2015

.. 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.”

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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.

A Short Story about a Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away..

‘EMPIRE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

On a cold and distant planet at the outer edge of the galaxy, the stillness of an alien morning was shattered abruptly by the roar of twin jet engines busting through the cloudy grey. A pale white sun, barely risen over lifeless rock and mortar shied against the brilliance of rocket fire as it descended slowly downward from the heavens with a steady motion. For a few brief minutes, dense clouds of ash and dust were thrown into the air as the entire area became thick with an eerie, living mist which all but obscured the spaceship touching down on the planet’s surface.

Christened the Inheritance, its hull was a vast chrome cylinder some two hundred metric meters long by sixty wide, and the skin and bones of the ship were, like most vessels in the industrial fleet initially constructed purely for civilian purposes. As the seemingly unending struggle for galactic order wore on towards the later end of the twenty-seventh century, it had become necessary to register many such practical and trade craft as secondary assets for military tactic and transport. This particular vessel, however had been charged with a far greater destiny.

Hundreds of years had passed, by the old chronology since life had existed on the soil of this world, which for even longer still had been unable to sustain a native seed. Ash, silt and stone flew through the air as forty-thousand tons of titanium collided with the desolate terrain, now as scarred and dry as her once great oceans to the west. To the ship’s crew, this world was not unlike so many other worlds that they had visited in reconnaissance as part of their mission. In the years following the more intense warfare between her districts, the Empire had lost countless outer colonies, outposts and settlements to conflict, cheap skirmish and all-out attacks from the enemy. Federation, order and unity did not come cheap, and the cost of lives had run easily into the tens of millions.

While some worlds and their occupants had fallen easily to the will of the Empire, others merely feigned fealty before returning as participants in a rebellion that had overseen the wanton destruction of many new planets terraformed for future habitation. Whole worlds and systems filled with new and developing civilisations were extinguished completely and, in some cases their chemical elements vaporised altogether. But these were not the shells of worlds sought by the crew of the Inheritance.

Before the clouds of dust had settled and according to a predetermined rotary roster system, the crew aboard the ship had assigned a landing party contingent to arrive at the planet’s surface to begin harvesting geological samples for testing and cultural research. On this day, as history would remember, the contingent comprised a senior commander, three geologists and a young archaeologist named William Taylor. William, better known as Will to the rest of the crew was without doubt one of the youngest recruits selected for the mission, but had already managed to attain significant accomplishment in his field, despite having been drafted directly from the Federation Academy.

Their mission had been devised following the final defeat of insurgent forces a decade earlier at Gamma Prime. The resistance, a massive force comprising various expat species from conquered worlds and led by a small force of Federation dissidents had become a thorn in the side of the Empire’s trading companies at the outer colonies. For engaging in racketeering, incitement and skirmish, the High Council had charged a legion of battlecruisers in the outer district with crushing the rebel forces, who were after a long and bitter struggle eventually annihilated to a man, as Federation policy dictated. With all resistance thus destroyed and homogeny restored to the galaxy, it was decreed that the search for the lost home world, the birthplace of the Federation and her Ethos so many centuries earlier could finally begin.

The allotted mission had been expected in all reality to carry on indefinitely, for very few despite their deepest hopes and a devout faith in the scripture of the Old World had actually expected the mythical Terra as a single point of origin to have ever actually existed, let alone that tangible ruins and remnants of her fabled once great cities had survived the great catastrophe. Almost an afterthought to the conquest of their galaxy and an ongoing political rallying effort for the unity of the Federation, their mission was essentially a one-way ticket into the unknown, and they knew it.

Once on the planet’s surface, it took the better part of an hour for the correct consignment of landing gear to be assembled and delegated to the party. Each crew member was equipped with two cylinders of oxygen to be metered intermittently throughout the expedition, specialised geological assessment kits, medical equipment and a standard armament in the form of a single-shot energy pistol. For any greater threat that the group might encounter, the Inheritance was equipped with ballistic cannons powerful enough to raze whole cities to dust in a single strafe, and sat well within radio range should the situation deem it necessary.

The party, now equipped and briefed on the planet’s environmental composition by the ship’s data computer entered the airlock and began the slow decompression required to withstand the planet’s atmosphere, now all but scorched away through an horrific disaster centuries earlier. This fact in itself qualified it as an ideal candidate for listing for their mission.

