that definitely wasn’t hers. “Sebastian,” she realised, “I must have knocked it off of the dresser and into my bag when we..” She smiled again, and decided she’d text him to let him know.

Before she could however, she noticed a flood of new messages and missed calls on her phone. She opened the first which read, “Nadine, I’m so sorry but have you seen my wallet..? I can’t find it anywhere. If you have it, please DO NOT open it. I’m coming over to see you now, just hold onto it and put it away for me – S.” She was confused, and not sure why he would be so worked up about it. Curiosity quickly got the better of her, and she decided to go ahead and take a quick look anyway, “How’s he going to know, and what’s he got to hide..?”

She opened up the wallet and flipped the inner panel, and froze as her eyes fell upon his driver’s licence: Dominic Tavares – Porter County, 38 years old. She put a hand up to her mouth and gasped, immediately closing up the wallet and taking a step back. “Who on Earth, what the hell is going on..?” she asked herself, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. “Who IS he..?” Just as her mind really began to race, a voice called out from the front, “Get your sweet little ass out here, Nadine – we need a hand..!”

She quickly tied her apron and made for the counter, trying to ignore a million questions that flooded her mind. Just as she reached the front of the cafe to get started, her sister Carmen and her friend Kylie walked in, both looking a little worse for wear. She immediately abandoned her own concerns and bounced across to serve them, asking, “Well don’t you two look like a pair. What can I get you..? It’s probably a little early for anything heavy, but you both look like you could use a real drink.” “Thanks, Nadine,” Carmen replied, “It’s been a particularly bad one. I’ll have an Irish Coffee,” she turned to Kylie, who added, “Yes, it has – some days you’re the pigeon, other days the statue, right Carm..?” She turned to signal Nadine for a double shot of tequila.

A moment later, Dominic burst through the door.

Funding, Future Plans and Editing Work

Hello everyone,

I thought I would take a minute to post a quick update to let you know about a fundraising campaign that I have created, both as a means to generate resources that might be put toward the publication of the ‘Alluvion’ novel as well as to act as a recurring point of focus for my own productivity. The campaign has been launched via the Patreon website (, and a direct link to my own page can be found under the ‘Funding’ tab at this site.

I would be humbled to think that anybody out there enjoys what I am doing enough to support it financially, and eventually being in a position to devote myself to my writing full-time would be a dream come true. It all begins, however, with the first book and so I have included a couple of exclusive offers which will be made available in return for more substantial contributions that will help me to achieve this goal. If you like what you have read so far and would like to support me in any way, it would be appreciated more than you know. If you can’t (or don’t want to), then that’s alright too.

I am also still very much open to any copy editing and proofreading assignments that you might have, and would be more than happy to discuss a very modest fee for taking care of this for you. The frequency of this sort of work that has come my way has been steadily increasing over the past twelve months, but I’m still more than willing and available to take more on.

Previous proofing and copy editing clients include:

  • Elite Respite Care: (Correspondence)
  • Students from the Australian Maritime College [AMC] (Thesis Editing)
  • Students from Monash University, Victoria (Assignment Edits/Proofing)
  • Students from Deakin University, Victoria (Assignment Edits/Proofing)
  • [Gareth Jack Sansom], I appreciate your help and thank you for taking your time to proofread my assignments. I am extremely happy with the services that you have provided, such as keeping me updated on the progress of my three assignments and for your provision of prompt communication along the way.”

    – Kim C. (University Student)

    Thanks so much for reading, and for all of the terrific feedback I’ve received throughout 2015/16 – it’s been great to hear that my writing is being seen and enjoyed by so many, and I’m looking forward to publishing even more in the coming months.

    I can be reached at E. if there’s anything you’d like to know.

    Thank you,
    Gareth Sansom

    Here is Another Instalment from Alluvion:

    05. Murmesh the Terrible

    “Most grand and high above us,” He-Xur began, “I return to you as promised, and have brought with me several hundred good men of the valley to join you in your campaign against the West. I submit these lives to you, and to the protection of Çatalhöyük in those darkest of times that lie before us.” Skara chanced to briefly raise his head to catch a glimpse of his king, whom he himself had not seen in many years since his own father had brought him to the city as a child. He was astonished at the sheer scale of the other man, who had grown extremely red and fat in his affluence and was now possessed of a mass that appeared entirely impractical.

    To Skara, he seemed almost to have become a complete caricature of the robust and muscular figure that he remembered meeting in his youth. He-Tauhasa’s thick, dark hair had thinned at the front, his teeth had yellowed (and several were now missing), and he coughed and spluttered almost constantly as though his lungs carried a sickness, even as he sat completely still. To his immediate left and right, almost completely in the shadows beside the throne stood two strange, lithe figures. Both were tall and thin and completely bald, save for a small tuft of plaited hair at the back of their skulls and they were clad mysteriously in thick grey robes without any kind of adornment whatsoever. These he knew straight away to be Seers, chiefest among the King’s advisors and the cause and reason for their journey to the capital.

    Alone and to his far right stood a single solitary soldier, an absolute mountain of a man who was curiously the only king’s representative that Skara had seen within the capital who wore any real sort of armour. The figure was clad in a heavy red leather tunic which extended down almost to his feet, and was wearing a strange polished chest plate upon which was burned the image of a running ram, the emblem of He-Tauhasa. Skara could not make out the features of this man who stood solemn and completely silent throughout his audience with the King, as his entire face was obscured by a similarly dyed red cloth save for a narrow slit from which two cold, dark eyes stared out at him. He decided that this must be the champion of Ihreikas, and perhaps the most distinguished and decorated of his warriors. He-Tauhasa regarded the Lord of the valley with a grunt and a nod, before replying;

    “You honour me, He-Xur as always, and your contribution to the safety of Silur-Mah shall be noted in the chronicles of our time. Now tell me,” he motioned to the captive valley man with a wide sweep of a chubby right hand, “who is this prisoner that you keep, and would bring before me. Who is this huntsman that you have restrained, and what are his crimes which warrant such bondage..?” He-Xur glanced down at Skara with a look of calculation, before responding, “This man is Skara Tau of the village Nevalı Çori whom I have trusted with the affairs of his people in my absence. This man has until my return served to administer the affairs of his kin, and has done so without question. However, upon our return to the village, he has betrayed both your divine order and the wisdom of those that counsel you, refusing to obey your call to serve his realm in its hour of need and blaspheming the Seers. Thus, I have decreed that he is to be treated as an enemy of the Southern lands, and have brought him before your great authority to be punished, as is our law.”

    The other man frowned deeply as if considering his words carefully, grunted again and raised his somewhat grotesque body from the throne, stepping down to stand directly in front of Skara to address him, “So, Skara of the family Tau. Are the words of your lord true..? Do you defy an order that has come directly from the house of the King and therefore from the Gods themselves, and oppose our campaign against those savages from the West..?” Without pausing long enough to allow him to answer, he went on, “I would have never expected such insolence from a man of your line. Your father I knew in fact, before his passing to be a loyal and honourable man commanding of much respect. What would he say to you now, to see you claiming such treason as to oppose the will of the Gods and your king..? Speak now, Skara,” he turned as if also to address the entire throng of minders and delegates present in the room, “tell us that these accusations are in fact not the truth.”

    “My King,” Skara began, locking eyes with the Seer to the right of the throne as he did, “what He-Xur has told you is true. I cannot condone open war upon the West where I have been counselled otherwise. I do not believe that the Seers..” he chose his words carefully, “I do not believe that you have been provided the correct interpretation for those signs that would direct you toward this action, and I must object, much as it might mean my own death.”

    “My death, or worse..” he thought soberly to himself.

    “Very well, Skara of the valley. As you so wish, and so will be our duty, but before passing judgement I would know; of what counsel do you speak..? On whose tongue have you gambled your life and the lives of those you call your kin – speak..!” His voice shifted quickly to a more commanding tone which boomed throughout the wide open space of the hall. Skara raised his head, straightened his shoulders and stared directly into He-Tauhasa’s eyes, “The Watchers of the North, my king. Those of the high hills speak of a far greater calamity, and have interpreted from the signs in the heavens that a great dragon, a beast of seven tails and the power to end all life in the Southern lands would descend from the stars with the fury of a thousand suns to swallow the oceans and destroy your kingdom. They have promised us safety within the walls of their city at Uru-Mah, and would aid us in protecting our people from this disaster. Of this, I am sure and believe all that I have come to know, and this is why I cannot follow you.” He looked then around the room, hoping to have raised at least some curiosity from those present. It was however the Seer to the left of the throne that descended to join his king, and spoke:

    “Skara of the valley,” the voice seemed to slither from between the priest’s lips, which were laced with a thick, black paint that matched the colour around his eyes. Eyes that seemed to dart all too often at the king as he spoke. “What do you know of the will of the Gods..? What evidence,” he snorted, causing an anger to well-up within Skara, “what proof have you brought us to support these wild and, fantastic, stories of which you speak..? Tell us of this dragon will you..? Surely such fairytales have no place in the house of a king whose family have forged the greatest empire in living memory, an empire built entirely on the foundations of reason and divine trust that those of our order have accurately and honourably provided for generations..?” The Seer appeared to be addressing his king, He-Xur and those delegates present from other communities more than Skara himself, and he began to feel angry and nervous in coming to realise the true extent of the influence that the Seers had upon his rulers.

    He replied: “Seer, I would not debate the details of prophesy with you. Of your order I admit to knowing very little, and cannot claim myself to have shared a direct audience with the Gods. However I do trust in the wisdom of the Watchers, and have seen the scale of their knowledge and power first hand.” The Seer interrupted Skara, changing his voice to a more mocking pitch and correcting him, “You have seen nothing of the power of the Watchers, who are no more an educated and divine order than any other motherless, dishonourable exiles from the Northern hills. The residue of those godless heathens are no more children of the great god Anu than their animal forebears. Their words are poison, and their claims can only be self-serving.”

    “My King,” the Seer continued in a more gentle tone, speaking now directly to He-Tauhasa, “was not their order the barbarian bastard breed of a savage tribe, whose only reason for being was to destroy your ancestors and drive them from their lands..? Would not these ‘Watchers’ understandably harbour a deep and burning resentment for the descendants of those that had driven their forefathers from our lands and to their knees, and banished them into the cold wastes of the North..? Surely the notion that any benefit could come from those who I would remind you, if I can, that it is an act itself punishable by death merely to fraternise with is not any more realistic than say.. magic dragons from the skies..?” He laughed at this and looked sarcastically at Skara, raising derision from the crowd which fuelled him to respond;

    “The Watchers have taken me into their city, their sanctuary in the hills and have shown me their faces. I have shared in their food and stores and have been gifted many things that they had no obligation to give, and not once have I felt threatened in their lands. Theirs is as peaceful and enlightened a society as ours in the South, and in some ways..” he raised his wrists and binds to support his argument, “in some ways perhaps even more so. The Watchers have knowledge of a great many things that your order do not, and have freely and wilfully offered to provide assistance to us through the coming darkness, a darkness that comes quicker with each day that passes.”

    “I have seen them, and I have felt no hatred, nor have I seen any cause to doubt the predictions that they have provided me. I have been treated honourably and with respect by the Watchers and I promise you, if you refuse to accept their help there won’t be anything left for anyone to war over.” He turned and gave the Seer that had challenged him a look that could have killed. “What I have told you is the truth, and catastrophe is indeed coming. A great fire from the heavens will arrive, and tear your kingdom asunder.” As he looked around the room once more before continuing, he noticed a trace amount of fear in the eyes of those soldiers and onlookers around him, and also sensed a faint waver from the Seer. He knew that he needed to press on. “Thousands on thousands will die immediately, and Çatalhöyük and everything that you hold dear will burn to the ground. Your empire will exist no more, and when the mountains of ice to the north are vanquished, the oceans will rise and flood over the land, and wash your order and kinsman away before the Sun is stripped of its glory, and for a thousand godless years..”

    “Enough..!” interrupted He-Tauhasa with a booming roar, which shook the ground beneath Skara and drained all colour from his face. “How dare you enter the house of the bloodline of kings and speak to me of those wretched phantoms, the children of men and beasts as if they were absolved of their father’s guilt..? I will hear no more.” He-Tauhasa stiffened and threw both of his arms wide, shaking at the belly as he did so and declared; “Your Lord was right in bringing you before me, but I will hear no more slanderous lies which have come from those exiled beyond our gates. The Southern lands exist today only by the grace of the Gods, my forebear He-Kuirsna and by the blood spilt protecting her from the Ancients, and the words of their pitiful descendants cannot be anything more than the sinister plots and schemes of treason and overthrow.”

    “My council of Seers are the divine voice of the Godhead, and have been since before your father’s time. If theirs is the vision of war from the West, then this is what will come to pass. No more will the poisonous mistruths of those half-bred animals be tolerated in this city, and I declare that any further talk of those lies that you have brought before me today will be met with death..!”

    He pointed at Skara, and staring into his eyes with a burning judgement that flirted with pure hatred, announced, “You will be taken to the great arena at the north of the city, and for your false witness will be given to Murmesh the Terrible when the sun rises on the morrow, as the Gods will. He-Xur..” he gestured to his subordinate, “get this heretic out of my sight..!” A group of citizens that had gathered outside the hall erupted into cheers at the mention of the name, and began chanting it as though it belonged to a great champion, Skara fearing perhaps the monstrous soldier in red. “Murmesh, Murmesh, Murmesh..!” they yelled and screamed in a frenzy. Any hold that Skara’s speech might have had over them at that moment had been immediately broken, and a wave of excitement extended from the great hall throughout the city akin to a bloodlust among predators.

    “Murmesh,” Skara mouthed silently to himself, as he was yanked viciously to his feet, “never have I heard of a warrior called Murmesh.” The name was completely foreign to him, even as he searched his distant memory. The title, however, could only suggest that the odds were not stacked in his favour. Still as white as a sheet, he was paraded once around the room before being led from the throne to the cheers and jeers of those watching on and as he was, caught sight of the Seers flanking their king. Both of those strange robed acolytes were smiling broadly like vultures and exchanging glances of pure and unmitigated joy at their own validation, and the promise of their continued infallibility in the house of their ruler. Skara knew somehow that it would not be the last time that he would see those smiling devils before too long, and vowed quietly that if he were to somehow break free from his sentence, that they would be the first to face retribution. This he vowed, to his Gods and those of the Watchers.

    Skara was led from the hall by He-Xur and several of the city’s soldiers and was taken to a holding cell at its northern edge. As the group snaked their way through the erratic and winding alleys between buildings, he was pelted with rotting fruit and vegetables by children and cursed by the men and women that called the city their home, until his captors broke away from the central district and they neared the outskirts of the metropolis. The road they had taken led them up a steep rise and towards a wide enclosure made out of the earth and walled by thick logs and stones stacked awkwardly to ring a deep, wide depression in the ground that appeared to have been only freshly dug by the people of the city.

    Skara caught a distant glimpse of the inside of the depression as they neared the crest of a hill overlooking it before they reached his prison. He noticed that the earth within the enclosure had been deeply trodden and gouged in many places by something large and extremely heavy. Several citizens of the city were inside the enclosure, apparently reinforcing the walls around it, and he could just make out from where he was that in some places, the dark soil of what he later knew to be the great arena held deep pools of blood and water. He shivered visibly as they veered-off from the hill and made for a series of crude pits, which served to house the enemies of He-Tauhasa awaiting punishment.

    As he was thrown into one such pit near the Northern wall, and before the wooden grate above him was closed and its latch secured, one of his captors leaned-in above him and said; “I would hope and pray that a man of your size can run, my friend. For whatever strength might have served you until this day will do you little good tomorrow.” At that, the grate slammed shut and Skara stared once more into the darkness, wishing he were home. When the footfalls and voices of the soldiers and his lord were out of earshot, his thoughts turned to his son and daughter, and he wept openly beneath the sky and, eventually, the stars above him. Stars which he blamed for everything that had led him to that moment.

    After a long and uncomfortable night spent in a dark and filthy hole, Skara was woken up rather abruptly by a bucket of freezing water that was dumped through the roof of his cell and onto his head. The shock of the cold water on his skin immediately caused his breath to shorten, and his senses instantly to snap to attention. A gruff voice called through the grate above him, “Rise and shine, prisoner. Today is your big day..! The King wants you washed and decent before he makes an example of you,” and at that, a crudely-woven rope ladder was dropped over the edge. Skara climbed up and out of the pit, holding himself and shivering violently in the crisp morning air, and was escorted by the guards to a small hut nearby to be washed and dressed for what was to follow. Two giggling handmaidens were on hand to assist with this, to which Skara did not object however he was careful to bundle his own robes and kept a careful eye on them as he bathed. When he was washed and dressed in a simple tunic that they had provided, he gathered what remained in his clothing and was bound once more at the wrists before being led from the building.

    As the group arrived at the foot of the hill which he had passed over the day before, they were joined by two more guards who were wielding flaming torches and escorted around the rise toward the arena. Skara could already hear the excited buzz of several hundred voices in the distance, and as they neared the walls he realised that he had been deceived as to the true scale of the structure into which he was being led. The walls of the arena towered above him as they approached, and pyres had been lit all at the tops of several scaffolds around its outer rim. He was guided through an entrance at what must have been the rear of it and into a dark tunnel that had been dug out from the mound of earth that ringed the central stage. After a short distance they reached a larger chamber which he guessed would have been northeast of its center, and there Skara was instructed to sit and wait. “He-Xur wanted to speak with you, before we take you further,” one of the guards told him. He groaned audibly as he dropped and sat cross-legged on the flattened dirt floor, his eyes adjusting to the dark and there they waited patiently for his lord to arrive.

    Several long minutes passed, and the noise from within the arena had grown so intense that it could be heard even through the tunnel and inside the chamber in which the group had stopped to wait. Just as Skara was about to begin asking further questions of his captors, voices could be heard in the far tunnel continuing on past their room, and within moments He-Xur emerged from the shadows, wielding a long parcel wrapped in cloth and sporting a sombre look on his face. He moved to the centre of the room, regarded Skara briefly with a nod and dropped the bundle to the ground, before speaking:

    “I have no doubt, Skara,” he began, “that you understand that it is the will of our king He-Tauhasa that you should fall in combat today for your heresy. It would appear that he has chosen this punishment both as a spectacle for the citizens of Çatalhöyük to enjoy, and perhaps in part also in honour of his relationship to your father, whom he considered at least at one time to be a dear friend and ally. Our king will address his people before you are led to meet your fate. He will use your death as an example in proving to those that would refuse to heed his call to war that a coward’s death is all that will be offered to them. I have been commanded to bring you a choice in weaponry, with which you might honourably participate in your end, though I fear that your choices will do you little good this day, whatever they might be.” He then proceeded to unroll the bundle that he had brought with him and several axes, spears and, curiously, a long length of woven rope rolled-out.

    Skara paused momentarily as he considered He-Xur’s words and the options that were laid out before him. He also contemplated the seemingly hopeless situation that he found himself in, and the intentions that he had had in making the choices he had made. In the end, he decided to try one last time to appeal to He-Xur on a personal level. “My lord,” he started, “did nothing that I have said make any difference to you..? I have known you since we ourselves were children. I have hunted the valley with you in youth, and I have stood by you as you claimed the rulership of our people, before we grew apart. Knowing this, can you still look me in the eye and tell me truthfully that you do not find some reason, some shred of believability in what I have seen, however small..? I have always stood by you, first as a brother and then as your subject. Surely as I go to my own death, I am owed your honest truth.”

    He-Xur looked at Skara for a time, and after a lengthy pause let out a long and resigned sigh. “Skara..” he seemed to be lost for words for a moment, and then realised that whatever words he might have chosen to speak next were not words to be shared lightly. He motioned the four guards to enter the far tunnel, advising them that he would bring Skara through himself in a moment. “Skara, when I ascended to the head of the people of the valley, I have had to change a great many things. No longer could I live as carefree as you and your kin lived. I learned that I must be responsible, not only to He-Tauhasa but to the people of Nevalı Çori. Should there ever be a hardship in the village, I too would suffer the burden with the rest of you. However it is only by the grace and protection of He-Tauhasa that we are allowed to live or die free. It is also by the allegiance of our people to the greater kingdom that we are not seen as a threat and an enemy of peace in the Southern lands. Come whatever may, I must therefore always support his judgement, whatever I might believe and particularly in audience with our people. Do you understand..?”

    For the first time in many years, Skara found in his He-Xur’s countenance a deep and genuine empathy as he extended his right hand to him in a show of friendship not as his lord, but the man he once knew.

    Skara did understand then, and began to consider that perhaps if he might have taken a more private and calculating approach to his warning, things might have worked out differently. He nodded in response, and clasped He-Xur’s hand in kind. No more needed to be said, however as He-Xur cut the bonds from his wrists he cocked his head towards the bundle of weapons that he had left, whispering to Skara, “If I were you however, Skara Tau – I would choose the rope.” He then winked, and Skara immediately reached for the spool of heavy rope and wrapped it around his right shoulder before He-Xur led him down the far tunnel where they met with the rest of the guards. The six of them passed through a small doorway which led out of the greater structure, and into the depression at its center. In the fierce sunlight, he could just make out the silhouetted figure of He-Tauhasa and his champion in the middle of the arena, flanked by a dozen soldiers of the Southern army and found that there were hundreds if not thousands of spectators from the city in attendance, some standing and some sitting around the huge mound of earth that surrounded him.

    The arena itself was crudely constructed, comprising essentially of a massive bowl of earth that had been excavated and arranged to form a steep embankment. Heavy stones had been piled at its lower edge to form a wall some twelve feet high at ground level, and behind the steep rise whereupon the people of the city sat, an arrangement of stones and wooden logs formed an outer wall upon which nine tall fire scaffolds had been built. At the far east and west ends of the arena, two massive stone boulders were set in place to cover larger entrances to the depression (which Skara had guessed allowed for the passage of greater beasts and equipment), the western such boulder sitting at the foot of a much larger stone enclosure. As his eyesight adjusted once more to daylight, Skara was welcomed with a massive roar from the crowd that had gathered, and he nervously acknowledged their booing and cheering with a dispassionate wave of his right hand as he made his way towards He-Tauhasa, who was nearing the end of his speech:

    “People of Çatalhöyük, I therefore thank you again for joining us in witnessing the living justice of your Gods as this man,” he gestured toward Skara with a flabby outstretched right arm, “pays penance for his heresies, and faces punishment for defiance of his king. May the Gods exact their will, and his soul be weighed accordingly in the world beyond.” He-Tauhasa moved toward Skara, bowing only slightly to acknowledge the other man before he, his soldiers and curiously, his champion too, still dressed head to toe in the same red garb that he had seen him in earlier passed him by and returned through the tunnel that he had left, the other guards joining them as they did.

    “Strange,” Skara thought to himself, “that the greatest of the King’s warriors might also take leave of me. If that soldier is not the one I am to face in the arena this day, then who or what in the world is this Murmesh that I have been brought here to fight..?”

    At once, Skara was all alone save for a number of workers at the western end and for several minutes he stood beneath the brilliant mid-morning Sun, looking around the arena and turning a full 360 degrees as those assembled booed, hissed and cursed him. After a long moment passed, he heard a wooden door snap shut as the small entryway was locked and sealed, and He-Tauhasa took up position among the crowd at a rise in the stands true north of the centre of the arena. He noticed roughly a dozen Seers, identifiable by their token conspicuous grey robes take up position on the opposite side of the arena, and when all were present and prepared, the crowd started with a familiar chant of “Murmesh, Murmesh, Murmesh..!” before a loud horn was sounded by the King’s herald, and a flurry of activity could be heard at the western end of the arena.

    Just as several-dozen attendants took up position at the massive stone boulder and began heaving at a number of thick, heavy ropes tied around it, another massive trumpet blast shook the ground. The blast of this second trumpet however was entirely different to the one preceding it, and caused the entire crowd to become deathly quiet. Skara’s knees became weak as the boulder rocked from its position and began to roll away, revealing a massive entrance opposite where he stood and yet another far louder and more powerful blast came directly from within the massive tunnel that had been carved from the earth and which led to the mysterious enclosure at the opposite end. He strained his eyes to see into the darkness of the opening, but could only make out blackness as the attendants finally freed the boulder completely, and they themselves scrambled desperately for the last small entrance in the arena wall, which they quickly closed and locked behind them.

    Skara found himself completely alone within the arena now, the crowd around him seeming all at once to be holding their breath and waiting. Just as he was about to make his way toward the massive opening in the wall, he felt the earth beneath him begin to tremble, and a series of what felt like loud and terrible footsteps started up, causing the crowd to once again erupt with cries of excitement. With a steady saunter, the trumpeter left the shadows and moved into the arena, and as it did Skara finally realised just how impossible his situation was.

    Out of the shadows of the far enclosure, Murmesh walked. Not a man as he had reckoned, Skara recognised immediately the monstrous form of a great beast from the stories and legends that had been told to him as a child. Murmesh was in fact the name given to a great war elephant, those same beasts of old that the Ancients were said to have harnessed and which should have departed from the world following the last retreat of the northern ice. Some twelve feet tall, covered with thick, matted hair and with sharpened tusks stained with dark blood that he could only have assumed remained from previous sacrifices, Murmesh rose up on his hindquarters, bringing both heavy forelegs crashing to the earth with a massive boom which shook the ground and gave a monstrous roar which sent the crowd into a frenzy. Skara stood rooted to the spot, completely frozen by fear and his jaw dropped. Never in his life had he seen such a mammoth beast, and neither in this life nor the next would he have a hope of overcoming it alone. Not with rope, not by spear.. not with a dozen soldiers. “Where and how,” he thought incredulously to himself, “did they find such a creature..?”

    Murmesh stood still for several moments, looking around at the crowd and adjusting to the open air of the arena following a lengthy spell in a dark and, what must have been to him, cramped enclosure. The great beast grunted deeply and started a slow meander, looking first back at the entrance behind it and then out across the depression before setting its sights on Skara, alone and trapped within the confines to the arena. Skara began to panic as the creature’s cold, black eyes widened, it snorted and gave another shrill blast from its trunk. It would be impossible for him to defeat the beast in combat, and there was no way that he could scale the arena walls to reach safety. Even if he could have navigated his way to the top, the crowd and soldiers that lined the summit would just as surely throw him back, if they did not kill him where he was. Slowly, Murmesh began to wander across from the far end of the arena and Skara knew he had to do something.

    In addition to the spool of rope that He-Xur had given him, there was also a sharp ivory hook that had been secured to one end, effectively providing at least some minor offensive ability. As the creature began a slow trot toward him, he knew that he might only have one chance of stopping or at least slowing the creature down before he could formulate a plan that might keep him from winding up as little more than another darker shade of red on its tusks. Murmesh was enormous, well and truly living up to the title that the people had given him and as he moved closer and Skara edged further back towards the eastern stone slab, the elephant was almost galloping. Skara seized his chance to take advantage of the fact that he was at least quicker than the beast. Moments before Murmesh would have run him down, and hoping that the weight of the creature and the momentum of its first attack would carry it into the remaining stone boulder (perhaps dislodging it), he sprinted and dove left of the monster at the last second, sending it tusks-first into the earth before the stone and its body crashing straight into the wall.

    As Murmesh struck the boulder, a great cry rose from the crowd, concerned only that the monster might be injured. The stone itself however was extremely large, solid and only rolled ever so slightly back on its axis before falling once more into place, keeping Skara trapped and the crowd as safe as ever from the spectacle. The beast was stunned momentarily, however it quickly regained its footing and once again and scanned the arena for Skara. Murmesh was enraged, not only by the failed offensive but it had itself been kept a constant state of torment, suffering regular and savage abuse from its handlers within the far enclosure in order to keep it in an ongoing state of frenzy. The giant creature spotted Skara once more, who had by now unwound the spool of rope in the animal’s confusion but before it had a chance to attack again, he was already swinging the hook above his head, and loosed it at the creature’s front left leg. Skara’s aim was true, and the hook swung right around the animal’s limb and on its return buried itself into the heavy muscle of the foreleg, causing it to roar in pain.

    Skara knew that the only chance that he might have of slowing the animal down would be to cause Murmesh to lose his footing, and he hoped that he might be able to bind its legs if he could to move fast enough. Holding the remaining rope, he sprinted again as fast as he could to the right of the monster, hoping to run once around it before it could charge again. He was not quick enough however, and the elephant was still too close to the eastern entrance for him to move safely past it. Murmesh caught Skara on the run and with one great swipe of his trunk, knocked him from his feet, straight into the stone boulder and onto the ground. The crowd at this point were all on their feet, screaming for the animal to put an end to the valley man. He-Tauhasa was smiling the broadest of smiles from his position at the way the event was unfolding, while He-Xur watched on beside him, doing his best to mask a growing concern. Skara was a broad and capable man but this, he felt, gave him little chance of an honourable end. The Seers for their part watched on with an entirely emotionless devotion to the spectacle.

    Skara lay in the dirt for several seconds, dazed somewhat from his head having smashed against the stone and searched the ground around him for the end of the rope. He could not find it for the dust, and raised himself up for a better look however as it cleared, he noticed that the dark shape of the beast had already moved out from the edge of the arena, dragging the rope with it and now stood at its center. Murmesh had created distance between itself and what it reckoned was an already defeated opponent, and was now lining Skara up for one final, fatal charge. A charge that it knew he was too battered to evade and, without his rope and weapon, would be unable to contest.

    The creature sized him up from a distance, and Skara realised that this would be his last stand. He raised himself up to his full height and glanced in the direction first of the Seers, and then straight toward He-Tauhasa who only raised his chin slightly skyward as if to acknowledge the gesture. Skara moved back towards the boulder and held both arms outstretched, gripping the rock. Time itself seemed to slow down as he stood clasping the cold stone blocking the eastern entry to the arena and as he did, he recalled the words of a friend, words that suddenly took on a new meaning:

    “Should you find yourself somehow trapped, and the only way of escape to move through solid stone.. you will do well to remember to use this. Of it, I can say no more that you would understand.” They were the words of Yamnaya, and they were spoken in reference to the same small, spherical vial that he had chosen to keep with him at all times following their meeting. He had buried it in his robes when he was led from the village, and had brought it with him on this day, tucked into his tunic. Though he might not have understood much about the compound he carried, he knew somehow that it was meant for this moment.

    He fumbled within his clothes as the shadow at the center of the arena first kicked at the earth before it, and then broke into a trot and then a gallop toward him. “The vial..!” He panicked, “Where in Anu’s name is the vial..?!” The compound must have slipped from the hidden pocket within his clothes when the beast had belted him against the wall, and as the dust cleared completely he could just see it glinting in the sunlight some ten feet away of him in the direction of Murmesh, who was quickly gaining speed. Knowing that it might be his only chance, his legs sprang quickly and thankfully into action this time, and he immediately dove forward to take it.

    With the creature quickly closing in, he leapt forward and landed face down in the dirt in front of the vial and with his outstretched right arm picked it out of the dust and in the same motion, turned and threw it as hard as he could, as accurately as he could at the stone boulder behind. Those in the crowd had sensed that there was something more to the prisoner lunging forward in the direction of the beast, if not just an act of pure insanity and as it closed in held their breaths as one. To Skara’s astonishment, his aim was true and the crystal vial shattered directly in the center of the massive stone boulder.

    What happened next caused not only the spectators in the arena to gasp audibly, but the creature itself to stop dead in its tracks. As the invisible contents of the vial erupted over the boulder, an incredible flash of violet light burst forth from it in every direction, as if coming from the stone itself. Many shielded their eyes including Skara, and Murmesh stopped some twenty feet short of the prone man, rearing up onto his hind legs and bellowing in fright. The flash of light persisted for several long seconds, blinding everyone before returning to the surface of the stone, which began to glow a deep and fiery red, giving off an incredible heat as it did.

    The boulder flared intensely for another several seconds, before an amazing change began to take place in its composition. Much the same as ice might be heated directly into steam when struck with a hot iron, the stone itself appeared to sublimate in reaction to the compound, becoming lighter than air – the boulder literally dissipated into a thin vapour which was taken by the wind and before anyone realised it, it was simply no longer there. It truly was an incredible moment, the sort for which there is no appropriate human reaction. It might have been reasonable then that Murmesh was the first creature in many long moments to move, as it immediately saw its ticket out from the arena, trumpeted loudly and galloped out through the entrance into the space beyond where before the way was blocked. The great creature roared and thundered past Skara and as it did, the crowd suddenly realised that he was free and immediately descended into uproar.

    Skara himself was also stunned, and could not believe that in the massive opening through which the creature fled had stood a giant wall of stone only moments before. As the panic intensified however and the sound of barking orders from He-Tauhasa’s bodyguards filled the air and mingled with the screams of the spectators, Skara leapt to his feet and he too ran out through the opening and into the city beyond. Ihreikas shouted loudly for his soldiers to restore order, and as Skara bolted through the gate he locked eyes once more with the solemn champion of the King for only a moment as he stood beside his master, feeling a cold chill run down his spine as the other man remained motionless, simply staring after him as he ran.

    What followed in the great arena was the longest period of anarchy seen within the walls of the capital since the foundation of the city, as men, women and children all scrambled from their positions and made their way desperately either to safety, or back out into the city to warn their friends and family that the beast had been loosed. Skara sprinted straight for the nearest northern exit in the city walls, and as the guards had quickly abandoned their posts to assist in controlling the population, managed to slip away unchallenged.

    Dawn Roared Over the Horizon..

    ‘WAYFARER’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    [Harlia, the Outer Claw]

    Dawn roared over the horizon like a violet storm as the first sun rose over Harlia, instantly chasing a dry, bitter chill from the landscape and leaving in its place a wet and almost suffocating heat. Gundar let out a guttural grunt and spluttered through his yellowed tusks as he stirred beside the dying embers at the heart of the encampment, eventually conceding as the night’s thick mists began to billow skyward that it was time to wake up and get moving.

    Invigorated by the sudden warmth, the rest of his squadron joined him in rising awkwardly up on their hind legs and shook themselves about in such a way as to dislodge their rigid front and rear shells, which had a habit of locking up to preserve body heat while they slept. One by one, he and the other officers in the company extinguished completely the smouldering remains of fires now entirely unnecessary and began barking the morning’s orders at the rest of their number, who were already lining up by rank to receive them.

    Heir to the First System and acting commander of the Holy Legions of the Veil, Gundar had been elected on merit to head a special tactical operation whereby he and his hand-picked crew were to deliver a payload to the homeworld of an enemy with which his people, the Threa had been warring for decades. They were to deploy the final state of a top-secret weapon, a biological Doomsday Bomb developed by the best and brightest scientific minds of his order to a dark region of deep space called the Rua’Maat, wherein their arch enemy and the greatest ongoing threat to order and security in the civilised galaxy dwelt; the Skrell.

    Instead, the small fleet that had been assigned to protect them had been ambushed at the edge of mapped space, perhaps (he suspected) due to a tip-off from a traitor in their midst, and his own crew left for dead in a crippled ship hurtling towards the strange world on which they now found themselves, demoralised and completely unable to return home under their own power.

    The world itself was positioned in a distant binary system between a close but relatively benign red giant and a farther flung but incredibly intense violet star. Any visitors to the surface of the planet could expect to face long days that grew gradually more hot and humid as greater volumes of its stagnant, shallow oceans were allowed to sublimate, and short frosty nights at intervals of only half of what we on Earth might be used to.

    The dense, wet atmosphere also had a curious effect on the thick, low vegetation which grew in patches everywhere on the planet’s surface, causing many varieties to sprout scores of tendril-like streamers high into the air by day as a means of extracting moisture from the atmosphere, and to snake those same weird tendrils haphazardly across the ground at night, forming a thick carpet to absorb dew and condensation from the topsoil. Several varieties of scrub had actually adapted to the extreme environment by becoming almost entirely lighter than air, taking root in thick pockets of mist and moisture and floated about the landscape like giant, bilious tumbleweeds. It was a strange world indeed, and stranger still that a well-armed contingent of the Veil had found themselves stranded here, frustrated and anxious to return to the ongoing conflict that had caused their vessel to crash-land several days earlier.

    As soon as all of their weaponry and gear had been accounted for and their battalion assembled in formation, Urm, Gundar’s second in command gave the order to continue the long march that they had started-out on the previous day. They were headed towards a towering band of white, glistening mountains that their scouts had discovered lay to the north and in which they hoped to find the necessary ore and mineral deposits needed to repair their battered ship’s engines so that they might resume their course and complete their offensive.

    The Skrell, for a visual reference could have best been described as a race of monstrous insects. Bugs in stature almost comparable in size to the Threa (but nowhere near as solid) that had somehow developed a devious cunning and almost collective intellect with which they too had mastered the science of flight and the ability to travel between worlds. So long as he drew breath, Gundar would never abandon his directive and remained driven to eradicating the hated enemy of the Threa at all costs and with a frenzied, almost religious determination. They marched as one, hooves pounding the flailing foliage back into the earth as they went and resolved to cover as much ground as they could before the next nightfall, some fourteen Threan hours away by their reckoning.

    They had only walked an hour or so when without warning, and just as the second sun finally crowned the horizon behind them, the haze was split by a chillingly familiar sound and all hell broke loose. From somewhere up ahead, the unmistakeable buzz of a thousand Skrell taking flight filled the air as a massive dark cloud of wasp-like bodies rose skyward in a whirling plume and bore down on the Threa like a swarm of monstrous hornets. Urm quickly cocked his snout back to address the Threa behind him and snorted, “Draw your weapons, three deep and angle high – set full charges and watch your flanks..!” as the cloud bore down and within seconds, the air was ablaze with blasts of high-energy plasma and the deadly barbs and talons of the descending Skrell who were hell-bent on killing as many of the invading force as swiftly as they could.

    The battle raged for over an hour, with neither side claiming a clear foothold from the other but both felling more of the opposing force than either could afford. “By the stars – what are they doing here..?” thought Gundar as his troops fought furiously to keep them at bay, “When our ship was attacked, our defenders drew their legions away from us. We weren’t followed to the planet’s surface – how did they know we were here..?” He was now convinced that they had been betrayed, but as more and more of the enemy closed in took up arms with the rest of the group and allowed his instinct and training take over, firing precision blasts at the attackers in a desperate attempt to break their ranks.

    Just as the insurrection was complete and the fighting at its most ferocious, from somewhere deep behind enemy lines a heavy tactical spore was loosed which whistled as it flew through a break in their lines before it ricochet off of the side of Gundar’s skull and exploded into a group of Threa several yards behind him. As he lost consciousness, he became aware of the strangest sensation, as though his spirit was somehow ripped violently from his body and hurtled across the entire expanse of the galaxy at the speed of light before darkness finally took him, and he was gone.

    [Freehold Hospital, Saturday Morning]

    Shortly before midday there came a knock on the door to Monitoring Room 14 of the Freehold Hospital’s Cancer Wing. The noise woke Alex from a long sleep and strange, alien dream and he slowly and painfully lifted his torso up onto his elbows, calling out, “Come in, I was just getting up.” As the door creaked open, he quickly shot a glance at the alarm clock beside his bed. “Shit,” he exclaimed aloud. It was already twelve thirty – he had slept in again and missed his morning check-in down the hall.

    Ever since he had been admitted for round the clock observation he’d found himself sleeping longer and longer, something he was warned might happen as his system struggled to adjust to the chemotherapy and the degenerative nature of the cancer which riddled his body. His nurse entered with a trademark frown followed closely by his assigned physician, Dr. Holzer who himself only gazed intensely at a clipboard which held his evaluations of Alex’s condition to date. Alex immediately wondered what sort of information it could have been that had held his interest so.

    Thirty-eight years old, Alex had never managed to save any remarkable amount of money, living paycheck to paycheck for the better part of his life, had never married and really lived his life as though he was either just killing time until his ship came in, or that he’d somehow make a windfall winning a lottery he’d never bothered to enter. He had been essentially lazy, coasting from job to job, place to place and moving between cliques until he found himself ultimately broke, miserable and unable to really consider anyone who remained in his life as anything more than just a colleague or a casual acquaintance. He had slowly become the poster-boy for what he saw as a transformed and largely atomised society, and had long since given up on the idea of reinventing himself.

    Despite so much encouragement from his parents who had years ago conceded that their only son might never truly find his feet, his diagnosis some six months earlier had all but guaranteed that his mark on the world would stand to be little more than a cautionary tale of wasted potential. A life of excess and bad ideas, cigarettes and heavy drinking had taken its toll, and while he had made what he considered to be many special memories along the way, his legacy was nothing near what he might in his youth have predicted it to become.

    In truth, he’d always yearned to become a writer, devouring volumes of Science Fiction and Fantasy throughout his childhood and had always anticipated that he’d one day find the time to tell a story of his own. Unfortunately though as he continued to get in his own way, and in spite of a few promising starts, he had never found it in him to see it through.

    “Dr. Holzer,” he began sheepishly, “I’m so sorry – I must have slept through my alarm. The treatments have left me extremely tired lately. If I can reschedule, I’ll make sure to get up and about tomorrow.” The doctor hardly moved, barely acknowledging Alex as he continued to flick through the notes on his clipboard and his nurse walked to the other side of his bed, proceeding to decant a fresh glass of water before removing a tray of scraps from the night before and a bunch of flowers that had wilted at his bedside.

    His mother would still bring flowers and gifts at every weekly visit, insisting that hospital wards were ‘cold and unfriendly places, needing as much brightening up as they could get.’ Alex twiddled his thumbs and stared expectantly at Dr. Holzer, nervously waiting for him to speak. Finally, the other man dropped the clipboard down to his side and regarded Alex with a deep sigh and a look which caused him no small amount of distress.

    “Mr. Agnew,” he began, “I’ve just been taking a look at the most recent set of results from your treatment, and thought I should come by directly and speak with you in person.” Still nervous, but also a little relieved that the doctor had not stopped by in person just to chastise him for missing his earlier appointment, Alex grunted as if to suggest he continue. “I’m afraid there’s really no easy way to say this, and it pains me to be the one to have to do so. But I didn’t think it was fair to make you wait.”

    Alex began to sweat. He glanced at his nurse, who had taken up a position beside Dr. Holzer, and noticed with surprise that her typically hard features had all of a sudden softened into a look of concern. Her eyes would not meet his, instead darting almost nervously around the room as she rolled back on her ankles, clasped her hands together and did her best to otherwise remain perfectly still. “Doctor, what is it..? Is there something wrong with my dosage – will I need to increase the number of sessions we’re taking..?” He was concerned now, and more than anything just wanted him to spit it out already.

    “Alex, I’m afraid that the treatment hasn’t taken. Despite having reached you at a relatively early stage in your cancer’s development, it appears that the chemotherapy has had little to no effect in halting the growth of the existing tumours in your chest and lungs. In addition to this..” he started, trailing-off as he considered the best way to share the remainder of his findings with him and Alex, who could wait no longer stammered, “Come on, doctor, what is it – I need to know.”

    He continued, “Very well. Our latest scan has revealed a third tumour that we were either previously unaware of, or that has developed extremely quickly in the most recent weeks you’ve spent here with us. To be clear, it’s very large as standards go, and unfortunately in this case extremely malignant. Unlike those we’ve been working so far to neutralise, this third tumour appears to be located directly at the base of your occipital lobe, and given its proximity to vital blood flow to the spinal region is.. completely inoperable. I’m so sorry.”

    “The occipital lobe, my.. brain..? I have a brain tumour..?” Alex asked, incredulous that no-one had managed to pick up on such a thing earlier. “Jesus, and you can’t operate, you can’t increase my dosage to treat it now before it gets any worse..?” He asked. “I’m afraid that as your treatment to date has had no effect on those tumours in your chest, any attempt to increase your dosage would prove ineffective at best, and at worst could risk further damage to the surrounding tissue.” His doctor continued, “In spite of anything we might otherwise be able to do for you, we estimate that you have between one to two weeks at most before this third growth reaches a terminal size, and even then it might unfortunately be sooner.”

    “We’ve been able to confirm that this is more than likely also the cause for both your unusual sleeping patterns, and for the migraines and visual hallucinations you’ve described to our staff over the past couple of weeks. Due to the location of the growth and the energy that your body will expend coping with it, it’s likely you’ll continue to need longer and longer periods of rest until eventually.. again, I’m so, so sorry. Yesterday’s tests were the first to show, and we’d never have even thought to scan for it if not for the headaches. We’ll do our very best to ensure you’re as comfortable as possible until that time.”

    Alex felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach. All of a sudden he couldn’t breathe and fell back into his pillow, just staring at the ceiling. “Terminal..!” he thought to himself. “Thirty eight years old, and that’s it – poof. It’s all over. Terminal.. terminal.” The word bounced around in his head a hundred times before he had the wits to reply, still staring at the ceiling, “Thank you, doctor. I’m going to need a few moments to get my head around it. I’m not sure,” He began, and Dr. Holzer cut him off, “We have the absolute very best grief counsellors here at Freehold who can help you come to terms with your situation, and I’ll be back to check-in again with you later this afternoon. We still have a number of evaluations we’d like to run, and of course to provide you with more information regarding your condition. If there’s anything at all we can do for you, Nurse Piper here,” he motioned to the nurse beside him, still wearing her best mask of empathy, “will be assigned to answer any calls that come through from you. I’d best get back to my rounds and to let this all sink in. I’m sorry, Alex – we’ve given it everything we’ve got.” He forced a last compassionate smile before turning and leaving the room, his nurse close behind with Alex’s tray and once again, he was alone.

    Still staring at the ceiling, Alex sighed the deepest sigh of resignation and closed his eyes once more. “Terminal..” the word kept flashing in his mind. “How will I tell Mum and Dad – this will kill them. There’s so much I’ve never done, so much I thought I’d do.” He began to think about the friends he’d let slip away, the opportunities in his life that he’d let pass him by and all of the little things he’d planned to do but for some reason had never started. “I’ll never write that novel, or take that round-the-world trip. I’ll never see the Northern Lights or stand atop the Grand Canyon. I’ll never get to hold my own child, or the hand of the woman I love. I’ll die instead at thirty eight, riddled with cancer, alone, bedridden and forgotten. What a waste,” he sighed again, finding that the shock had completely tired him out, “what an absolute waste.” He decided in spite of Dr. Holzer’s prediction that the day was now more or less ruined and within minutes had once again drifted off into a deep sleep.

    [Harlia, the Next Day]

    Gundar slowly opened his eye, and as he did a searing pain coursed down the length of the right side of his body. Disorientated by the blow and the residual effects of the spore, he slowly rose to his full height, clutching his bloody head as he did and turned to reorientate himself with his surrounds. He had been instantly knocked unconscious as the weapon exploded and Urm, seeing his commander felled had immediately cut a swath through the enemy horde, thrown his limp and lifeless body over one shoulder and bounded to the rear of the company to deposit Gundar safely behind a hillock before returning to the fray, firing all the while at the swarm of Skrell that were still thick in the air.

    The fighting had grown into a frenzy in the minutes that followed, as the Threa became incensed at seeing their leader fall in battle. Within a short time, their bloodlust had driven them to break the enemy lines, and what few Skrell remained after most of their power cells were depleted had soared high into the planet’s atmosphere and scattered in all directions, leaving them to count their dead and set a perimeter as the leaderless group debated what to do next.

    When they noticed him stumbling about, half-blind and splashed with the deep blue stains of his own blood, several Threa immediately rushed to support their commander by propping up both of his arms and guided him carefully to the center of the group. Gundar’s hearts sank when they passed a pile of several dozen of his best soldiers’ corpses – friends and comrades he had known from his youth that had been recovered and heaped roughly atop three stout pyres formed from piles of the driest vegetation they could find, and immediately he felt compelled to address the company.

    After a quick briefing as to the extent of their losses and the assurance that no further Skrell had been sighted following the attack, he motioned to those beside him to let him stand with a sweep of his right foreclaw and called-out to the rest for their undivided attention.

    “My brothers,” he began, “today we have been taken for fools by the enemy, and by our own lack of vigilance have allowed many of our number (he gestured toward the pyres), TOO many of our number to be lost. How they were allowed to take us by surprise I am uncertain, though I fear that their anticipation of our movements in this wasteland and indeed the initial ambush that caused us to be stranded here were too precise, too calculated to have been a mere matter of luck.” The assertion that their part in the mission to the Rua’Maat had been betrayed to the enemy was clear, and caused the group to murmer of treason and treachery loudly amongst themselves.

    Gundar went on, “Know this; we have been trusted by the keepers of the Veil with the holiest of charges. Fractured though we are my comrades, we are far from broken.” He pointed to a large metallic urn among their stores which contained the concentrated payload that had been salvaged from their vessel after it crashed into the planet’s surface, and which they had brought with them for fear of losing it to the enemy, “As long as the weapon remains safe and can still be deployed, deployed it must be. Our mission was simple; arrive at that system the Skrell call their home, and deliver the payload to their homeworld. They say that this will turn the tides of war, and lead us to victory in the Great Conflict, and I believe this with every fibre of my being. As long as there is breath in my body, I will see this done. For the Veil,” he barked, “and for the Threa – we carry on..!”

    The small force stood stoic, listening intently to the words of their leader and grunted loudly in unison as he completed his dialogue. Without further discussion, the group divided their equipment and weapons and, pausing only to fire the pyres which held the bodies of their fallen, set off once more in the direction the glistening mountains to the north. This time however, recon parties were also sent in all directions to raise alarm should anything even remotely resembling enemy scouts be seen flocking at the horizon. They would not be caught-out twice.

    The long Harlian day was reaching its zenith by the time they finally arrived at the foot of the mountain range, which dazzlingly reflected the intense violet light of the system’s primary star. In spite of the fact that the Threan home world was itself stifling from constant volcanism and that they much preferred the heavy humidity over the freezing alien night, the fierceness of the two combined suns above them and their painstakingly slow crawl across the sky caused many of their number to become quickly fatigued.

    With near unslakable thirsts they persevered, several of their weapons discharging randomly as they went as their components expanded and triggered in the awful heat. Urm instructed the group to direct their barrels skyward or at the ground to avoid any unwanted accidents, and as they finally entered the shadow of the mountain they stopped to take stock of their arsenal and to erect makeshift humidifiers with which to catch and replenish their water supplies from the muggy atmosphere of the planet.

    Gundar commanded several small groups to explore the nearest outcrop in the hopes of finding sufficient ore and the correct deposits of certain elements; particularly organic solids and any endemic silicates and while they waited, requested Urm, his weapons expert Thrang and a security detail join him in ascending the nearest peak of the curious range in the hopes of seeing what might lie beyond its summit. While he was reluctant to spend any longer on that godforsaken planet than absolutely necessary, Gundar felt that given the recent skirmish he couldn’t be too careful in knowing exactly what might lay in wait for them beyond their line of sight. The group took a stock of a small provision of water and extra power cells for their weapons before allowing those that remained to rest and recover while they turned and made their way up the mountain.

    The rock itself was covered with a thick, sticky layer of a strange, translucent fungus which seemed to ooze from higher elevations in the range like a slowly melting glaze. It became clear that this was what gave the mountain its highly reflective quality that had beckoned them from a distance. The contingent found scaling the rock face slow going, and in several places at one time or another they all managed to lose their footing, almost plummeting back down to the base of the climb before catching themselves at the final desperate moment.

    After several hours, one of their security detail who had managed to pass beyond the others and scout ahead had finally reached the summit where he could get a glimpse of the lands beyond the peaks, and removed a telescope from his belt to get a better look at what lay ahead. Seeing this from below, Urm called up to him jokingly, asking “What do you see, soldier..? Fresh water – a whorehouse in abundant shade, perhaps..?” Immediately the lieutenant dropped to his stomach, and called back lowly, “Shh..! Don’t say a word. By all that’s holy, Urm – you must be absolutely silent. Get up here, right now..!”

    The rest of the group exchanged worried glances from their own footholds, and immediately scrambled as quickly and as quietly as possible to join their comrade at the summit, careful too to keep as low as practical and fumbled with their own telescopes to see what it was that had rattled him so. From their vantage point, they followed his gaze across the valley that opened out from the other side of the outcrop, and quietly gasped in shock as they focussed on the crooked spires of what appeared to be an unknown and obviously highly secret Skrell facility, complete with its own bustling hive and several brand new star cruisers armed to the teeth. It was clearly a new spaceport and weapons development facility, one that had only recently been put into commission and that did not appear in any of their previous intel. “My friends,” whispered Gundar with a crooked smile, “It appears we’ve struck the mother lode.”

    The facility was several leagues away from where their battalion had stopped to rest beneath them, and the air around it was thick with swarms of Skrell from several castes that were actively engaged both in crude construction and combat exercises beneath the midday heat. Gundar immediately began to formulate a plan with which to approach this new situation, and propped himself up slightly to better examine the sprawling mountain range which separated his force from their foe. A short journey to the east he noticed a wide pass between two peaks in the range that might provide ample cover and minimal duress by which they could move through the mountains with their equipment unnoticed.

    Through a long band of thick vegetation they could, if they were extremely careful, reach the edge of the Skrell compound virtually undetected. He mused on his plan of attack for several moments, before deciding that if they might commandeer one of the enemy’s own vessels, if they could apply their knowledge of the enemy’s technology toward utilising their own ship as a means of sneaking into the Rua’Maat unchallenged that they might yet be able to complete their mission after all. There could be no room for error. But neither could they pass up such an incredible opportunity.

    He quickly called the others to follow him in returning down the range to rejoin their company, and hearts racing explained to them his plan. “This, commander, is why you lead.” replied Thrang as he gripped Gundar’s shoulder while the others merely grinned and nodded in agreement. Their descent took several hours, and required much greater care in navigating the slick fungus which had nearly caused them to come unstuck before, but eventually they rejoined their comrades below and Gundar shared with them their findings, to similar nods and grunts from the company. He implored them to remain silent and vigilant, insisting that no fires be lit that night and that they bide their time until the first light of the next morning to launch their attack.

    Rations were quickly divided and a discreet camp set-up at the southern mouth of the pass as they prepared, charging weapons and settling on a small diversion west of the facility as a means of drawing the bulk of enemy fire from their own number. Volunteers for the honour of participating in such a crucial but high-risk operation were, as always with the Threa, far more than what was needed. Gundar was pleased, and never prouder to call himself a Soldier of the Veil. Once preparations were complete, the company settled-in at dusk for a long and much needed rest ahead of the carnage that was to follow, the air positively electric with anticipation for the promised bloodshed.

    [Freehold Hospital, Sunday Morning]

    Alex awoke heart-pounding, short of breath and in a cold sweat. The realisation that his most recent visit from Dr. Holzer had in fact been real was only a secondary thought in his mind compared with the vivid, fantastic dream that he had just experienced. In truth, his dreams had taken a recurring theme of late, and as he found himself sleeping longer and deeper as his condition deteriorated, they had become all the more lucid, linear and lifelike. He had mentioned the dreams earlier to Dr. Holzer and even his parents, all of whom simply dismissed it as a probable side effect of the medications that he was taking, and nothing to be alarmed about.

    For Alex though, the almost nightly fantasies that he had been engaged in, the strange worlds and creatures that reappeared night after night had begun to really frighten and, in a way, excite him. They had always started the same, and in each of them he seemed to play the same role; some sort of figurehead in a weird, quasi-military culture. He would feel acutely that he somehow belonged to this strange and alien race, and where he had become weak and listless in reality as the sickness took hold, in his dreams he felt robust, healthy – almost completely indestructible.

    He slapped himself awake, shook his head quickly from side to side and took a deep breath as he looked around his room. “Still here,” was all he could manage to say to himself as the gravity of his situation slowly edged-out the residual adrenaline left by the dream. He carefully dropped his legs out from underneath the sheets and gingerly set his feet upon the floor. Somehow he had managed this time to sleep right through the afternoon and most of the night, waking up just as first light of the following morning crept around the thick hospital curtains of his ward. He yawned and shuffled his way to the bathroom to shower and shave, brush his teeth and change out of his usual hospital garb and into something more presentable.

    It was a Sunday, and as always his parents would be stopping by to bring him a hot breakfast from the cafe down the street (a welcome respite from the usual hospital fare, which he hated) and catch him up on news from the rest of the family. On any other occasion, he might have taken more of a blasé approach to preparing for this, however as he would have to break the news of recent developments to them today, he decided to look and feel as best he was able. In actual fact, he knew that it would be just about the most difficult thing a man could ever have to impart to his parents; the knowledge that their only son was dying and would pass before either of them. Alex loved his parents deeply, and he was seriously dreading the conversation that had to come.

    They arrived at the hospital a little after 9am, and after checking-in and getting the usual greetings out of the way, Alex proceeded to sit them both down, wasting no time in breaking the news of his condition. As careful as he was, the moment the finality of his situation sank in it was all that his dear mother could do to stop herself from breaking down completely. Before he knew it, the three of them were in each other’s embrace at his bedside, his parents shaking uncontrollably and his father only able to ask over and over again, “Is that it..? Is there nothing at all that they can do..?” To which he would reply, “Just keep me comfortable, Dad. There’s nothing more to it – it’s just my time.”

    He went on at length to convince them that in spite of everything, he’d led a good life, if not a little unexciting and that “While it’s a horrible, terrible situation, we can only make the most of the time we have.” Dr. Holzer joined them after a short while to run Mr. and Mrs Agnew through exactly why things had turned out as they had, and suggested that the three of them speak with the hospital counsellor before they go anywhere as “Awful as this truly, truly is, there are arrangements that the three of you should endeavour to make together, for when the time comes.”

    They thanked the doctor as he left, and spent most of the remainder of the day talking. They laughed together, cried and reminisced on just about everything from more recent times in his life right back to his childhood, which Alex had always felt were his best years. So much had simply not come together for him as he got older, but during those early years and on into his teens, he’d truly felt as if he could accomplish anything. He was thankful that they stayed as long as they did, eventually conceding as the evening wore on into the night that they should be getting home to make arrangements and to contact his other relatives that might also want to see him before the time came.

    He embraced them two, three times before they did, and they promised to again visit him the next day, when they might be able to stay longer. His mother couldn’t keep from crying as she waved goodbye from the doorway, while his father did his best to put on a brave face. “My son,” he said softly, locking eyes for several moments before turning to leave and reluctantly closing the door to Alex’s room.

    As he lay there in bed, alone once more, his thoughts turned again to the life he was leaving behind. He was himself in terrible debt and living alone in a one bedroom apartment outside of town, before his health had really deteriorated. Prior to that he had been working long hours at a job he hated for less than he’d felt he deserved before his diagnosis, spending most of his free time watching television, or otherwise entertaining a black and white cat he’d bought together with an ex-girlfriend that he had planned to move in with several years before. That among other things had never panned out, and so his only real motivation for getting out of bed in the morning had become a need to show his parents that he was capable, independent and to provide some hope that he might still one day get it together.

    Now, he didn’t know what to think. He was tired again, and so set about preparing for another long, restful sleep. As he lay awake, and before he eventually drifted off he noticed a strange tingling sensation gnawing at the base of his skull, where the back of his head met his spine. His legs had also begun to grow heavy, as though all feeling was beginning to numb and even as he finally lost consciousness he couldn’t for the life of him stop both of his feet from twitching.

    [Harlia, the Morning of the Attack]

    The Threa slept soundly through the short Harlian night save for a few that shared the watch, and as the ominous glow of daybreak began to paint the horizon a threatening shade of blue and violet once more, they woke and began to prepare for the short, quick march north to the Skrell facility. The tension in the cool morning air was palpable as they crouched in the undergrowth and snaked their way toward the enemy hive, careful not to so much as snap a single branch or twig underfoot.

    The plan was simple; they were to reach a series of shallow hollows at the eastern edge of their base and lay low, and as soon as those charged with their diversion were able to detonate a series of small portable explosives in several key locations across the other side of the valley, they would make for the nearest alien craft with extreme haste. With no small amount of luck, they should be able to overpower any resistance left guarding the facility, and after loading the weapon on board would allow their comrades just enough time to double back and join them before firing up its engines and making for the skies before they could give chase. It seemed like the perfect plan, but nonetheless Gundar was explicit in demanding the utmost caution and care as they approached their destination.

    When their battalion had finally crossed the valley and were within yards of the hollows however, their worst fears were suddenly realised as one of their own number broke free of the hollow and ran directly toward the central hive of the enemy, screaming at the top of his lungs and firing wildly into the air as he went. “The informant..!” Gundar bellowed, immediately realising what was happening and cursing himself for not weeding him out sooner. “They’re here..!” The rogue soldier yelled, “Open the gates and let me in – we have a deal..!” He only managed a few dozen yards before Urm commanded a volley be loosed at the traitor, frying his upper body and quickly freeing him from the dishonour of his actions.

    The company held their breaths as his body hit the dirt, time standing still as they strained to hear any sign of motion from the compound. Sure enough, within seconds the familiar buzz of thousands of insect-like wings could be heard starting up, as hundreds of vivid yellow Skrell funnelled up and out of the upper entrance to their hive and fanned-out in a thick swarm above the facility, searching in every direction for the source of the commotion.

    Just as the last of their number took to the air and they began breaking out in all directions including that of Gundar and his soldiers near the hollows, several massive explosions rang out across the valley from the diversion team on the far edge. “Fools..!” cursed Gundar under his breath, “Did they not see that we’d been given away..? With all of those Skrell already in the air, they’ll be seen and overrun in seconds..!” There was nothing for it if he was to provide his subordinates across the valley with any sort of fighting chance, and so he took to his full height, beckoning the rest to follow and charged in the direction of the Skrell compound with a roar.

    “For the Veil, for Threa and by the Highest State of Being – for the eternal glory of valiant death..!” he cried loudly. The rest of the battalion joined him in charging the facility as the huge, dense cloud of Skrell split into two distinct formations; one that immediately swarmed in the direction of the explosions and a second, far larger group that descended on the invading Threa to instigate what would be heralded as perhaps the greatest single firefight against insurmountable odds since the beginning of the Great Conflict.

    The carnage that followed could not easily be described. It seemed as though the plume of Skrell that erupted from the hive was endless, and the ceaseless gunfire from the Threa illuminated the pale morning haze like so many thousand brilliant red fireworks bursting into the sky all at once. Somehow in spite of their err, they had still managed to catch their enemy almost completely unprepared, and while many of their number were simply torn to pieces once the swarm reached striking distance, for every Threa that perished, a hundred of the insectoid army were felled from the skies and ground underfoot as Gundar, Urm and their forces continued to advance with the frenzied determination of madmen.

    The Threa had soon cut such a heavy swath through their ranks that a clear passage to the enemy fleet suddenly presented itself, and with a final shout of determination they charged toward it as fast as their powerful legs allowed them to bound across the length of the compound. Within moments, Gundar had reached the gangway to the largest vessel, and when two Skrell launched themselves at him from out of the doorway he immediately dropped his weapon, instead wrapping two monstrously clawed hands around what might have been their necks and squeezed with such power his assailants shrieked an ear-splitting shriek and broke clean in two.

    They stormed the entrance to the ship and with heavy cover fire, made for the helm without a second’s delay. Urm motioned for Thrang to take the throttle, as he was the one among them most familiar with the enemy’s technology and in no time at all, a loud hum filled the cockpit as the strange vessel gradually woke from its slumber. Before they closed the gangway, Gundar ordered the rest of their number to hold rank outside on the off-chance that at least some among the diversion team might make it back to them.

    Seconds felt like minutes as the hail of charred Skrell continued to rain down around them, and then minutes like hours as they waited, squinting into the undergrowth behind them. Sure enough, just as they were about to abandon all hope, plasma fire burst from the treeline, and a dozen Threa, beaten, bruised and bloody sprinted across the facility, the air now thick with fire and Skrell and they too charged the gangway. The door was quickly sealed and the vessel’s engines burst into life, sending their craft hurtling into the planet’s atmosphere and vaporising hundreds of pursuing Skrell in the process.

    As soon as they cleared orbit and could finally engage the ship’s hyperdrive, the Threa let out a resounding cheer. They had done it – HE had done it..! Gundar was hoisted ceremoniously onto his comrades’ shoulders as the magnitude of their most daring escape finally struck them. The payload was on board, they were back in space – their mission could finally be completed. Never in his life had Gundar felt such a sense of accomplishment, of pride as he felt at that very moment. He had taken the ultimate risk, seizing the opportunity that had presented itself and had won.

    He thanked each and every Threa on board individually for their valour, and prayed fealty to the Highest State of Being for providing guidance and protection during the insurrection, as well as for the souls of those that did not survive. Battered, bloody and still in shock, he dropped down beside a pylon in the ship’s control room, and closed his eye – “Onward to the Rua’Maat, Gundar, onward to victory..!” This was his final self-satisfied thought as he succumbed to exhaustion, and a well needed rest.

    [Freehold Hospital, Monday Morning]

    It was only the next morning when Alex finally lost all sensation in both legs, and found that he could no longer move them at all, let alone leave his bed. Against his doctor’s generous prediction, the tumour in the back of his skull had quickly reached a critical mass and had begun not only to crush several key areas of his brain that controlled major parts of his body but was now also restricting the flow of oxygen to it. His final dream had been so much more vivid than the first.. the firefight, the Skrell and his own part in it all.

    His hallucinations had begun to spill over into his waking thoughts, and within a few short hours he found himself flitting in and out of consciousness involuntarily. It was all happening so fast, and when his parents eventually arrived escorted by his doctor, they just couldn’t understand how he had one day been so lucid, so much like the Alex that they knew and loved and the next, could only stay focussed for mere minutes at a time.

    “Mr. and Mrs. Agnew,” Dr. Holzer started, “I know it doesn’t make much sense. When we described to Alex the window of time that was left, we could only be so general. His condition is far advanced, and there is simply no way of providing an absolutely clear evaluation of how quickly his other functions might be affected, nor how soon.. it appears that the pressure that the tumour is exerting on his brain has reached a critical point, whereby there’s very little chance of real lucidity from here on in.”

    His mother was beside herself, and once again Mr. Agnew asked of him, “There’s nothing that can be done..? Just what the hell are we supposed to do now..?” Dr. Holzer’s expression fell, and he replied, “As drastic as it seems, at this stage I would strongly recommend placing your son in an induced coma, wherein we might buy time to continue to evaluate the progression of his condition in a stable state and at least he might then, when the time comes, find peace in a dignified end. Once again, I’m very sorry and of course, the call is entirely yours,” he turned and pointed to the doorway, “I’ll be out in the hall while you talk it through.”

    He shook Mr. Agnew’s hand and left, and for a long time Alex lay there in his bed, eyes flitting as he mumbled more and more incoherently, for brief moments showing recognition, but for the most part only muttering a great deal about somebody called ‘Gundar,’ a secret mission, and a great ship in outer space. “My beautiful boy,” Mrs Agnew said softly, as she stroked a wave of hair from his forehead. “So young – so much potential. It’s just not fair.”

    The two stayed by his bedside for hours, discussing which action to take as Alex drifted farther and farther from coherence and eventually slipped into an almost catatonic state in which no part of him moved but for a constant flicker of both eyelids. Finally, after much deliberation they both agreed that he would want to sleep now, rather than slowly fall to pieces in his final days and gave Dr. Holzer the authority he needed to induce a coma, sending their only son to his rest for the last time.

    That afternoon, as they watched from his bedside, the necessary steps were taken, and Alexander Agnew slipped forever from consciousness, into dream and everything beyond.

    [Deep Space, Exact Location: Classified]

    Like a shot, Gundar’s great eye flew open and he sprang to his feet. He was all of a sudden strangely energised, feeling more focussed and alert than he had ever felt before and he scanned the room in which he found himself as memories of the past few days’ events came flooding back. He was on the bridge of the Skrell battlecruiser, the ship they had commandeered from under the very noses of their enemy. His battalion, comrades that had stuck with him through thick and thin were at their stations, some carefully instructing others how to operate the complex and alien controls of the vessel and many more taking a well earned rest as Thrang and his team plotted a clear course for the Rua’Maat. He smiled as two of them passed him by, bowing their heads in a gesture of respect and moved across the bridge to speak with Urm, his oldest and greatest friend.

    “Urm, my right hand,” he began, “what is our bearing..? How long have I slumbered..?” Urm replied, “A full night’s rest, Commander – and well-earned I might say. We have long cleared the Harlian System and bear onward to the Rua’Maat. Thrang suspects we might disengage the vessel’s hyperdrive in a matter of hours. Everything else is on schedule, and perhaps before the day is through we might finally taste the wine of victory for which we have so longed, the Higher State permitting.

    “Excellent,” Gundar replied. “Hold steady, see to it that our wounded are administered to and if you haven’t already, send a team to try to find food, water.. whatever these vermin might be hoarding to replenish morale.” He clasped the other Threa’s shoulder before turning to leave the bridge himself. “As you will, Gundar,” Urm replied with a low bow, addressing his own subordinate to relay his commander’s instruction.

    “And General,” Gundar called over his shoulder as he started down the corridor. “Yes, Commander..?” came Urm’s reply.

    “From now on – have the men call me Alex.”

    Here is a Fourth Excerpt from Alluvion

    04. A Grand Decree

    “My brothers, my sisters and my dear friends,” He-Xur began, with his trademark flair for the dramatic, “people.. of Nevalı Çori. I bid you all a good morning, and trust that in the absence of your fearless leader your needs have been well met, and your bellies filled. I thank you,” he turned to face Skara, and with his right hand outstretched bowed his head slightly at the other man, “and I salute you, who would rise to his duty and preserve order and balance to our home in my absence.” Skara, still confused but honoured nonetheless at the mention returned a bow of his own head, offering fealty once more to He-Xur amidst cheers and applause from the rest of the village.

    “Though pleased as you are no doubt to see me,” he continued, “I am sure some of you question, ‘Why has our leader returned now, when two more Moons were promised first to pass’..?” He stepped down from the elevation and slowly moved closer before the crowd, whose excitement was clearly beginning to build. “Why has He-Xur (he would frequently refer to himself in third-person, an idiosyncrasy that had often perplexed Skara) come back to the Valley before his time..? I will answer you this, though it might surprise many of you to hear of what it is I have come to know from those learned and esteemed leaders of the capital,” Several villagers called out, “Tell us..!” and, “What of He-Tauhasa..?”

    “People of Nevalı Çori,” he wasted no time then in cutting straight to the chase, raising his voice beyond a reasonable volume and bellowing with a fierce and resounding roar: “war is upon us..!” His eyes bulged from his head and the veins on either side of his neck swelled as he delivered his proclamation. Immediately, audible gasps, moans and murmurs erupted from the crowd. Several small children began to cry only to be hushed by their mothers, and voices could be heard exclaiming, “War..? War with who..? Who would declare war on us..?” The people of the valley had not been faced with any sort of conflict for generations, enjoying a remarkably long and prosperous season and none among them could have expected this now.

    The chieftain went on: “I have met with our Divine King He-Tauhasa Ihreikas himself, and he has told me of the visions of the Seers of Çatalhöyük.” More murmurs, because if they were being honest, the townsfolk themselves were somewhat divided as to the true intent of those Seers, members of an order who claimed to be the divine interpreters of their Godhead. An order so many leagues to the west as to almost seem fantastic to those who had never made the journey.

    “The Seers,” he roared on, desperate to retain control of the crowd, “have witnessed, as we all have that the Cygnet among the stars bleeds and has bled for a full Moon. They have seen the signs and warn us that an invasion comes from the west..!” This sent the crowd into a frenzy. Every man and woman of the valley and indeed the entire population of the Southern lands had been raised from birth to hate on instinct those that dwelt to the west. A barbaric, incestuous foreign tribe of murderers and usurpers, they were told, who in their godless lust for war were always plotting the downfall of the Eastern tribes. He-Xur knew this well, understanding that it would be all too easy to incite his people to rally behind him, should a war with the West be his banner. He knew now that to bring his people completely on-side, he need only offer them glory and security as reward for such a risk as an ingress into enemy territory.

    “Brothers and sisters, the Seers have decreed that we of the East would be victorious against these marauders from beyond the lowly wastes,” he began to pace up and down in front of the crowd, their eyes following him as he went, “if we would strike first this serpent that threatens our kin, and cut off its head. The Gods favour us my friends, but more importantly, the Gods favour our honour, our power and our loyalty to those we call our own. Today I have returned to you to ask that you honour your king, and not just if it pleases you, for you honour your family, your kin and yourselves if you will follow me in this glorious campaign.” The crowd by this time had swollen to include almost every single man, woman and child in the village, their faces now reflecting soberly not only on what would be left behind should they follow He-Xur to the capital and to war, but what they might risk losing if they did not.

    “If we do not strike at the serpent, the serpent strikes at us. Now is the time for us to make haste to the capital to meet our king, and to defend our homes and our lands, before it is too late. The Seers have foreseen our victory – the blood of the West must be spilled, their forces broken, their women raped and their villages plundered. It is the only way. Who will join us in this glorious fight..? Who among you would follow me now, your blood lord into battle and would see their oldest enemies crushed into the earth, once and for all..?” His voice rose with every sentence, the intensity in his speech and in his eyes increasing with every syllable as he paced before the crowd, staring piercingly into the sea of faces as if weighing the value of their very souls. The people of Nevalı Çori were not soldiers, nor were they warriors. They were not marauders nor killers – they were hunters, they were fathers and they were simple men of the East. But they had made up their mind.

    With a thunderous roar that shook the ground, the villagers as one shouted for their lord, proclaiming their support for the coming war and giving praise to the Gods for the chance to honour them. It would otherwise have been an inspiring moment for Skara, to see his kin raise their fists and weapons high above their heads, clasping their brothers and sisters beside them were he not so recently made aware that the entire premise for the war for which they cheered had been a false one. He-Xur stood proud and defiant before them, returning their fealty with both arms outstretched and basked in the wave of support from his people. ‘His people’, he as all rulers through time had grown to believe this, never pausing to consider that there might be those among them less eager to follow their blood leader into the carnage that was promised. Skara turned and locked-eyes with the other as he tried unconvincingly to calm the throng about him, and he knew then that he must make a stand.

    He knew only too well the price of disobeying his king, and until this time had sworn only complete and utter loyalty to He-Xur. Skara had known him since they were both children, and as far back as he could remember he had been entranced by the showmanship and passion the line of Xur had commanded, and the hold that it had had over his kin. He had also seen many a great man fall, stripped of titles, wealth and most often eventually executed in that very same plaza for daring to defy the one the Gods had appointed. It was with no small measure of faith in those same Gods that he stepped forward, and addressed his lord and the people of his village. Sura’s face dropped as he did, not trusting that her husband knew exactly what it was he was doing, and knowing the consequences that might inevitably follow if he failed to present a sound and acceptable argument.

    “My friends,” he began, turning to He-Xur, “my lord.. I wished not yet to bring to you tidings from our most recent journey into the wilderness, at least not like this and I honour our blood-ruler for the wisdom he returns to us from the capital. However I feel I must speak now of those events that have transpired at that grassy plateau to the north which I have come to call Uru-Mah.” The crowd went silent as he stepped forward to speak, and now also seemed confused at the name assigned to what they knew to be a rather innocuous area of land, and hardly becoming of the label, the ‘Magnificent High’. He went on: “While we camped at the foothills to the south of the plateau, and as I stood watch over my brothers in the dead of the night I was visited by one of the order who call themselves the Watchers,” more murmurs and gasps from the women and children as he continued, “who bade me to speak with them at their council beneath the high-hills, in the city that is theirs. I have no doubts, as you might that these were indeed the Watchers of old, as he did reveal to me his face, and by his stature alone appeared as no man I have ever seen.”

    “The next morning, while hunting the lands surrounding the plateau, my brother and I did venture north over the rise and into the flatlands beyond, where I took council with the Watchers, who told to me of the true meaning of this signal in the sky.” He-Xur scoffed loudly, interrupting Skara in the middle of his speech and roaring above him, “The Watchers, he says..!” Turning to address the crowd, “No-one has seen their kind in an age, and nobody would dare break the forbidding that I and the rulers of the East have put upon that place beneath the hills, a land forsaken by the Gods themselves..!” He then spat at the earth and pointed aggressively at Skara, “What right have you, Skara Tau to venture into those lands forbidden by your forebears, where no other has strayed, and pray tell us what your Watchers,” he sneered as he rolled the name distastefully on his tongue, “those freaks of nature, if that is who they really were, have told you of those signs, truthfully read and deciphered by our own Seers..? Come now, entertain us..!” Some in the crowd laughed, others muttered uneasily amongst themselves, knowing that the next words to come out of Skara’s mouth might well seal his fate. Skara went on:

    “The council of the Watchers too have seen the sign, and in their wisdom have revealed a greater catastrophe that will take place than your supposed invasion from the west. The signs speak not of war, but of a great dragon which will fall from the sky, and burn the valley and indeed all of the Eastern lands to ashes. Those of the council have told me that in two weeks hence, if we are not safely within the high walls of their city, we will all be destroyed by this weapon which comes, and comes quickly.” More gasps, and the sound of several villagers booing could be heard from the crowd as he paused, but he went on. “Your war is a lie, the Seers have falsely interpreted the signs and would have our people spread far from safety where they would be destroyed by the dragon of seven tails. Listen to me brothers and sisters, my Lord you have been deceived..! We cannot march West, you must not listen to this madness..”

    He-Xur roared, “Enough..!” His face had turned bright red at the assertion that he, the highest among them had been taken for a fool by the learned men of the capital. He moved towards Skara and proceeded to make an example of the huntsman, who now felt as though his legs would turn to jelly:

    “To think that I should ever live to see such insolence, such wanton treason from you, Skara Tau. How dare you, a mere huntsman from the valley speak such heresy, such slander of the Seers, who are by divine decree the very voice of the Gods. And to defy me, your lord..! I will hear no more of your Watchers and their talk of dragons and other such nonsense – rescind those words that you have spoken, promising no further talk of those abominations to the north and by and only by the loyalty you have shown me until this day will I spare your life.”

    Skara went white, knowing too that there would be no turning back, no second chances if he continued by Yamnaya’s directive. He looked down at his children, cowering by their mother’s legs and then at Sura, who herself did not completely understand what her husband was saying. Her features dropped as she looked deep into his eyes and saw in them the path he would take. Skara glanced too at his brother, Andar who gritted his teeth from across the plaza as if to say “Idiot – stop this madness before you get yourself killed..!” Skara however had made up his mind, and shouted once more to the crowd and his lord:

    “I will not – the words of the Seers are false, the dragon arrives and the Watchers offer us salvation. I will not follow you, He-Xur into this war of your master’s making, and I would not condone the slaughter of our kinsman where such actions are unnecessary. I am sorry.”

    The crowd erupted then, incensed by the tone of defiance in his voice and responded by pointing toward, shouting at and taunting the other man. He-Xur arched his back and threw his muscular arms wide, declaring, “So be it..! Skara Tau, this day you have defied your Lord and will be punished accordingly.” He wasted no time as the crowd swelled around them, threatening to stone him there and then. Several rocks flew at the huntsman as his lord barked his order; “Take him and tie him in the Northeast quarter. We will march at sunset for the capital so as to meet our King two mornings hence, and will take the prisoner to his divine court for judgement..!” Skara gulped, for he knew just what this meant. Justice in the valley was and had always been dealt swiftly and with mercy, however from the capital he had heard a great many tales of the maiming and execution of traitors in the public arena, purely for the sport and entertainment of its citizens as spectators.

    Skara was stripped of any blades he carried, seized sharply by both arms by two of the more burly soldiers that had returned with He-Xur and as his children screamed and cried for their father, was led away to be imprisoned until the men of the village were prepared to march. Sura wept, and screamed clemency for Skara who could only look back at her for a brief moment with wide-eyes concerned and filled with fear before he was taken for his fate. She dropped to her knees in defeat, unable to believe how quickly her joy had turned to despair.

    All Skara could think as he was led away to face his fate was whether he would have enough time and indeed be given the opportunity to convince his King of the folly of the Seers before it was too late. This, and of the small and mysterious vial provided to him by Yamnaya, which he had managed somehow to carefully keep concealed within his robes.

    Skara was led away and bundled roughly into a small wooden enclosure that had been erected at the rear of the Lord’s quarters to house prisoners awaiting punishment. No family or friends were permitted to see the captured man, and as the hours wore on before his transport west he began to reflect on the events that had brought him to this point. He cursed himself for not waiting until a more opportune moment to come clean about his visit to the plateau, and for allowing Sura and the children to see him captured and taken away before the rest of the village. He could only imagine the worry that his wife had felt in the hours since he was imprisoned, and hoped dearly that Andar had intervened to ensure that they too came to no harm.

    As the sun set through an opening in the rear of the enclosure, he heard footsteps outside the gate and a voice which called to him, “Come forth, Skara – it is time.” The latch was opened and he was removed from the chamber, and made to join a large group outside the Western edge of the village. Sura and the children were nowhere to be seen.

    Before the group departed, He-Xur approached him at the rear of the party under heavy guard, and spoke in confidence to him; “I would have never taken you for a fool, Skara Tau. Not until this day. What events have truly taken place that would bring you to such an act of suicide as slandering the words of your lord and king I do not know. But know this; where I have a softness within me for you and your family, the Seers of He-Tauhasa have only the divine law, and for your actions this day I do not expect you will be let-off lightly.”

    Skara raised his head to address the other man, but he had already left his side and taken up position at the head of the group. He-Xur surveyed the force of several hundred behind him – every able-bodied man and boy of age that could handle a weapon had been taken from the village and surrounds to join the soldiers of the capital, and only a handful of hunters including his brother Andar were allowed to remain with the women and children, promised to keep them from harm and hunger until their fathers and husbands would return victorious. He raised his right-arm to them palm lowered and hand outstretched in a gesture of solidarity and with a mighty yell, commanded, “People of the valley, we march west for Çatalhöyük..!”

    The group moved, slowly at first and then finding a rhythm in their step began the long and arduous journey to the capital. The road ahead was better-made and less treacherous than others surrounding the village, and the journey would take no more than two night’s passage. As they left sight of their homes and loved-ones, the group took up another song, to fire their resolve and prepare them for the dark days that were to come:

    “You cut them down in the fray of battle
    With your fierce wings, O God of War
    You tear and hack their throats like cattle
    Disguised, a dark and raging storm
    Growl and roar..! O hurricane
    And yell as a tempest boldly yells
    Thunder, rage, roar, and rain
    Expel thy winds from seven hells..!

    Your feet are anxious as they tread
    Your lyre it wails and moans
    We hear your loud dirge scream and cry
    O monster, sing that we may go home

    As thunder, you growl across the skies..!
    All trees and creatures bow before you..!

    You are blood rushing down a mountain
    Spirit of hate, greed and anger
    Dominator of heaven and earth
    Your smoke, it hides our black banner
    Riding-forth on a beast of war
    With indomitable commands
    You decide all fates to come
    And triumph over our enemy’s lands

    Who can explain why you go on so..
    Nergal keep guide of our axes, sling and bow”

    Skara recognised many items of weaponry borne by his kinsmen as they walked, battle-axes and barbed spears that had become little more than heirlooms displayed in the homes of his neighbours who had no use of such things until now. He shook his head and lamented the outcome of their participation in a full-frontal campaign against their enemies, who were by all accounts far better equipped and much less green on the battlefield. As the trip wore on into the night, he took note that the rolling hills of the valley lands had changed into a long and gradual descent, the landscape flattening out as they reached the lower ground which would eventually lead them to the tributaries and then the estuary which marked the entrance to the port-capital. They marched on through the night, finding their road with little difficulty and made great progress on the back of high-spirits and enthusiasm for what would be for many among them the first time they had visited the heart of their empire.

    They group camped once by a riverbed in the early hours of the following morning, allowing for several hours’ sleep before they carried-on with their journey. Skara was tied to a heavy stake that had been hammered into the earth at the outskirts of one of many small fires lit to warm their numbers and his hands freed from thick leather straps so that he might feed himself. The group had brought with them much of a store of cured meats, roots and vegetables gathered at the village before departing, and had sent several small groups forth as they marched to hunt ahead, so that they might also enjoy fresh meat. As they ate, some members of the group had taken pity on Skara, bringing him cuts of game to supplement the bland vegetables that he had been rationed, and of this group three had stayed with him in spite of command and their better judgement to enquire as to his well-being. The three were in fact Gidri, Gizzal and a craftsman from the Eastern quarter who was called Bacchi, son of Stol. After they had eaten, he was the first to speak, asking Skara:

    “You do know what they’re planning for you, at the capital, don’t you..?” He began, “He’s not commanded that we bring you with us to see you slapped on the hand for defying his decree, you know. What manner of madness possessed you, anyway..? Have you no regard for your own life, or the livelihood of your family..?” He shook his head in resign. “We all love you like a brother, and you’ve always done the best by us in return. Why did you take opposition to He-Xur in an open forum..? Surely you knew that this would happen.”

    He spoke both as if he were chastising the other man, but also with a tone of genuine concern which softened Skara. He replied quietly, careful not to raise the attention of the soldiers closer by the fire, “Brothers, those words that I have spoken before are the truth. I have told no lies of the Watchers, and what they have shown to me calls for no delay in sharing it with you. Trust me when I say that the threat these signs have shown comes not from the West, but from the skies. You might well think me mad, but what I have done I have done for my family, and for the rest of you. Take heed that the words of the Seers are not entirely selfless, and that what they say may only be said for the benefit of their order.” He turned to the fire and gazed at the flames for a moment, before adding, “You will see when the time comes, and I pray to all the Gods that you come to your senses before all is lost.”

    The three looked at each other and shook their heads, before gently patting Skara on the shoulder and moving back to join the rest of the group. Skara stroked his thick black beard, and thought at length of the hopelessness of his situation before violently casting aside the food he had been given, the taste of which had turned bitter in his mouth.

    At mid-morning the group set off again, passing through the many green glades and grasslands now lush with the spring climate and by late afternoon began their final descent towards the lowlands. As the sun set on their second day of travel, the landscape had begun to change dramatically, and the dark silhouettes of isolated dwellings had begun to intermittently jut-out from the horizon either side of the road on which they travelled, signifying that they were at last leaving the wilderness between the two settlements and were nearing the more densely occupied lands surrounding Çatalhöyük. Above them, the Spring skies were blood-red and striking around the enormous descending solar disc and the heralds of He-Xur ordered the party to pause for a quick prayer to Anu, the head of their pantheon and of whom such skies were a blessing before they continued.

    The throng carried-on through the evening, electing to make one final camp beside a copse of oak trees just east of the city before arriving at first light. Again Skara’s bonds were loosened so that he might feed himself, however He-Xur’s soldiers kept a closer watch this time. Word had travelled quickly through the group that some of his fellow valley-men had confided in him the previous night, and their leader was determined that his treasonous ideas would not be spread amongst his friends and neighbours, with whom he knew the prisoner had a greater rapport than he himself. Skara ate his fill, famished from the long and arduous trek that the group had made swiftly to make time and prayed a silent prayer of his own to the pantheon that he might find wisdom among his accusers when brought to trial. If indeed a trial was to be arranged, for he knew that those elders of the city had not endured for so long by entertaining dissident voices.

    He slept warily through that night, ever watchful for those soldiers that might exact their own justice on the King’s behalf and at daybreak was yanked sharply to his feet by two of their number eager to press on and rejoin their brethren at the capital. The party marched a dozen men wide to the entrance of Çatalhöyük to meet the city watch, and Skara was awed by the great arch which surrounded the large wooden gates of the city. Massive oaken doors finished the road from the east, grand gates which stood almost twenty cubits tall and around the arch above it was carved the city’s grandiose claim, in great black symbols which read:


    After a quick exchange, the gates creaked open and the group were permitted entry into the city beyond. The capital itself was a vast collective of halls and dwellings built from an assortment of wood, stone and stretched animal skins, some carefully erected by artisans to the wishes of the more affluent and respected elders of the settlement and others resembling more the modest wooden huts of Nevalı Çori and the lesser villages to the east.

    The city was criss-crossed with made and unmade roads, and plumes of smoke rose from many corners and hearths and clouded the sky above in a thick haze which choked Skara and others among them not used to such an atmosphere. They had been warned of this, and told that they would get used to it but Skara could not believe that he would ever come to prefer the smog of city life above the crisp, clean air of the valley. As the small army moved through the streets in the direction of the center of the settlement and towards the largest of its halls where dwelt the ruling family of Çatalhöyük, a herald from amongst them sounded two long and sharp blasts from his horn, intended to catch the attention of the household of He-Tauhasa Ihreikas.

    The blasts prompted emissaries of the King to immediately march forth and confront the group, sharing a quick word with He-Xur before escorting them past a growing throng of onlookers, curious to see who had been welcomed into their city. Several dozen yards from the city square, the more distinguished among the group, including He-Xur, Skara and his minders were led into the massive Hall of Kings, and brought into a long space at the rear of the building. Skara was taken then before a large wooden throne draped with vibrant red cloth and decorated finery, where sat the king of the Southern lands, who was himself bare from the waist up save for several brightly coloured arm bands and other assorted adornments, and surrounded by handmaidens holding food, wine and other luxuries reserved for the ruler of their world. Skara was forced immediately to kneel in submission to the throne by a swift kick to the back of one knee, and He-Xur bowed his head in a gesture of respect before once more addressing his ruler for the first time since leaving the capital.

    .. Inspired by a Long Walk in a Dark Forest

    ‘THE GLADE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    The call finally came at nine minutes past 4am on Tuesday, February 2nd. The ring from his phone shattered the silence in their bedroom and wrested him from a long and beautiful dream in which he was wandering alone in a massive oaken forest, surrounded by tall trees and warmed by golden summer sunlight breaking through the canopies above. Eric was fast asleep, and had been for hours. It was the middle of Winter, and the small house that he and his wife Nancy shared in Brixton, South London was cold and the wanly lit streets outside thick with an early morning fog that rolled down from the river and flowed through them like so many silent ghosts. He groaned loudly and turned, setting his feet reluctantly on the polished wooden floor beside their bed and shook the sleep from his eyes, searching for the source of the unwelcome noise.

    The call came from the Royal Hospital in the city, and he was greeted on the line by an elderly man who identified himself as Dr. Morgan and whose nervous tone immediately gave Eric cause for concern. After making sure he had reached the right person, the other man wasted no time advising him that in spite of their greatest care and attention his mother had finally passed, gently and quietly in the night. Although she had been admitted into care several months earlier with little chance that she would recover from a long bout of pneumonia, the shock of waking up to such news caused Eric to break down and the sound of his quiet sobbing awoke Nancy who rolled over and embraced her husband, knowing immediately what had happened. Eric regained his composure and thanked the doctor for doing the best he could before hanging up and again weeping openly in her arms.

    It had been a terrible twenty-four hours after they rushed to the hospital to greet the staff that had made Edith’s final days on earth comfortable, and by the time her funeral had finally come around neither Eric nor Nancy felt that they had any emotion left. They stood silently numb as their bishop delivered her last rites and watched bleary-eyed as her body was slowly lain to rest in a quiet corner of an old cemetery, sheltered by the nurturing arms of a strong willow tree. Edith loved the willow, and Eric knew that she would be at peace here in this place beside her husband and his father who had himself passed-on more than a decade earlier. “At last,” he thought to himself, looking out across the field of stones as a soft breeze animated the long, vibrant grass surrounding them, “you and Dad are together again.” The rest of their friends and family slowly dissipated in time, leaving him and Nancy alone to come to terms with the fact that they were both finally gone.

    They held a small wake at a house just outside of the city where his Aunt Meredith, his mother’s sister lived and tried their best to put on a smile and talk only of the happier times he had shared with his parents growing up. Eric had become an only child shortly before his eighth birthday, after his younger sister Julia had mysteriously disappeared one night and although this had been an intense cause for talk and speculation at the time, everyone present was still wiser than to bring it up even now. After most of them, particularly the four or five other elderly women with whom Edith had spent much of her twilight years enjoying outings and other various activities had exhausted themselves of all grief, conversation turned to laughter as they fondly remembered her quirks. Eric’s mother had been raised in a small town east of the Lake District in the country’s north where most still spoke their mind, and her sharp tongue and irreverent personality had caused her more than once to land herself (and often too her close family) in hot water.

    They ended up in hysterics as they fondly remembered the time she had berated her husband mid-prayer in front of the congregation for falling asleep during a sermon, and how she had almost chased poor Nancy half-way down the street the first time she had met her after finding out that her son was seeing an Irish Catholic girl. For all her odd behaviour, Edith had proved to be the most loving and genuine mother Eric could have asked for, and despite the large group of well-wishers that had turned out to take part in her wake, deep down he had never felt more alone.

    He eventually excused himself from the rest of the party at the close of another anecdote and walked out in front of the house where he stood and looked out into the street, sighing heavily and wondering just what exactly he was supposed to do now. As if to answer, a short, well-dressed man in a dark dinner suit also left the gathering through the front door and stood beside him, offering him a quick gesture of respect before pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket, lighting it up and joining him in staring out across the neighbourhood. After a minute, the other man turned to Eric, extending his right hand and spoke:

    “George Kaczynski, it’s nice to meet you,” he started. “I knew your mother briefly in the final few weeks before.. until now.” He finished awkwardly. The name sounded familiar to Eric, who finally realised who it was he was speaking to. He continued, “I was asked to be the executor of your mother’s estate, and was hoping I could have a word today to perhaps arrange to meet and run through a few things.. not today, and there’s no rush of course. Edith and I discussed her intentions at length over the past few weeks, and she was very firm in making sure that I don’t..” he chuckled for a moment, and Eric smiled, “that I didn’t dilly-dally around like every other smooth-talking shark she’d dealt with. I was hoping you could perhaps stop by my office tomorrow, if you’re up to it..?”

    “Yes, of course – thank you. I know my mother wouldn’t have had it if I didn’t keep track of her things, you know how she is.. was. I’ll stop-in first thing tomorrow, let you get it out of the way.” George smiled a stiff smile as he crushed his cigarette underfoot, shook Eric’s hand and passed him his business card before making his way out into the street and to his car. Eric stood there alone for another several minutes before squinting skyward and sighing heavily once more. “Well, let’s get this over with,” he thought as he turned and made his way back inside, eager to put the event behind him.

    He and Nancy met with Mr. Kaczynski early the next morning at his building in the West End, and quickly got down to business. Edith and her husband David had accumulated very little in the way of non-material assets over the years, acquiring little else other than several old vintage cars (Eric’s father had at one time been a mechanic) and a lifetime of furniture and possessions which still filled the large country house they had shared in rural Cumbria in the country’s far north. As their only son, Eric had more or less been given sole inheritance, and their meeting served as little more than a formality in signing their home and contents over to him before he and Mr. Kaczynski shook hands once more and they left with a set of keys and a long list of inventory for larger assets that remained at the property. It was a bittersweet moment for him as he reflected on the many years that he had spent growing up in that old house, and in the knowledge that it is and would remain empty now that his parents had both finally passed-on.

    He and Nancy decided to pack their bags that Friday and drive up to the house to begin the monstrous task of sorting, cleaning and clearing through three decades of clutter and belongings that still filled every room. He had decided and she agreed that the longer they put it off, the more difficult a task it would become and at first light they packed a weekend’s worth of clothing and boxes into the back of her cherry-red V60 station wagon and set-off on a road trip that would take them a little over five hours, traffic permitting. The road out of London itself proved to be a long one however, and despite leaving early they found themselves caught in gridlock on the far side of the river for almost an hour before finally breaking free and reaching open road, and the scenic surroundings of the English countryside.

    In spite of the solemn reason for their venture north, it was all that Nancy could do to hide her excitement at spending a weekend in the country. The pair had met while studying in the inner-city and spent the next five and a half years moving from share house to apartment, and apartment to condo and had never once had the luxury of anything larger than a roofed al-fresco as a backyard. She found herself energised by the fresh air and wide open spaces, gushing incessantly throughout their entire journey and the only way that Eric could think to put an end to her excited narrative was to suggest they stop at Carlisle for a long-lunch and some sightseeing before carrying-on the remainder of their journey to Wetheral, their final destination.

    While they sat and ate at one of a hundred small delicatessens along the highway, Eric’s mind wandered back to his teenage years spent growing up in the country. The green fields and endless rolling hills brought him back to a simpler time in his life where he would while away the hours roaming through the many woods and glens, mapping every brook and stream which intersected the flourishing landscape. He had loved to fish, and sometimes otherwise to just lose himself in the openness and emptiness of being far away from it all. He also remembered more difficult times as a child coming to terms with the disappearance of his younger sister in one such wood outside the family home, and the taunts and accusations made toward him by the other children at their school, and even their parents. He had been the last one to see her alive before she vanished, and the guilt for having lost her, rational or not weighed heavy on him for most of his adult life.

    Nancy on the other hand seemed to be having the time of her life, and beamed a wide and beautiful smile after taking a big bite of a thick sandwich from across the table. After struggling to clear the mouthful, she asked, “This is the first time you’ve taken me up here, you know. How much further is the drive..?” He smiled back at her as she wiped a dollop of butter from her cheek, and replied, “We’re almost there now. Wetheral should only be about ten miles east of here. Let’s have a quick wander along here first to make sure we have everything we need, then we’ll shoot over and get started.” They finished their meal and stopped-in at a grocery store for cleaning products and a few bottles of wine before returning to the car and setting-off in the direction of the village.

    As they pulled out of the parking space, they stopped momentarily to let a small family pass before returning to the highway. The two of them watched as the middle-aged parents carefully shepherded a young son and daughter in front of the car and down the footpath, and Eric took Nancy’s hand instinctively into his. They had wanted and tried desperately themselves to have children of their own from the day they married, however despite several hopeful starts eventually decided to see specialist who broke the unfortunate news to them that Nancy had inherited a rare genetic condition which left her physically unable to bear children. Despite all of the wonders of modern medicine, it seemed that little could be done to help them and every time she saw other couples out with their own she couldn’t help but hurt. Eric was extraordinarily supportive however, and would simply say that, “If it’s meant to be, it will be. Until then I’ll just have to go ahead and love you that extra bit more.”

    It was mid-afternoon when they finally pulled-up at the end of a long, unmade driveway that snaked away from the road and descended toward the property which was nestled cosily at the edge of a wide, dark wall of trees. The scenery overlooking it was breathtaking; the house itself was a rustic two-storey affair built mostly from old, rugged sandstone blocks arranged beneath a broad and weathered thatched roof, and it backed onto the western edge of the Wetheral Woods which towered above the roofline like a black curtain and ran for miles in either direction. Despite being late in the day, a shallow mist rose from the soil at the edges of the clearing and gave the surreal impression that they had somehow travelled out of their current time and back to an old and wonderful page in history. The two sat mouths agape as the car idled for a full minute before turning to look at each other, and without speaking Eric nosed the vehicle down toward the front of the house where they parked and got out for a better view.

    The house lay almost completely in the shadow of the woods, and Eric and Nancy both shuddered visibly as the cold country air caressed their skin. “It’s just.. beautiful,” she said, sighing deeply as she looked around to completely take it all in. “The old homestead,” Eric replied, shrugging. “I’ll open up, then let’s get this stuff inside and set a fire. We can take a look around tonight to get an idea of what’s needed and get started on the heavy lifting in the morning.” He fumbled for the keys and unlocked the heavy wooden door which creaked loudly as it opened and returned to the car for an armful of boxes and bags. The two gingerly crossed the threshold and moved through the house, making their way to a large and homely kitchen at the far end to begin unpacking. Eric stacked bottles, sprays and paper towels on the counter and Nancy set their suitcases up in the guest room down the hall. She was astonished at just how authentic the interior of the house had remained, and wandered about touching the fixtures, scarred beams and cornices like a curious child, oohing and aahing as she went.

    Eric started a fire in the living room and once they were settled disappeared to the kitchen momentarily, returning with two full glasses of wine. He sipped at one and handed Nancy the other before settling down in an old chair by the fireplace, and the two then talked for hours about his childhood, the house and his life growing up in such a strange and isolated place. Eric had never much liked speaking in detail about his life in the country, save for an occasional complaint and had himself adjusted quite nicely to London’s fast-paced and contemporary lifestyle. Given his obvious reservations she had never pressed him for more on his background, but as they finished their first bottle of red and opened another, he began to relax and spoke at length of his father and mother, and seemed to enjoy reminiscing about their old-fashioned attitudes and almost comical day-to-day experiences.

    After a couple of hours and when the last light of day had completely vanished from outside the heavy double-glazed windows, Nancy finally plucked up the courage to ask Eric about his sister, something she had never quite felt comfortable bringing up but had been dying to know about since he had first dismissed the subject years earlier by simply saying, “Julia disappeared when we were very young, near our home. It tore us apart for years, but it is what it is.. it’s not a time and place I want to revisit often, if I can readily avoid it.” Her question had seemingly come out of nowhere, and although he squirmed when she asked there was something in her delivery, the innocent concern with which came the question, “What about Julia..? The two of you moved here when you were only very young, do you mind if I ask what happened..?” that made him feel it was time to at least touch on the subject. She immediately apologised when she noticed the wide smile disappear from his face, adding, “I’m sorry, you don’t have to..”

    “No, no.. it’s alright,” he replied in resign, “you and I have known each other long enough, and it’s not fair for me to keep such a thing to myself.” He stiffened, and took another long sip of wine. After pausing for a minute, staring at his glass while the fire crackled and hissed in the background, he began. “My parents.. our parents had bought this place themselves after living in Manchester for nearly ten years. After they were married, and the two of us got older they decided to sell the garage and move us north, away from the city and to what they thought would be a safer place to raise two small children. Dad’s family were originally from Birmingham, and he’d grown up knowing exactly what the bigger cities were like.. the violence, drugs. He didn’t want to expose us to everything that he knew went on if he could help it. I was seven, and Julia five. We were both so excited to be moving to the country – I loved the outdoors and Julia was convinced she’d catch a fairy out in the woods.” He smiled for a moment, before taking another sip of wine and sitting closer by the fire.

    A few days after we arrived, and before enrolling in school we had pleaded with our parents to let the two of us explore the woods behind the house. We rarely got along as it was, but when we did band together there was no amount of protest the two of them could put up to stop us from getting what we wanted. Despite it being only late January, we were relentless and after a day or so our parents caved and after warning us to watch out for wolves and foxes and other forest nasties, we rugged-up in our warmest clothes, Julia insisting she wear a brand new tartan dress our parents had bought her, and set-out in the afternoon to get an idea of what was out there. You have to understand that this was quite a few years ago, and we were miles away from the nearest town. They had no reason at all to worry about there being any danger out there to us other than ourselves. We said our goodbyes to the both of them and tore out the back door, running blindly into the tall trees beyond.”

    “We ran and ran through the forest, leaping over streams and fallen trees and laughed and laughed the entire afternoon. It was amazing out there,” he recalled, staring into the fire, “We must have covered several miles, and were out there for hours before we finally realised that it was beginning to get dark. Julia became scared when we could no longer remember what direction was home, and as the sky grew darker I decided that I’d better make it to higher ground to get an idea of just how far we’d come, and which way we needed to go. I shimmied up a massive oak tree, and just as I neared the top I finally got my head over the canopy and could get an idea of where we were. I ambled around the trunk carefully, as the branches had become quite thin and despite now having a clear view, all I could see were the tops of more trees in every direction. Julia was calling out to me from the ground below, and I could tell that she was upset.. I had no idea where we were, and the last light of dusk was quickly fading away.”

    Nancy was herself growing clearly distressed at the retelling, her face a mask of worry and concern but Eric went on, “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t see a light, but just as I was about to call down to her I noticed a wide, low clearing a short distance away in the other direction. It wasn’t home, but all I could think about at this point was giving her something to focus on, and getting the two of us out of the thick wood and at least to somewhere we could feel safe. I committed the way to memory and climbed back down the trunk of the tree before telling her which way we needed to go. She was so upset, and started to cry. I took her hand and with the last light guided her toward the clearing where we at least had a chance of staying safe before somebody came looking.”

    “By the time we finally made it out of the wall of trees, it was completely dark except for a sort of weak glow which filtered down from the moon overhead. It was a crescent only about half its size, but it was enough that we could safely navigate our way through the undergrowth and across the clearing. When we finally arrived, we walked in..” He stopped for a moment and furrowed his brow, as if he wasn’t quite sure how to continue. “What happened..?” she asked softly, “Did you make it out..?”

    “Not right away,” he continued. “We walked in, and that’s when.. that’s when we saw it.” He stopped again, a look of confusion mixed with apprehension taking hold of his features. To this day he was still reluctant to recall the complete story of what had happened that night. At first he had been so sure of what had taken place, with no doubt whatsoever in his mind but over the days, weeks and months that followed and by the constant dismissal of his account by everyone he had told it to, he had neglected and almost forgotten the arch and the strange ring of stones that he and his sister had stumbled upon. His teachers, friends and even his parents had eventually convinced him that what he thought he had seen was nothing more than a daydream, a mechanism of his own imagining that he had created to deal with what had really taken place. “How could anything else be the truth..?” he thought to himself, “Julia and I were simply lost in the woods, and were separated. There can’t be more to it than that.”

    Nancy was by now more than concerned about her husband, and decided that this might be a good time to lay the conversation to rest. It was late, and they had done enough that day as it was.. it was time to call it a night. “It’s okay,” she said, “let’s finish this another time. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, and we can pick up where we left off whenever you’re ready.” She smiled and held his right hand in hers, and brushed his cheek with her left. Eric looked up at her and as he stared into her beautiful blue eyes, the pain and confusion vanished from his face. “You’re right, as usual,” he replied. He glanced at the empty glass in his left hand and then at the near-empty second bottle of red above the fireplace. “Two’s my limit anyway.” She smiled, and they cleared their glasses and bottles to the kitchen sink before returning to the guest room for a restful night’s sleep.

    Eric lay awake for hours however as his wife slept soundly beside him. He was tired and drained from the stresses of the past week, yet for some reason he just could not shut-off his mind to what had happened to Julia. It had been years since he had allowed himself to return to that place, to those recollections that he had tried so hard to forget. Yet somehow as he lay there, once more in the old house by the wood where he had lost her he was again convinced that there was more to the story than he was taught to believe. He replayed the remainder of that fateful night in his head as he stared at the ceiling, trying with all his will to recall in detail what had actually happened;

    As he and Julia left the forest wall they had found themselves in a wide natural clearing, the dark silhouettes of the trees swaying gently in the night air around it, and moved forward through the tall silver grasses that glowed almost eerily ahead of them, illuminated by the moonlight. At the centre of the clearing stood a wide and low ring of stones, and at its heart was a structure which neither of them could explain. Even now, the closest description that he could come up with was that it was a tall, grey arch of stone comprised of two wide obelisks set several feet apart and across the top, maybe five or six feet high was set a third smaller slab, which rested heavily atop the two supporting pillars. Although it was difficult to make out in the light, strange symbols were etched down the length of each pillar, and the top of the arch was adorned with words in a language that’s lettering seemed almost more to resemble an intricate pattern than a written dialect. It was to that day like nothing he had ever seen, and by the weathered state of the stones and the tall undergrowth around it had stood undisturbed and silent for an extremely long time.

    The two siblings turned to each other in amazement, immediately forgetting their predicament and walked toward the arch which stood cold and stoic against the deep blue-black of the night sky above. They crossed the circle of stones, and together reached out to touch it, if for nothing else to convince themselves that it was in fact real. They circled the structure for a moment before little Julia’s eyes widened in amazement, and she breathed, “Fairies..!” It took Eric a second before the word registered, and he scoffed back, “Fairies, unlikely.. there’s no such thing as fairies. When are you going to grow up..?” Julia scowled at this, and replied, “There is too – these are fairy stones, look at the words,” she pointed to the strange cursive lettering above them. “See..? That’s their language. You don’t know anything.” The wind had blown her thick, red hair across her face, and only her scowl and little freckled nose poked through it to convey her indignation.

    Eric scoffed again, but was too busy admiring the monument to shoot her down right away. When he had overcome his own astonishment, he instead turned and called-out into the woods, “Hey, fairies..! Come out if you’re real and prove it, if you’re not too chicken..!” Julia’s jaw dropped and she admonished her brother, who laughed her off and began teasing her for believing in make-believe and children’s stories. He poked and taunted her, and called her a baby for thinking that magical creatures actually lived in the woods behind their house. She fumed, and this only egged him on.

    Deep down he loved his sister, but he just couldn’t help himself. “You’re such a baby,” he jeered, “how can you believe such rubbish..?” Eric slapped the cold stone with his palm and again called-out into the night; “Come on, pixies, show yourselves..!” He leaned-in toward Julia, “There’s nobody here but Eric and his gullible little baby sister – and this is what I think of her fairies..!” He then proceeded to hock the biggest loogie that he could, and spat it on the nearest column. This was the final straw for Julia, who screamed, “Stop it, stop it – leave them alone..!” and chased Eric around the arch as he laughed derisively back at her.

    The two siblings ran in a wide circle around the arch, completing a full 360 degrees past the opening once, twice and a third time before Julia decided to outsmart her brother and catch him out by running through it. Eric continued around the structure and his sister turned and pivoted, leaping through the opening as he sped-up and went to circle past it a fourth time. As he rounded the far pillar he stopped and turned to face her, tired and finally ready to endure the flailing of little fists he knew was coming, but she wasn’t there. He turned again, realising that she must have doubled-back but she wasn’t ahead of him either. He stilled for several seconds and stopped to listen for her footsteps but heard nothing more than the gentle night breeze rustling through the grass and thickets, and he himself then passed through the structure, looking right and left for her. He scanned the clearing, and quickly realised that she was no longer there – she had vanished.

    He looked around nervously, panting from the chase and called-out, “Alright, I give up – stop hiding and come back.” Again, there was no sound to be heard save for his own heavy breathing and the rustling of trees in the distance. He moved out toward the stone circle, and looked behind every rock and shrub in the clearing, finding no trace of his little sister. He panicked, and called out once more, “Julia, come on – where are you..? Stop playing, I’m sorry I made fun.. come back and let’s start home.” Again nothing. She was not by the arch or behind the ring of stones. There was no way that she could have made it out to the tree line, either – she had simply disappeared. In the wan shadows cast by the moonlight, Eric went on to spend hours searching for his sister, crying and pleading into the blackness for her to come back before futility and fear of the dark caused him to finally run out into the forest and away in the vaguest of directions that he believed to be their home.

    He had eventually and miraculously arrived back at the old house in the early hours of the following morning, and was greeted by the flashing lights of several police cars and his two parents, by now worried sick for their two young children. He would never forget the looks on their faces when he arrived alone, and in the company of a search and rescue team comprising local police and volunteers had assisted in scouring the woods for days afterward for any sign of her. He had guided a number of these groups in the direction of the clearing, and although he thought he had led them several times to what he believed to resemble the one they had stumbled upon, none of them had contained an arch nor a ring of standing stones – only long, green grasses and nothing else.

    No trace of his sister or the strange stone circle were ever found again.

    Losing Julia had affected his parents deeply. Her father had taken refuge in drink, and although he could eventually control his impulse to reach for the bottle whenever the memories returned, the damage done in those few short years that followed had taken its toll, contributing heavily to his poor health and an all too early death. Eric’s entire family were plunged into turmoil as word of his sister’s disappearance became fertile ground for scandal among the other families in the small village, and although they managed to endure and somehow get on with their lives, the hushed whispers and rumour of foul play persisted long after the story had grown cold in the public eye.

    Eric sighed and rolled over in bed, deciding against feeling to try and force at least a few hours’ sleep ahead of everything he and Nancy had travelled so far to take care of in the morning. It was strange being back in the old house after so many years, but as he lay there wide awake and listened to the noises it made as it settled, a small part of him couldn’t help but feel somehow safe. In spite of how fast life might appear to pass you by in the day to day goings-on of the modern world, time spent in those places of our childhood, for better or worse always somehow seem to feel warm.

    The couple awoke to the sounds of chirping birds outside their window the next morning, just as the first rays of sunshine crept over the tops of the trees and after a home cooked breakfast set about boxing and labelling his parent’s possessions. Eric’s father had always badgered Edith to do away with the countless nic-nacs and redundant articles that she would accumulate for little to no good reason other than it being “an awful waste to throw them away,” however since his passing it seemed that she had once again returned to familiar habits. It took them both the entire day just to box up her books, ornaments and magazines set loosely about the place before they decided it was time for another breather. The two enjoyed a nice hot cup of tea as Eric once again stoked the fire, and as they sat in silence admiring the shadows it cast on the walls as it flickered, he decided in spite of his own wariness that they should get out, take a walk and experience the fresh forest air while they could.

    Nancy was less than enthusiastic however, arguing, “I’m exhausted, Eric. We’ve been at it for hours now and I’m sorry if this sounds pampered, but I’d much prefer just to sink into a nice hot bath for awhile, and de-stress. You can still go, though – I’d just rather work-out some of these knots and save my energy for round two.” She looked tired, and Eric began to wonder if she too had had trouble sleeping last night. He was nonetheless keen to stretch his legs and in honesty rather fancied the idea of a few hours of solitude, something the two of them rarely seemed to find in London. “I’ll just pop-out for a bit then, try to find a path and get the blood running again. Do you mind..?”

    “Of course not,” she replied with a smile, “after the week we’ve had a little ‘you time’ will be good. Now get lost, so I can enjoy a wine in the tub.” He laughed and kissed her on the cheek before slipping on a thick scarf and parka from his suitcase, and pulling a pair of heavy leather hiking boots onto his feet. He could already hear running water and the chink of glass as he called out goodbye, and as he left through the front door and around the back of the house he laughed again. Nancy was as tough as nails when she wanted to be, but even she seemed to be missing the modern comforts of their house back home. His breath hung about him in a thick cloud as he walked brusquely through the cold evening air, and after finding what looked to be a trail worn into the edge of the wood set off in a half-run, hoping the sudden exercise might start to warm him up.

    He had left it until late in the day to leave, and although it was only six o’clock the skies were already beginning to transform into a deep and brilliant red as the sun’s dying rays approached the horizon. Nightfall came quickly to the country, and quicker still in the Winter and after running for the better part of an hour, Eric was feeling very warm but incredibly puffed-out. He had run so fast and covered quite a lot of ground in an effort to get his blood pumping, and hadn’t even noticed that he had strayed from the forest track and veered-off into a denser, taller and more ancient part of the Wetheral that was clearly quite far from civilisation and didn’t appear at all to have been visited by anyone in the recent past. He finally stopped running and bent down, placing his hands on his knees as he doubled-over and struggled to catch his breath. “Where in heaven’s name am I..?” he thought to himself.

    His heart finally slowed, and when his breathing had returned to normal he wandered around for several minutes trying once more to find the path that had taken him there. It was beginning to get dark, and as the shadows coalesced and the air was filled with the sounds of hooting owls and other forest wildlife he started to think that his chances of getting back before nightfall were slim to none. ”She’s going to kill me this time,” he muttered to himself, and rather than waste more time trying to find the road he turned and started running again in the direction he felt he had come, believing that sooner or later he’d break through the forest wall once more, if not at the house then at least a short walk from it. As he ran he caught a glimpse of a crescent moon as it peeked through the branches above, and he was thankful that as the daylight completely disappeared he still had some way of seeing where he was going.

    After ten or fifteen more minutes however, panic started to really set in. “Surely it would start to thin-out by now,” he thought to himself, “I’m such an idiot for not taking my phone.. though I probably wouldn’t get reception out here anyway.” Just as he considered stopping once more to take further stock of his options, he noticed that the trees ahead were indeed beginning to open out, and thirty of forty yards in front of him he could just see the moonlight cutting stronger through the near-blackness, indicating that he was almost where he needed to be. He pushed himself into a sprint, desperate to get out of the woods and back to a tall glass of wine by the fire and within seconds he reached the edge of the forest and bounded out into the open night air once more.

    He slowed to a trot as he detached himself from the darkness, and it took him almost a full minute to realise that he hadn’t actually reached the end. Instead, he had stumbled into a wide clearing even deeper in the woods, ringed by the imposing black backdrop of the tree line and which was bathed only in the soft white moonlight from up above, and nothing else. Eric wiped the sweat from his brow and rubbed his eyes as he looked out across the clearing, and immediately a deep shiver ran down his spine. Far-off across the opening, and if he wasn’t somehow dreaming he could just make out the silhouette of a wide ring of low stones which ran along the ground like crooked teeth and formed a staggered circle. In the centre of the circle stood a tall, imposing structure which although he could not readily identify it as being so from a distance, his mind screamed out and he knew that he had somehow once again stumbled upon the same secret glade that he and Julia had visited in their youth, and at its heart still stood that same mysterious arch that they had found on the night she disappeared, more than twenty years earlier.

    Tears filled his eyes as his body caught up with him, and all he could say, over and over was, “No, no.. it can’t be..!” He walked across the clearing and as he reached the henge around it he was shaking. It was real, and he was right. Somewhere and somehow, after all these years he had returned. He went to cross the awkward stone ring, slowing as he neared it and the entire forest which had become so animated beyond the trees seemed suddenly to have hushed completely into a cold silence in which you could have heard a pin drop. Even in the pale light, he could still make out the same strange and wonderful symbols which extended across the central arch and down the length of either pillar, and stopped only a few feet away finding himself somehow terrified to even touch it. Memories flooded back, and the pain of losing her, Julia on that night so long ago burned inside him. He considered for a moment turning and running away from the clearing, as far away and to anywhere else but something deep within him forced him to stay and investigate further.

    It was just as he remembered. The monument stood tall, grey and cold against the dark skies above it, and when he finally plucked up the courage to reach out and touch it, a soft breeze started up once more at the forest’s edge which gently shook the tops of the trees and chilled the sweat on his face and neck. It was real. He stood before the arch, his trembling hands convincing him that he wasn’t dreaming, and in the clear and surreal warmth of the crescent moonlight he found himself speaking to it without even realising.

    “Why,” he asked of the night, without expecting an answer, “Why did you take her from me..?”

    Tears rolled down his cheeks as he dropped his head and stood against the pillar. As years of repressed anger and sorrow finally came to the surface, he leant his head against the cold stone and finally allowed himself to let it all out. The loss and loneliness, the sadness and guilt all poured out of him and away into the darkness like an awful, painful torrent. It was as he did that he began to feel a strange sensation wash over him, an idea which grew as a feeling that somehow seemed to come not from the arch or his own will, but that of the stone circle.

    He stepped back in shock as a voiceless voice suddenly called out to him from the clearing, as strong and vivid as it was beautiful, and he stumbled and fell to the ground in amazement. When he touched the stone, when he placed his head against it, someone or some thing had called out to him. Still shaking and not entirely sure why, he arose once more and held the arch, resting his temple against the weird runes carved deep into it and this time stayed to hear, to feel just what it was that he was meant to know. All of a sudden, images and sensations flooded his mind – beautiful and haunting visions of dancing people and smiling children from a far distant past which erupted in his head and cascaded down through his entire body like a clear and calming waterfall, and he found that for several long moments and in spite of his fear and trepidation he could not have moved if he wanted to.

    The trilithon had stood for so long, silent, alone.. waiting. For an unfathomable time the arch had endured, absorbing the hopes and dreams, the love, joy and laughter of those that came and danced before it, and those that were still yet to come. As he touched it, Eric too was overwhelmed with those same thoughts and images which burst into his consciousness in a flash of intense white light and whisked him away to a place beyond time, space and reality for all of what felt like a lifetime, before it finally let go of its hold and suddenly, somehow he knew what he needed to do.

    He drew back from the structure, lined himself up and walked almost impulsively in a wide and deliberate circle around it, halfway between the arch and the henge first once, and then twice. As he walked, the gentle breeze in the clearing became a gale, and then a roar as he finally closed a third and final circle, returning once more to face it head-on, and as he did the same winds again died down and the strange and beautiful aura that the arch had gifted him drained away completely from his body, and simply dissipated back into the clearing. For a long moment, Eric just stood before it, waiting for something to happen. He alone, and the arch inert. Just as quickly as the visions had left him, skepticism crept back into his thoughts and he began to feel awkward, and then angry for having allowed himself to fall for the lure of its mystery and his own nostalgia.

    Just as he was feeling entirely foolish and about to consider leaving the clearing, his eyes became drawn a small, dark figure peering out at him from behind the far pillar. He panicked as it moved, and for a split second feared that some small creature had come from out of the woods in all the commotion. He called out, “Hey..! Hey, come here..!” and as his cry rang-out and he cautiously made his way around the structure for a closer look, she moved from the shadows and into the moonlight to show herself.

    Eric could not control the flood of emotion then that hit him like a sledgehammer as little Julia stepped forward from the darkness and stared up at him with wide and terrified eyes. It was like a thousand dreams that he had had since that fateful night, as he tortured himself over and over again since she was taken. Still wearing the same blue and green tartan dress and little black shoes, his sister stood trembling before him, and asked, “Who are you, where’s my brother..?”

    He stood silent and in shock for several moments, unable to comprehend just what was happening. Somehow, across the infinite expanse of time the arch had returned her. By a blessing beneath the same moonlight under which she was taken so long ago, it had called out to him and he had answered. He knew, and at the same time could never know why or how it had happened, but in what was only the blink of an eye for her and a lifetime for him, somehow it had brought them back together once more. Such was its nature. She was clearly terrified, and he became acutely aware of what she must have felt and so replied, “He.. he’s gone, Julia. He had to leave.” He didn’t know what else to say.

    She too had tears in her eyes, and before he could say anything else she spoke again, “We were walking, and we got lost. We’ve been out here for ages, and.. I just want to go home. Will you take me home..?” He nearly broke down completely before every fibre of his being commanded him to stay composed, and he replied, “Yes, darling – oh yes you lovely thing.. come here, let’s go home.”

    Still shaking, he reached his hand out to her and she took it, and together they walked hand-in-hand from the clearing, out of the shadows of the past and into the silent woods beyond.

    Nancy had finished her bath hours ago, and was now curled up in front of the fire with a book while she waited for Eric to come home. He had been gone now for several hours, and although she had no real reason to worry, if she was being honest with herself the woods behind the old house were a little creepy, and made her nervous. There was something strange about how close the trees grew together, the way the wind coursed through the boughs almost like the sounds of breathing and it somehow seemed as though even daylight had a hard time breaking through between them. Shortly before midnight, she found herself considering whether to call the police when a knock finally came at the front door and she placed her book face-down on the coffee table before rising to answer. “Who is it..?” she called nervously through the glass, her hand tightly clasping the handle.

    “It’s Eric,” he replied. “I’m sorry I took so long, but I’ll explain.” She opened the door and was immediately surprised to see him standing there, holding the hand of a young girl with long, flowing red hair and who was wearing the most unusual tartan dress. She was relieved to see him, and was strangely drawn to the little girl who beamed back at her with the biggest and warmest smile she had ever seen. Her joy was contagious, and all she could do was reply through her own, “I’m glad you’re back, I was beginning to worry.. and who is this pretty little thing..?” Julia giggled and Eric reached out to take Nancy’s hand;

    “Nancy, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

    A Third Teaser Chapter from the ‘Alluvion’ Novel

    .. here is a third teaser instalment from a work in progress:

    03. The Council of Seven

    Ten or twelve yards west of the central hearth, the two approached a large meeting hall some six or seven cubits tall, fifteen wide and around twenty-five deep. Obviously the central meeting point to the settlement, Skara could not help but be awestruck at the size and craftsmanship involved in erecting such a structure. Neither the people of Nevalı Çori, or indeed Çatalhöyük for that matter had ever had need nor reason to commission or occupy such a building. He was truly impressed, and confused for not only was the structure exceedingly large compared to those of his home, but its inner walls were lined with wide shelves on which rested hundreds of strange vessels. Vessels which, unless some magic had clouded his vision, appeared themselves to be invisible and which contained strange and colourful contents. He also smelled the enticing aroma of roasting meat wafting from another building nearby, and began to think that perhaps they had taken a wrong turn.

    He raised a finger as they stood by the entryway, prepared to ask one of many questions that he already had, however the other sensed his inquiry and instead first beckoned him to enter and sit at a large stone bench in the centre of the room. “First thing’s first, valley man,” he said, “as discussed, I would introduce you to the leaders of our order to speak further of last night, before we eat. Please, join us for a short time.” One by one, six other cloaked figured made their way into the building from a discreet rear entrance, and also took up places at the bench. In spite of the cold air within the stone room, Skara began to sweat. When all were seated, a single Watcher at the far end of the table nodded to Yamnaya, prompting him to speak:

    “Swiderians, Solutreans and Gravettians,” he began, addressing several particular individuals as he did, “we today honour an oath pledged at the time of turning, and in tribute to the human mothers, fathers and benefactors who bore us, and have played a part in our order, our kinship and indeed perhaps by well-veiled mercy, our continued part in this ever-changing world. Brothers, I thank you for indulging me this meeting, and honour your contribution.” At this the other six Watchers balled their right hands into fists and without warning, smashed them down onto the bench, causing a resonating boom throughout the open space of the building and scaring Skara half to death in the process. Yamnaya went on:

    “Our world as we well know faces a grave and hastening chapter. We have been blessed with the foresight to know of what force hastens to destroy the lower lands, and close the present cycle of time in preparation for renewal. We know too that the future of our world rests not in the blood of the Ancients, dilute as it remains but in the ascension of men to the mantle of power, however this force, Usumgala would put an end to the line of men. Without man, so many thousands of years of struggle would all be for nothing.” He paused momentarily, and Skara noticed several of the hooded figures around the table nod their heads in agreement.

    “We know what must be done, Yamnaya,” said the Watcher at the head of the table, “what we must decide is how it will be carried out. We know that the men of the green valley might be saved at least in part, whether by their own volition or otherwise by our interference, when the time is right. What we must decide is whether it is worth the sacrifice of those men across the sea to focus all of our attention here, and whether if we divide our attention might we fail in securing the bloodlines of either of them. We simply lack the numbers to do both, and to do both efficiently.” Again, several of the other Watchers murmured in agreement with the speaker at the far end of the table, and one whose name was Amagi questioned why they had even bothered to meet in the first place. Yamnaya started again, and seemed to have a plan that he had not yet revealed to the rest of the council:

    “Your concerns have merit, brother Modvin,” he spoke loudly and clearly, “however this is what we have been preparing for, and today is why I have brought this man of the valley into the council at Uru-Mah. I am fully aware,” he continued, “that those of the Clovis have precious little time, if enough at all to have their own bloodlines and culture preserved, even if we are to depart immediately to travel across the seas. However I believe that it is possible. I believe that at our current progress, we are ahead of expectations for having completed this compound, and that were we to complete the necessary arrangements, we might secure the safety of those beyond the sea by trusting the men of the South with their own safehood, here in the rise and in the hills beyond.”

    Skara was beginning to develop a headache, and was understanding little if anything of what these giants of men were talking about. What were these preparations Yamnaya was referring to, and of preservation from what..? Surely this disaster was beyond their ability to defend, this had been discussed earlier. And who or what were the Clovis..? And what did he mean, travel across the seas..? He rested his head in his hands, as though the weight of their conversation had filled it beyond carriage and stared at the polished stone bench top. “What do they want from me..?” he lamented quietly to himself.

    “Brother Okmi,” started Modvin, addressing a particularly sullen Watcher to his right, “you have been charged with maintaining our fleet for time immemorial. Tell us, how long would we need to travel to cross the waters of the Western Sea..?” He turned to the figure, one who had neither muttered nor nodded approval at either man earlier in the discourse, rather had kept his strange head down and, Skara had only just noticed, his eyes fixed on the valley man. He coughed momentarily and spoke:

    “The fleet has been ready for an age,” he said slowly, not shifting his gaze from Skara, “and would make port first at the Northern Empire within a week, returning to the region we know as Caral-Supe another three days hence.”

    “And if Yamnaya’s plan were to pass, how late would we remain at Uru-Mah before losing this window to the West..?” Okmi’s countenance dropped, and his heavy brow wrinkled as he considered the question thoroughly, “We must depart the Eastern Shores within twelve days, and must not linger a day longer.” He dropped his gaze momentarily from the valley-man, and the rest of the council murmured in discourse of the situation in which they found themselves.

    “Yamnaya,” he turned back to him, “do you truly believe that the men of the valley can shoulder the burden you would place upon them..? Does this one, Skara, possess the ability to rally his kinsmen of the South to shelter within the compound at Uru-Mah..?” The remainder of the council turned then and stared at Skara, who felt as if he was sweltering in their gaze, six sets of piercing blue eyes searching deeper than flesh for what they sought to find in him. Yamnaya paused for a longer time than Skara could bear, and locked eyes with Modvin, announcing, “He is the one whom I have chosen, and him it must be. There is no-one else.” Skara felt physically ill, but felt that it was finally time for answers, and spoke:

    “Watchers of the North,” he began, his voice breaking as he tried to keep his composure, “I know not of what plans you speak, nor what it is you would have me do. I am but a simple hunter from the valley, and have only last night learned that the children of the Ancients and men do in fact still dwell in the high hills, but I beg of you, tell me what it is you want from me. I would know, and tell you whether the burden is mine to bear.” He felt foolish, and could not help but do so in the company of their order. The council murmured once more, and Yamnaya’s face dropped slightly as he realised that Skara had still failed to fully comprehend the purpose behind their invitation.

    “Our order have discovered,” began Modvin, “that you are the head of your village, the leader of the men and women of the place you call Nevalı Çori, is this correct..?” The valley man knew his answer, and said, “In our leader’s stead, I am the head of our village, yes..” to more murmurs from the council, which prompted Skara to stiffen, “and until such time as our chieftain returns from the capital in two moons hence, I am the one who leads.” Modvin continued, “Then, Skara of the valley” he softened, somewhat, “what we offer to you and your kin might be your only hope for enduring the events which those stars have prophesied.” Modvin raised himself from the stone bench, and using his hands to gesticulate, continued: “This settlement, this compound to which you have been invited has been prepared by us, the Watchers so that man may survive the catastrophe which threatens to destroy us all. These walls, these hearths and megaliths have all been engineered by those secrets passed-down to us by our forebears who, in their greatness even so many centuries ago foresaw the coming of the dragon which is of seven tails so that men might persist upon the Earth long after the flames of a great burning have subsided.”

    Skara was finally beginning to comprehend the enormity of the responsibilities that Yamnaya had promised him, and the sacrifices that the strange men of the order were making on his behalf. Stunned and not quite sure of what to say in reply, he sat wide-eyed and said nothing, until Yamnaya spoke again:

    “Skara, the sands of time run short (a reference which he failed to recognise, but understood in context), and there can be no delay if we are to save your people from annihilation. We have built this city so that you and your kin might hide from the dragon, and return to the world once the peril has passed you by.” He turned and spoke directly to Skara, his pale blue eyes staring directly into his, searching for solidarity, “Can you rally the men and women of your kin to take shelter here, before the new Moon rises..? Can you save the ones you love from the endless Winter, where our forebears failed theirs..?”

    Skara’s head was spinning. The scale of what was to come to pass, the thought of losing forever the life he and his family had built at Nevalı Çori and the monumental task of convincing those he had grown to call his kin to likewise leave their world and everything they knew behind was impossible. Impossible, but if what these strange men were saying were true, the only way to avert certain disaster. He stood and paused for a long moment, looking around him at the strange faces of the Watchers of the council, one by one before replying with the only answer that a rational man could give;

    “Aye, and damned if this is the truth.” He looked down at the cold stone in front of him, and then back to meet Yamnaya’s gaze, “I will return with my kin to your compound, and if it is the only way, I will bring the villagers out from their homes also, and to your walls for safety. I will do this, because it seems.. that there is no other way.” His reply exhausted him to say, and prompted solemn nods from all of the council of seven before him, even Okmi who for the first time broke his stare completely from the valley man to the stone bench below. He dreaded already the task ahead, and doubted deeply that any would follow him. And why should they..? If not for his own experiences, of seeing the Watchers themselves for the first time in an age and the awesome architecture of their compound he would not have believed it either. He sighed deeply, before asking one last question of the council; “So what now must be done, where do we go from here..?”

    “Valley man,” boomed Yamnaya with a broad smile, moving toward the rear entrance to the hall, “come, and I will show you the way.”

    Skara stayed amongst the Watchers at Uru-Mah until well into the night, at last sharing a hearty meal and speaking at length with the council, and learning of the secrets which promised to keep the compound safe from harm following the wrath of the dragon. Though he understood very little of their lengthy explanations, he left convinced that theirs was the only refuge against the coming event, and after a heavy meal and a restful night’s sleep beside a warm hearth, he was bade farewell by Yamnaya, Modvin and the rest of the council early the next morning.

    Before he departed the plateau, Yamnaya gifted him a pouch containing several strange vials and ointments, warning him, “These elements I gift to you are given to insure against any who might wish to deny you safe passage to your village, and your return to the plateau within the fortnight. They are varied in their uses; some merely for the healing and restoration of one’s constitution,” he gestured towards several lighter-coloured jars to one side of the pouch, “and others that are.. less stable.” He indicated several round glass containers without lids, designed it would seem to be thrown rather than opened, or their contents removed.

    “This,” he removed one small and almost perfectly spherical vial, clear and seemingly containing of nothing but air, “this is perhaps the most volatile but powerful of our elements, and should be treated with due respect. Much of the splendour of the great cities of old is owed to it, and without it our ancestors might never have had the ability to construct an empire on the scale that they did. Should you ever find yourself somehow trapped, and the only way of escape to move through solid stone.. you will do well to remember to use this. Of it, I can say no more that you would understand.” The vial felt extremely heavy in Skara’s hands, despite its size and something in the back of his mind told him that this should be kept close at hand, for whatever unknown need might arise.

    Yamnaya then bid Skara good luck, reciting a swift prayer in a dialect that was completely alien to him and directed him south from the compound. Skara left through a stone arch at the northern edge of the plateau, and marched with a determined resolve across the grassy plain, through the quarry and out over the ridge of the clearing. He made haste to return to the path that he and Andar had walked the morning before and quickly but carefully made his way down the hillside, dodging and weaving through the thickets and low-lying scrub and eventually arriving at the hillock by the campsite once more. The descent had taken several hours, and by the time he neared the campsite it was already well past mid-morning. “They must surely believe me dead by now,” he mused, “or else taken elsewhere by the Watchers in the hills. I hope against hope they stayed, delayed as I am..”

    As he made his way over the crest, he was suddenly stopped dead in his tracks by the fearsome war-cry of a dozen raised voices, yelling loudly from the far ends of spears pointed directly at him. He froze, startled for a moment before recognising that it was just the rest of his hunting party that faced him, wild-eyed and with their bodies and faces painted with the fresh blood of slaughtered game, as if they were prepared to meet in battle with the men of the hills. He immediately started to laugh, in spite of himself as they looked completely ridiculous; hunters and gatherers, grown men with crude weapons in their hands and poorly applied war-paint. Upon noticing that he was laughing, the rest of the party looked around at each other’s faces, and they too began to laugh. No-one could have said they looked any more threatening than a group of filthy children, faces smeared with food and hardly at all frightening. There were however several quiet sighs of relief at seeing Skara return alone.

    After several moments, Andar was the first to speak: “Brother, o brother, you gave us quite the fright, you fool..! Where have you been, and what have you seen across the flat.. and what is that silly looking sack you bring, tied to your waist..?” He pointed at the pouch provided to him by Yamnaya, which Skara hastily tucked away into his cloak and out of sight. “Never you mind that,” he replied, “I would tell you of the men of the plateau upon our journey back for I am weary of this travel. Here I am returned and in good health, let us leave this place and return to our kin. That is of course if any of you have had the time to actually hunt while not playing dress-ups in my absence..!” Such a challenge might have raised anger on any other occasion, but no sooner had he finished speaking than the group parted in front of him to reveal four enormous auroch that the group had dragged to the camp late in the evening before, already tied and staked to be carried back to the village.

    “By Enki and Anu..!” he exclaimed, “I knew the herd could not have moved far from the valley. This is more than would last the village for days – who of you is responsible for felling these magnificent beasts..?” The two sinewy brothers Gidri and Gizzal stepped forward, backs arched and chests proudly puffed-out as they stood to claim their kill. “We tracked the herd just west of the plateau, and struck as they stopped to drink at the meltwater where several streams met,” started Gidri with Gizzal, the younger of the two continuing, “We struck-down one of them each and dazed by the afternoon sunlight, two more were slain before the rest ran away. We found the others and brought them from the Eastern slopes to help move them.”

    The two were clearly proud of themselves, both knowing that as the kill was theirs, two of the choicest shares would be given to the Temen household upon their return. Skara nodded his head in appreciation, confirming, “You two will indeed be given the hind and belly of these beasts, so as you choose. There is however one problem I see with your choosing to slaughter four of these creatures for a party our size. How by Ninurta’s grace are we expected to carry them all back..? We’d need twice our number..!”

    They all laughed, knowing well that only two could be returned to the village among the thirteen hunters and began butchering one of the remaining two to cook and eat their fill before departing, so as to waste as little as possible. The final untouched auroch they presented to their Gods upon a pyre in sacrificial thanks for providing once more the game they sought, and with which they might feed their families, at least for a short time.

    The group cleared their camp, packed up their weapons and utensils and departed south again. The march home would be a slow and dangerous one, as not only were they severely handicapped, carrying two one-ton creatures between them but also the threat from raiders and wild-men on the roads through the valley was all too real. As always, the duty rested on Skara to raise the group’s spirits and momentum as they marched, and he decided to tell them part of what had transpired across the plateau, careful only to speak of the Watchers and their city and not of the impending doom that called him there. He spoke at length of their strange features, the structures of the compound and of Yamnaya’s visit to him the night before, explaining that they had merely desired to make contact with the men of the valley, in the hopes of making trade at a later time.

    “Trade, with those freaks..?” said Andar, spitting in the grass as he did, “They’ve slipped you something in your wine if you’d even consider that. There’s nothing in the world those half-breed monsters – if that’s even what they were – have to offer us. If everything we’ve been told is true, we have absolutely no reason to return to that god-forsaken place, ever.. unless with warriors from the capital to drive them back into the mountains..!” He cursed and mumbled a great deal more about old tales and bad ideas, before adding, “You should have come back to the hunt with the rest of us, rather than wasting a full day and night entertaining those beasts of men.”

    Skara wished his brother was right, and by his reaction to talk of the Watchers decided that it would be a monumental task convincing anyone of the valley to return with him to the plateau. He knew he had to figure out an angle by which he could convince his family that what the Watchers had told him was the truth, and if he could convince his family at least, he could avoid returning to Yamnaya empty-handed. For he knew their time was short, and that the stakes could not be set any higher.

    The group reached the village at sunset of that same evening, entering the central plaza amidst cheers from the women and children left behind as they caught sight of the massive creatures that the party had brought back with them. Everyone there knew the value of the auroch. Unlike the bison or gazelle, its hide was extremely tough and thick and could be used not only for clothing but as a strong leather to seal the wooden houses of the village. Its fat would be used for many purposes by the villagers including weatherproofing and the treatment of clothing and the meat was of a far greater quantity and more enjoyable quality than any smaller game in the area. Their brothers, fathers and husbands had done well this time, and they knew it, beaming as they welcomed them back.

    The kill was placed as always in the central plaza, for the first butchery to take place and the larger portions of the animals to be divided. The men of the hunting party returned to their homes and families and Skara, tackled to the ground on-sight by Harna and Kirti as soon as they saw him took his children back to their mother and himself to a well-earned wash and rest. Sura as always welcomed her husband back with a strong embrace, and for the longest time that he would since remember, Skara enjoyed their company long into a warm and peaceful night at their humble home in the valley. Whatever the coming days might have brought, the memory of those nights spent together as a family were and would remain the best of his days.

    The next morning, the Tau family awoke to the loud buzz of friends and neighbours outside their home as they ran and conversed loudly of visitors from the West. The sound of the footfalls of many heavy feet marching into the village from the open road to the capital roused Skara and Sura from their slumber, the children having already awoken and left through the doorway to greet the visitors and they shook the sleep from their own eyes to join them. “Who could this be,” he thought, “to arrive so early in the day, having marched through the night..?” Sura must have been thinking the same thing, asking of him, “He-Xur is not due to return to us for another two Moons, is this not what was decided..?” She looked at him with worrisome eyes, as if he might have had an answer. They both hurriedly clothed themselves in robes and leather shoes and made their way out of their home and on in the direction of the Western gate to see what all the fuss was about. Skara had hidden the sack provided to him by Yamnaya in a safe compartment underneath their house, however had kept one distinct vial with him since their encounter, hidden deep in the folds of his robes. As they rounded a corner, the two of them ran smack bang into a crowd of villagers that had also gathered.

    It was in fact He-Xur who had returned to the village a great deal earlier than expected. Their leader had arrived in full dress, sporting a long and flowing cloak and ceremonial headdress, as brilliant upon his head as it was pompous and had brought with him several dozen representatives from Çatalhöyük. Those with him looked more like soldiers than Skara was used to seeing in the valley and he was surprised and concerned at what had brought their chieftain home at such short notice, and why he had returned with such a show of force. He-Xur nodded in recognition at Skara as he passed their quarter in rank and made for the direction of the plaza. Skara bid his family to follow, and they and all of their friends and neighbours made their way behind the troupe to welcome them and discover what all of this meant.

    The party entered the plaza in formation, and the soldiers surrounding He-Xur parted to the north and south of the square, holding order while the leader of their group took to a raised podium at its center, and addressed the smiling and cheering crowd for the first time since his departure more than a month earlier.

    A Short, Sad Story for a Dark and Stormy Night

    ‘CLOSURE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    Martin threw his apartment door open with all his might and tossed his briefcase recklessly across the living room. It bounced off of the back of his tattered brown corduroy couch and opened, spilling its contents – pens, papers and wrappers out onto the floor and knocked a half glass of water off his coffee table, which smashed as it fell. He swore viciously before entering and slamming the door shut behind him, and made his way to the broom closet in the hallway.

    Things just hadn’t been the same for him since she left, and each day seemed to bring another trial or disappointment, another parking fine to cover or registration to pay. He swept up the broken glass from the floor and threw it in the kitchen bin, collecting a beer from the fridge on his way back as he went to slump on the sofa and switch on the TV, just as he had done every other night that week. He only stayed there for about an hour and didn’t even finish his bottle – he had a splitting headache which was set-off again by the flickering light and the events of the day which weighed heavy on his mind.

    Martin had been suspended again from his job as a client representative for a large pharmaceutical company. It was only Wednesday, and he had arrived at the office late for the fourth morning in two weeks, unshaven and still half-drunk from the night before. He had chosen to take refuge in drink since things with Sarah had ended, and his constant mid-week benders soon caught up with him. “Who can blame me..?” He had thought to himself, “Turning up each and every morning to the same dead faces, squeezing budgets thanklessly for every last dollar they can add to their salaries. Who needs it, this is good – I’m glad I’m gone.”

    He turned off the TV and tipped the rest of his beer into the sink, setting the empty bottle up on the window ledge with all of the others. As he did, his eyes wandered across to a photo of the two of them; him and Sarah and he picked it up and stared at it for a long while. The picture was taken several years earlier at a time when everything was still new, and only love seemed to matter. They were still just kids when they first met, and were each other’s first true love. He smiled for a moment before fresher memories prevailed – memories of screaming, crying and fighting.

    The two had been together for almost four years, quickly falling deeply in love and spending hours simply just talking or walking hand in hand along the many roads and boardwalks by the quay near to where they lived. Their relationship was intense and before they knew it, they were moving-in together. He had a great job, and she seemed happy.

    He still couldn’t understand how everything had fallen apart so quickly. It almost seemed as though one minute they were inseparable, alone against the world and completely content and the next, they were shouting at each other, screaming at each other accusations of infidelity, threats and mistrust.. like they had suddenly become two completely different people.

    Martin had loved her deeply, still loved her deeply. It had been nearly three months since she had packed her bags and left, and it felt as though his entire world had fallen apart. He was too self-righteous to follow after her of course, too proud to take a knee and apologise for everything he’d said, everything he’d done. All it might have taken was to hold her close, look deep into her beautiful green eyes and be the bigger man. Instead he simply stayed and watched her go.

    He put the picture down, tears now in his eyes and took a good hard look at himself in the dark reflection of the kitchen window. It was black outside, and raining. His white collared shirt was crumpled, and slowly morphing into a pale shade of grey. Sarah had always taken care of the laundry, and he never cared to learn. His face was a mess of thick, dark stubble retained from over the weekend which he hadn’t bothered to shave, and two dark circles sat under his eyes, a testament to many restless nights spent tossing and turning in anger and reflection.

    After several minutes Martin turned away, pulling a cigarette and lighter from his pocket and sparking it up. He walked over and sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. He had thought that things would get better, that he’d land on his feet and maybe even find someone else. Sure, there were plenty of women out there and he was a young, successful guy – why not..? He had soon however found himself taking home friends of friends and girls from the local strip, none of which he even felt the slightest desire to see again once they were through. It made sense in theory but for him, there was and would only ever be one girl, one true love. And he had let her go.

    In his ups and downs following their breakup, Martin had begun to collect ingredients almost subconsciously for what had on several occasions seemed the only solution for the crippling pain he had grown to feel. Through contacts in his industry, he had purchased a small container of potassium cyanide crystals, which could have been easily dissolved into any drink, resulting in a quick and relatively painless cocktail. “Like slipping into a batch of ice-water,” his contact had said. He should have known better and wasn’t often given to such dark thoughts, but on this night he found everything to hit home all at once.

    He knew that she would never take him back, not after everything that he had said. He had a sharp tongue when he was angry or upset, and took a small amount of pride in his ability to wound others when the need arose. But never her. The company was deliberating whether to let him go, he knew this. His productivity and success on the job had been on a gradual decline since the separation, and he no longer cared for his job nor the people he worked with. In fact, as he sat and stared into space he had difficulty remembering the last time he cared about anything. He was growing numb, empty and bitter, as though he was disconnecting from the rest of the world.

    “I’m just so damn tired..” he said softly to himself.

    Dark thoughts filled the emptiness within him and he dragged himself up from the table and wandered out to the laundry, where he opened the cabinet beneath the sink and pulled out a bottle. Potassium cyanide.. tasteless, odourless. He closed the cupboard and brought the bottle back to the kitchen, where he pulled another beer from the fridge before sitting back down at the table, eyeing the two of them off for several minutes. He suddenly felt extremely cold, and his eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light of the living room. “Do it,” a voice called-out in the back of his mind, “jump before it crashes.. there’s nothing left for you here except ruin.”

    His heart was racing. He had considered doing this hundreds of times before, but now finally felt like he was truly at the end of his rope. Just as he was reaching for the smaller bottle, his hands shaking he was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Fuck,” he said aloud, the noise startling him. He brushed the small bottle quickly into the drawer at the end of the table and closed it, got up and walked to the door, mumbling as he did. “I swear to God, this had better be important..” He reached up and undid the lock at the top and clicked the handle over, before opening the door and speaking through his cigarette, “Yeah, what is it..?”

    It was Sarah. He couldn’t believe his eyes. She was standing there, a small purse slung about her left shoulder as she stood smiling a nervous smile, looking as beautiful then as the day he met her. As beautiful as every memory he had of her. His cigarette dropped from his mouth, a long stem of ash bursting onto his shirt as it fell to the floor and he quickly moved to squash it with his foot to prevent it from burning the carpet. She smiled weakly and said, “Hi Marty, can I come in..?”

    He was dumbfounded, and only just had the wits to mumble, “Hey yeah – sure, come on in,” before gesturing and moving aside to let her pass. What in God’s name was she doing here..? He hadn’t seen or spoken to her since she had left, and as the two didn’t share any mutual friends he had no idea that she had even thought of stopping by. He invited her to take a seat in the living room, and cleared away the pile of papers from his suitcase that he had thrown onto the second seat. “What on earth does she want..?” he thought to himself.

    Sarah took-off her purse and sat down on the sofa, looking around the room as she did. They had shared the apartment for nearly two years, and she was clearly surprised to see the state that he had let it get to; clothes and documents were strewn about the coffee table, plates, bowls and dishes sat unwashed in the kitchen and the carpet had clearly not been vacuumed in weeks, nor the ashtray on the side table emptied. He sparked up another cigarette, and offered her one which she gladly took and thanked him for. After several moments, she was the first to speak:

    “It’s good to see you,” she started, “I was meaning to drop by earlier, but things have been a little hectic. I’m glad to see you’re keeping the place tidy,” she joked, giving him a faint smile. Of everything that he missed about her, her smile was definitely the hardest to live without. She had two dimples either side of her mouth that deepened every time, and when she flashed her perfect teeth he felt like he would melt. He stared at her for a few seconds, taking an exaggerated drag of his cigarette before realising that he hadn’t replied and was beginning to make her uncomfortable.

    “Sorry about that, I’ve been pretty busy myself. If I knew you were coming..” He took another drag to calm his nerves, and so did she. He continued, “How have you been..? It feels like.. months.” He felt awkward and unsure of what exactly to say, not expecting to see her ever again, let alone tonight. “I’ve been well,” she replied, “Work is going well, and I’ve been sharing a room with Felicity, on the other side of town. Keeping busy. How about you, I’ve asked around and no-one says they’ve seen you in weeks. Are you still working with..” She searched her memory and couldn’t recall the name of the company he worked for, but Martin could not fault her for that. It was enough that she had put up with his stories of his colleagues and the stresses of his job when they were together without remembering every little detail.

    “Harris Davison, yeah. I’m still there, same old same old,” he said, drily. “It’s great to see you again, you’re looking.. you’re looking great.” He managed a weak smile. “What are you here for, is there something you’ve left behind, or..?” He immediately regretted saying this, although he wanted desperately to know what she had dropped by for after all this time. He just didn’t want to give her the impression that she was not welcome, and chastised himself. “Idiot, just let her speak..!” He thought to himself.

    “Actually, I just came by to talk,” she responded, taking another long drag of her cigarette, “about us.” Martin couldn’t believe it. His heart raced and his mind wandered as he considered what “about us” might have meant. Did she want to try to patch things up..? Or maybe drive the wedge in deeper – he knew what some women were like. He couldn’t believe however that Sarah would go to such an effort out of the blue just to try to make things worse. He was starting to sweat, and ashed his cigarette before replying as confidently as he could, “Okay, cool – yeah let’s do that.”

    The two then talked at length about their relationship, about the problems that they had faced and the way they had handled them. Both he and Sarah expressed their regret at how things had played out, Martin conceding that he had approached the stresses of his job poorly, and how earlier experiences had resulted in the immature way in which he dealt with her friends and co-workers. Of the jealousies and insecurities which caused him to lose his temper and to take it out on her. She too apologised for her distance and explained how she would react to his moods by simply walking out and leaving him alone to cool off, and how she had learnt so much about herself in their time apart.

    They spoke for hours, well into the night as the rain picked up outside and flashes of distant lightning from the building storm illuminated the edges of his windows from the corner of his eye. All the while they talked, Martin felt the shadows in the room growing darker. He was tired, supposing that a major hangover and a lack of decent sleep was causing his vision to cloud and he thought nothing of it. As the conversation went on, he began to feel as though maybe, just maybe they were on the road to working out their differences, and he started to relax and even to smile, laughing as they began to recall more pleasant memories of their time together.

    Sarah was driving the conversation now, and it became apparent to Martin that the reason for her stopping by was not just because she was nostalgic, or looking for the closure that most women seem to strive for. She had genuinely missed him, loved him and was testing to see if they could once again make things work. He could not have been happier, and talked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He also began to feel a little self-conscious – he was unkempt, exhausted and still wearing the same crumpled shirt that he had on when he was suspended from work only hours earlier. He stopped their conversation to say as much, and asked Sarah if she wouldn’t mind if he popped around the corner for a quick shower, before they continued. “It’s been a long day, and I feel like an animal.” he said.

    “It’s okay, Marty,” she smiled, “I’m here now, and I’m not going anywhere.” He smiled back, ashed another cigarette and made his way into the hallway and to the bathroom, his heart still beating at a hundred miles an hour as he searched the linen closet for a fresh towel. As he stood in the hallway however, he again felt the same claustrophobic feeling that he had had earlier, as though the shadows in the corners of the floor and ceiling were growing, and the dim light from the crack of the bathroom door slowly fading to grey.

    He was uneasier this time, and the feeling was much more intense than before. He tried to shake it off, and marched quickly into the bathroom where he turned on all the lights and the heat lamp and took a long, hot shower. It was mid-Winter, and even with the heating in his apartment on its highest setting he felt like he was freezing to death.

    He leapt out of the shower and quickly dried himself, pausing only to swish a measure of mouth wash around and spray deodorant before rushing back to his bedroom to rummage around for clean clothes. This took a lot longer than it should have, but he found a pair of fresh jeans and a T-shirt and returned to the living room, relieved to find that she was still there, sitting on their couch and reading the TV guide with her two slender legs folded up beneath her.

    He sat down beside her once more, smiling as he did. As he leaned in closer, about to speak he felt once more the vivid sensation of fading light and a chill which struck him to the core. He shivered visibly and reached for a heavy woollen jumper that was draped over the arm of the couch. “Are you okay..?” Her eyes seemed to ask. “I’m fine, just a little chilly,” he said, “the body corporate haven’t fixed the boilers downstairs, so the heating is still damn near useless. I don’t need to tell you that, though.” She smiled and he leaned in, and talk between the two began again more intimately than before.

    “I really do miss you.” She started, “Ever since we broke it off, it’s all I think about. I’ve tried picturing myself moving on, and I just can’t.” She was tearing up as she spoke, finally letting her guard down completely and telling him exactly how she felt. Martin was moved too, and replied, “I miss you too, Sarah. I just can’t do it without you. I’ve tried, and I’ve failed.. everything just seems to be getting worse and worse the longer I’m without you.”

    He stopped for a second, considering whether it was time to completely let his guard down too, and then decided just to go ahead and say it. “I still love you. I always have, and I always will. I’m so sorry for everything.” She cried, and he tried his best not to. “God, I love you, Marty – I’ll never leave you again“ They finally embraced, and as they did Martin could almost feel all of the pain, the negativity and the hopelessness of the past few months leaving his body and evaporating into thin air.

    He held her for several long minutes as she shook, still crying now but crying tears of happiness. He too trembled, having dreamt so often of just holding her one more time. As he looked out toward the far window where the lightning flashed, a crack of thunder boomed throughout the apartment and he immediately felt a piercing chill rack his body, his trembling quickly becoming a long and uncontrollable shiver.

    She immediately noticed this, sniffed and wiped her eyes, asking, “What’s wrong, are you okay..?” He wasn’t sure right away what to say, and as he moved back, still holding her he noticed that although she was right there, the shadows in the room had suddenly grown so powerful that he could barely make out anything past a couple of feet around them.

    Something was definitely wrong, and he looked at Sarah as he continued to shiver, trying to speak. He tried to tell her that he felt like he was suddenly freezing to death, that something was seriously wrong, but the words wouldn’t come out. She just looked at him with a deep concern, and after trying again to speak he realised that he was in fact speaking – he just couldn’t hear a sound. She too tried to communicate, and although he could just make out that her lips were moving, he could no longer hear her words.

    The shadows in the room were enveloping everything, and what little light remained had become wan and grey. It was as though he was somehow suddenly disconnecting from reality, and he became more frightened than he had ever felt in his entire life. “No.. this can’t be happening, not now..!” his mind screamed. He tried to reach out to touch her face one last time just as his sight failed him completely, and as she was mouthing one final sentence that he couldn’t quite hear, he was plunged quickly and completely into an icy black nothingness.

    Thunder cracked and the doctors screamed at each other to fire-up the defibrillator as Martin finally went into cardiac arrest. It was unusual for a patient that had succumb to potassium cyanide poisoning to last as long as he had, death normally coming quite quickly but they assumed that his ex-girlfriend finding his body and calling an ambulance so quickly had more than likely bought him a few more hours.

    He was lying face-down on the kitchen floor of his apartment when she had used her spare key to enter – she knocked at the door for several minutes after hearing him fall inside as she arrived, and had stayed with him ever since. He lay comatose for hours following the event, and Sarah had stayed right by his side the entire time, talking, crying and pleading with him to wake up.

    No sooner had those words passed her lips, “I love you, Marty – I’ll never leave you again” before he finally let go of his grip, and fell into oblivion.

    A Second Teaser Chapter from the ‘Alluvion’ Novel

    .. here is another teaser chapter from the ‘Alluvion’ novel:

    02. A Watcher in the Dark

    The Watcher loosed himself from the surrounding shadow as silently as a bat glides across a moonless night sky, positioning himself between Skara and the direction of the camp and immediately but carefully raised a right hand, palm-forward in a gesture of peace. Tall as Skara was, the hooded shadow of a man in front of him stood almost a full foot taller and cut an imposing and forbidding silhouette against the wanly moonlit sky behind him. He was dressed in a long black cloak, and Skara could only stand frozen, transfixed by the sight of the other figure as the Watcher quickly spoke to him in a deep and even voice, the pitch of which rooted him to the spot:

    “Be still, friend, I mean you no harm. The Watchers mean you no harm.” He paused for a moment, as if to assess whether the other might turn and run before continuing, “I am Yamnaya, of the stone city of Uru-Mah. You have come to us seeking wisdom, to know why the stars bleed, is this so..?”

    Skara could not answer him, squinting through the darkness to better read the other form. He still could not believe what he was seeing, as if it were some sort of elaborate trick being played at his expense. Could this really be one of them, a Watcher..? Surely the legends were only that.. he shivered visibly then but before he could reach a conclusion of his own making, the figure slowly moved closer towards him and, as if sensing his disbelief, spoke once more:

    “I assure you, we mean you no harm and yes, we are the children of the Ancients and men.. your legends tell no lies.” At this, the stranger threw back his hood, revealing the frame and features of a man not altogether human. At least not as any man Skara had ever seen. The stranger’s jaw was strong and impossibly wide, as if hewn from solid stone. His brow weighed far heavier upon his face than Skara felt practical and the form of his skull was clearly evident of interbreeding with another, far more alien race of men. High upon the corners of either brow were also tattooed strange, sharp symbols, the geometry of which he had never seen before and the stranger’s long and flowing mane of hair was practically white about his shoulders. Skara then found his tongue, plucked his courage and could not help but exclaim the following, to the quiet amusement of the Watcher:

    “Surely there are two of you beneath that cloak..! I’ve never in my life seen a man the size of you, what is it you mean to say, and what do you want..?” He remembered his spear and clutched it tightly, though making sure not to point the business end anywhere in the stranger’s direction. Before the Watcher could reply, his words registered and Skara again spoke, “We come only to hunt the lands below yours, my company seeks no quarrel with the Watchers in the high hills. Of the Seers and their omens, it’s neither my place nor study to speak of such things,” he paused for a moment, “though I suppose by the sound of it you very well might.”

    “What have they told you, your Seers,” sneered the Watcher, doing very little to mask his contempt for the religion of men, “what have they told you of the stars that bleed..?” The figure narrowed his dark eyes toward the huntsman, leaning closer on a gnarled cane that Skara had only just now noticed in the shadows of the other’s cloak. A cane that might have been the width of a sapling and hooked sharply at one end, making Skara uneasier still. He became only too aware of the immediate physical danger this Yamnaya might pose to him, should he rouse a temper. He remained calm, and carefully chose his words;

    “Only that it is a sign of great change, a sign of either war or catastrophe,” he gulped, “Some say those mountains of ice move again from the North. Whether this true I cannot say. We of the valley only wait for word from the capital.” He felt uncomfortable giving any information so easily over to the figure, quickly returning fire with a question of his own he hoped might nudge their meeting toward its end, “What is it you want from us, Watcher..? Do you mean to move us from your lands, or else frighten us from e’er returning..?” Skara noticed to his curiosity that although the air around the two had stilled completely, no-one from the company, in spite of the deathly silence had risen to investigate.

    Skara chanced at a quick glance at the night sky in an attempt to figure out how much time had passed since he had assumed watch, and whether relief might be on its way. The Moon however had now become obscured behind a thick, dark cloud, and he dared not take his eyes off the stranger for as long as it might take to read the stars. Hoping to keep the Watcher talking, he returned his gaze to him and raised both eyebrows, as if to indicate the other’s answer was overdue.

    The Watcher however ignored his question, musing momentarily on the news of the Seers before offering, “Your Seers are half-right, as blind as they truly are. The signs are indeed of ill omen, and speak of a great event that is soon to pass. Your king would do well however not to waste what little time he has on warfare, for what is to come cannot be felled by spear nor sling and nor can it be averted. It is not the gods of men that mar the heavens so, and not even the old Gods of the Ancients. This is the sign of a great and terrible new disaster, the likes of which the world has not seen in an epoch.” The Watcher raised himself to his full and imposing height, and continued as through reciting words well rehearsed;

    “The stars of Cygnus themselves do not bleed, they instead reveal to us the hidden presence of a powerful weapon. A dragon of stone and fire, and with seven terrible tails that would spell the end of all men, all beasts of the earth and creatures of the sea. The stars show us the coming of a rain of fire from the skies so fierce that it would vanquish those old foes called the mountains of ice, and cause the oceans to run over the Earth, washing away all but the highest peaks as they do.” His gestures became more dramatic as the intensity of his prediction grew. “When Usumgala, this awful dragon lands, the Sun will hide for an age, and the Moon and stars will be shaken from their stations. If preparations are not made, this event will spell the complete and utter annihilation not only of the people of Silur-Mah, but those kingdoms to the west, and the ones who call themselves the Clovis, far across the seas..” Yamnaya paused momentarily to consider whether he was making himself clear enough.

    “There will be a warning, three days the eve to whence the great dragon will arrive. From the head of Cygnus will shine a new star, a beacon that will grow ever greater until those final moments. When the beacon breaks and moves to the East, all will be lost.” He focused on Skara then, raising a long right forefinger as he spoke, “Only the watchers then might give men the tools to endure.”

    “But what of this weapon,” said Skara, clearly frustrated but trying to understand, “who is responsible for this, this horrible, terrible power..? Surely there is a way, a way to strike first..” He could not simply accept that there was nothing more that could be done to save his people. He had doubted the words of the Seers, even when the reality of a threat from the Western Empire was so much more plausible, however when Yamnaya spoke, he found he could not dismiss entirely the earnest in his words, nor doubt the seriousness with which he spoke.

    Staring out into the darkness and recalling the first march of the mountains of ice, the Watcher replied, “This is a weapon of the world, child, and must return to it. The dragon exists only to mark the close of our cycle..” he paused for a moment, as if reflecting, “and just maybe, the beginning of a new. There comes a time when all dies of the universe must be recast, and the balance of the world restored. Even an empire of a thousand years will eventually fall, and stone crumble to dust. Even the mightiest of men are not Gods, in spite of what secrets they might come to master.” The Watcher knew this only too well, remembering the fate and hubris of his forebears, and their legacies left to him.

    It was the alchemy of the Ancients, which had first brought about the wandering Ice from the North those many aeons ago. It was their sorcery and stubbornness, their pathological need to control the world about them that became their undoing. Toying with the laws of nature, and of the seasons, they had believed themselves able to correct for and compensate the natural Winter and for a time, they had succeeded.

    For Summer after Summer, the cycle appeared to have changed. Harvest upon harvest had far exceeded all needs of their people, and it seemed to all that they were at the very cusp of a golden age. For every action, however, comes a reaction. The balance of the world, the ebb and flow of the seasons is as much a necessity as night and day and within a generation, their Southern continent was sunk beneath the waters, and the light of the Sun denied to them for an age. In their quest for control, the Ancients had neglected to pay respect to the laws of nature, and its careful balance which cradles all men, and it was this burden that still weighed heavily on Yamnaya’s shoulders.

    Skara however still did not fully understand the other’s prediction, struggling to reconcile the justification of such a terrible event against his own lot and the lives of his company. He remembered those men still sleeping by the campfire, and thought only of their lives and families. They were simple folk, hunters, gatherers and craftsmen, hardly possessing of any great powers or delusions of grandeur. Why then must they suffer..? Why would the Gods will such a catastrophe to pass..? He still had so many questions for Yamnaya, of the dragon and of the Ancients. Questions the Watcher had sensed were forthcoming.

    “The night wears on, and I would bid you join us tomorrow at Uru-Mah to the north, there I might speak more of these events and those passed. I would urge you to listen to what we might say – a great change is coming, and the fate of your people may well depend on it.” At this the Watcher turned and left, rather abruptly. Skara was not altogether satisfied, but equally unsure whether his persistent questioning and demands for answers might tempt the other to anger.

    Skara looked after him, watching the figure stride carefully along an unseen path and had the quick sense to call-out one last time, “How would I find you tomorrow, Watcher..?”

    “Lowly Yamnaya called back, “Follow the stones, man of the valley.. follow the stones.”

    “Follow the stones..!” he muttered to himself. “What on Earth does he mean, ‘follow the stones’ – bleeding stars and roaming stones. Anu help me.” He prayed a swift and silent prayer to the God of the Sky before starting slowly back towards the camp, shaken and confused by what had just happened.

    As the Watcher moved out toward the crest of the plateau and away from sight, a cold breeze started up from the valley once more and chilled Skara through to his bones.

    He was awakened the next day by a swift kick to the ribcage. It was late morning, and exhausted by the night’s events he had managed to sleep right through the hunter’s breakfast that the rest of the party had put together. “Get up, lazybones..!” the culprit leaned-in to shout gruffly into his ear, before stepping back to line up another kick, “Get up or by the Gods we’ll go without you..!” It was his half-brother, Andar of course. Who else among their company possessed the courage and lack of subtlety to strike him while he slept..? It came as no surprise to Skara, who rolled over and groaned in resignation.

    The two had shared a father, and following the death of Skara’s mother to an infection when he was very young were raised as brothers in his home. They had both been taught to become peerless huntsmen from the earliest age, and both had inherited the stature and fearsome features of their father’s side. While still boys, their constant fighting and competitive edge had been troublesome for their friends and family on many an occasion. As they grew larger and more capable, other hunters and even warriors passing through from other towns and the capital would steer well clear of them as they bickered, waiting for the dust to settle before daring to get involved. It was perhaps only their equally comparable size that had, up to this point, prevented either of them from accidentally (or wilfully) slaying the other.

    Just as the massive leather boot swung-in again to strike, Skara threw off his skins and, catching his brother’s foot squarely, threw it up in the air sending him flying backwards and crashing through the makeshift spit and onto what remained of the fire, to the derision of the rest of the group. Andar deftly rolled off from the embers with a yelp, quickly extinguishing his cloak and allowing Skara to jump to his feet in preparation for any further fight from the other man. Andar merely rose and shook the ashes from his shoulders with a laugh, before wandering off to collect his weapons, calling back, “Gather your spear and sling, brother. The day waits for no-one.”

    “There is a hunt to begin,” Andar thought cheerfully to himself, “and plenty of hours in the day to strike back.” Such were the pleasures in his life.

    The party moved out in pairs and groups of three, two sets of brothers, Skara and Andar and the two Temen brothers Gidri and Gizzal would move northwest and northeast around the plateau. Hurin and Zimah moved west while three sets of three covered the eastern and south-eastern steppes of the foothills, more in search of forage than game. Their names were not as easily recalled by Skara, nor were their skills in the hunt worthy of taking to larger game on this occasion.

    “Come, brother,” said Skara, cocking his head in the direction of the hillock where he had stood watch the previous night, “let us stray true north for the plateau, before returning farther east. I have a feeling there are larger prey in the long grasses than the valleys below, pray let’s see if I am right.” He turned and started immediately out in the direction he had chosen, hoping that Andar would value his assertion and follow. In truth, he was hoping once more to pass-by the crest where he had spoken with Yamnaya the night before, if only to reassure himself that the meeting did in fact take place. He had awoken groggy and from a deep slumber, and could have been forgiven for suspecting that the Watcher had appeared to him in dream only.

    Andar grunted loudly and stood for a moment, throwing his gaze first northeast and then back towards his brother before setting off in a half-run behind him, calling out, “Aye, we’ll play in the grass if you like, but if there’s no sign of the world’s slowest and fattest gazelle come sunset you’ll cop more than a kick in the ribs, dear brother.” He caught-up to and sprinted by Skara, slapping him upside the back of his head as he did and the two took-off for the plateau laughing as young boys, Skara running straight past the gnarled cane the Watcher had left planted by the hillock to mark the way.

    The two ascended the hillside via an unmade track worn into its face, reaching the summit just after the Sun reached its zenith. The plateau was long and wide, at the farthest northern end ascending into a mountain range and otherwise falling-away into steep slopes and sheer cliffs at either side and teeming with wild grasses and blooming wildflowers at its edge. Both men had been hunting here with their father many years earlier, again at the close of a particularly harsh Winter and so both had expected to find fertile grounds as they marched on. The hillsides were sparsely forested, which meant that it was likely for small groups of various breed to seek safety in the tall grasses, where predators could likewise be easily spotted. These lands were of course forbidden, and though they had never shared the fact with their kin, their father was brazen and had never been one to adhere to those laws he did not completely understand.

    What first surprised the two as they reached the summit were the appearance of long, fresh trenches cut into the solid bedrock of the southern entrance to the plateau, as if by the massive claws of some titanic creature. Stone had been removed from the ground, and dust and rubble piled-up on either side of what appeared to be a dozen long quarries set into the earth. “What in Anu’s name..” started Andar, before the two of them heard the long and unmistakable sounding of a blow-horn split the air from far across the clearing. The two brothers glanced quickly at each other and as if sharing the same thought jumped-down into the nearest quarry and slowly looked-out over the rim, scanning for any sign of where the trumpet blast might have come from.

    Far off across the grass, Skara noticed an imposing shadow that did not fit with his memory of the landscape, rising up above the tree-line on a hill towards the far promontory connecting the plateau to the mountains beyond. From the distance at which they crouched, neither man could clearly make out just what the structure was, if indeed it was a structure at all. It appeared to be the crowns of several large, dark pillars, silhouetted against the rays of brilliant midday sunlight which illuminated the plateau. “There,” said Skara, pointing toward the shadows, “the horn, I think it came from out beyond those trees..” “So what if it did..?” came his brother’s nervous reply, “We’re ill-prepared to do battle. I’ve never heard talk of a village out across these fields, but let whoever it is have it, I’m going back and warning the others.” At this he rose up and out of the pit, crouching low behind a mound of earth and waited for Skara to join him.

    “Brother, I would see what lies ahead. Never was there a village in these parts, this I remember, but we are only several leagues from home. I would know who and what they are, and what shadows rise out of the forest ahead.” He recalled the Watcher’s invitation, and felt somehow compelled at least to investigate. “Go back without me, and I will join you at the camp.” At this Skara too rose out of the pit, crouching behind another mound of earth beside it and looked first at the structure in the distance, and then back at his brother for acknowledgement.

    “You are a fool, Skara Tau,” started Andar, “we have no idea who or what is out there, come to your senses and come back with me to join the others. Together we might return, at least with greater numbers to look and see.” He grabbed Skara by his right upper arm, and beckoned they both return along the trail that had brought them there. Skara immediately freed himself from Andar’s grip, and slowly moved north around the clearing, hidden by the bushes surrounding it and defiantly called back to him, “tell the others not to approach the clearing, and to wait for my return.. I will be rejoin you before the Sun reaches the valley tomorrow.”

    “You are a fool..!” Andar called hoarsely once more, loud enough for his brother to hear but not so loud that his voice might carry across the clearing. He shook his head and crept back to the crest of the hill, and started back down the path in the direction of their camp. “What manner of a woman must his mother have been,” he thought to himself, “that the wisdom imparted to us by our father might be forgotten at the moment’s notice.” In truth, his anger masked concern, as though they may have shared a fiercely competitive streak, theirs was a stronger bond than most. For as we know, blood binds with an unbreakable strength, and forges a connection not only of the body, but the spirit.

    Skara set off through the undergrowth, careful not to stray too close to the edge of the clearing where he might be noticed, nor tread too loudly into the frost which still lay in the deeper crevices of the earth, leftover from the throes of the Winter fall. The clearing was a vast and flat expanse, marked by several shallow pools where snow had melted into clear water, and at which several larger beasts carefully came to drink their fill. “Curse those bastards across the way,” he swore under his breath, “that would deny me the chance to prove my right to Andar – I knew there’d be game on higher ground..!” He pressed-on until he reached the line of trees at the far side, and moved through them until he arrived at what appeared to be the edge of a smaller, man-made rise unseen from where they hid earlier. He moved towards the far edge of the tree line, and peered out at what lay beyond.

    Just as he first gazed up at the outer wall of a ringed building, catching a closer glimpse of the top of one megalith that peeked over its edge, the horn trumpeted a second time, much closer and louder than before. He saw a band of slow-moving cloaked figures move in unison from within the structure along a carefully maintained road, disappearing from view behind a mound of dark earth that had been piled at the edge of the rise. He quickly dropped to the ground, rolling behind a thick crop of bushes until they passed from view. Skara, as curious as he was afraid then seized the opportunity to get a better visual of the compound, and crept carefully around and toward the summit of the mound of earth, hoping for a wider view. As he reached the ascent he slowly and, without drawing breath, peered over the edge at the landscape beyond.

    The tree-line had indeed obscured much; he found there to be numerous smoking hearths and mounds surrounding a half-dozen deep pits, apparently dug as foundations for piles of quarried rock which ringed the outer edge of the second clearing. The earth had been marred in several places by objects and material that had been dragged along, and yet there appeared to be no deep lacerations to the earth around the stone blocks which Skara found strange. All throughout the settlement fires were burning, and many strange and alien looking tents and houses remained partially obscured from view, beyond the edge of the clearing and toward the promontory bordering the mountains beyond.

    The stone that lay piled around the edge of the clearing resembled in size and fashion the same stone removed from the great quarries he had passed across the larger plateau, toward its far distant edge. Skara thought to himself, “Surely no man could have moved such an amount of stone so far, without the marks of great effort and the hooves of beasts to pull them.” He then recalled words from his conversation the night before; ‘Follow the stones’.. “Follow the stones indeed”, he laughed quietly to himself as the words finally made sense.

    For several minutes, he simply sat and watched the black-cloaked figures wander about the encampment, and as best he could tried to catch a glimpse of their faces beneath their hoods. In truth however, he need not have bothered as by their stature alone, and if he had not dreamt his meeting with Yamnaya the night before, he knew them to be the Watchers, come down from the high hills to the plateau. He had however no idea what this settlement meant, nor the purpose of the strange monoliths which littered the clearing. After several more long moments had passed, he began to feel as though he should return to his brethren, as with each passing minute he felt more and more uneasy, as though he risked being seen.. as though he was already being watched.

    “Valley man..!” A deep and familiar voice suddenly boomed from behind him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to once again stand on end. “Why do you hide in the dirt, did I not extend invitation to you in the evening..?” Skara slowly rolled over, turning his head slightly as if there may have been some chance the voice had not been directed at him. “Come down from your dirt and join us, for we eat soon, and pray. Surely you have not yet hunted your fill, and might meet and share in a meal with us, the Watchers of the North.” He slowly rose to his feet, and proceeded to stumble down to the base of the mound to address Yamnaya, apparently as real as everything else around him, and not the stuff of dreams.

    “Aye, hear I am,” replied Skara, feeling nervous, trapped and excited all at once, “though I must be returning to my company. The day drags on, and there is still much we must accomplish before sundown..” “Nonsense..!” scoffed the Watcher, in a rare show of genuine good humour, “The day is long, and we have much to discuss. Pray stay awhile, and let me introduce you to the rest of our order.” The taller man moved aside and with a long, gaunt arm, gestured in the way of the central road of the settlement. Skara felt that it might still be foolish to tempt fate by refusing Yamnaya’s invitation, and so together they made their way through plumes of smoke and into the heart of the village.