In the airlock and finally assembled, the party exchanged pleasantries and discussed the impending expedition: “Ten years and counting,” geologist Troy Harris began, “ten years, thirty worlds and two thousand volumes of next-to-nothing. At least fighting in the crusades gave a man something to write home about.”

“Better to send your family back a sub-space communication than a body-bag, or less,” replied their commander. Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Green was among about a dozen crew members aboard the Inheritance who had previously seen action while locked in fierce combat with the Empire’s dissidents, surviving above all else a five-year tour of duty in the Federation’s ‘Secret Service’ division, administering support to a siege offensive at the rebel home-world which ultimately turned the tide of war in favour of the Federation.

It was during this same offensive that the highest tolls on both sides of the struggle were recorded, as rebel forces were eventually surrounded on all sides and fought back with an almost inhuman viciousness. A fierce aerial campaign was undertaken which culminated in a heavy surface firefight as enemy forces were driven into the ground and finally vaporised completely. The surface of the planet was bombed from space and its upper mantle sublimated entirely by new and advanced weaponry. In the caves beneath the surface of Silica 6 in the Gamma Prime system, both sides had turned desperately to unspeakable acts of cruelty in order to stay alive in those dark days before the war was won.

Often referenced in Federation transcripts as ‘Silica Syndrome’, many of the operation’s most hardened solders were discovered after the siege to have developed crippling mental afflictions whose symptoms ranged from simple tics to full-blown psychoses, the result of months and months spent claustrophobic beneath the planet’s surface, often pursuing insurgents through a vast network of tunnels no wider than a shoulder’s width and which criss-crossed the planet’s surface like Swiss cheese. Commander Green had himself spent six months in an off-world sanitarium following the final push, before finally being cleared to return to military service. Others were not so lucky.

“Let me tell you something,” he began again, addressing the entire group, “I won’t deny that the past few years aboard this ship have dragged-on, and some of us have managed time and again to get on each other’s nerves,” he shot a quick glance at Harris, “but what we have here is an amazing opportunity to be among perhaps the first human beings to set foot on the Old World since expansion.”

“If the Old World even exists, Rudy..” interrupted Ed Turner, second geologist for the landing team and an ever-present voice of skepticism.

“Oh, It exists,” continued Green, becoming more animated, “the one planet from which the vision of Federation and homogeny among the stars was born is most definitely out there. I’m sure you’re all aware of the old scriptures and their histories..”

“Of course,” started Taylor. The stories taught to him throughout his childhood and interwoven through his lessons with the Academy which followed had supplanted firmly within his memory. “The scriptures teach of the ancient struggle for Terra, of the fight for the basic purity laws that became the cornerstone for the Empire and of the great catastrophe which nearly annihilated our species in the Old Age. They teach of the basic principles of improvement and warn against the dangers of false fraternity. Our entire galaxy would have been destroyed had the great civil war ended differently, if the early districts had succeeded in their resistance to the Ethos.”

“Precisely,” continued Green, “History would read very differently had the foolishness and corruption of the Old World and her usurpers’ ways survived. For the Federation and the warning given us by its scriptures, we must never forget the fate of the Old World and we must never, ever forsake our mission to find it.”

Green gazed then through the airlock and into the grey of the terrestrial morning with a thousand-yard stare. After a few long minutes had passed, decompression had at last completed, and the Inheritance’s airlock slowly opened outward with a steady pneumatic hiss and a rush of cold air. It was then that he noticed that the rest of the party too were minds elsewhere, staring absently into the distant streams of history that had coursed them to that moment.

The landing party moved through the airlock with trepidation. It was raining now, a variable the crew had failed to take into consideration as they prepared and so the party moved quickly to detach the rain cloaks that were always fastened at their waists as a contingency. The Inheritance had made landfall at a north-western inland continent on the planet’s Northern hemisphere, chosen due both to a steady climate and high density of what the intelligence team aboard the ship had suspected were city ruins. Commander Green wasted no time in selecting a more heavily fortified structure from the outcrop and ordered his party to erect a makeshift base of operations both for shelter and use as a temporary geological laboratory.

The cold morning rain began to drift softly over the party in steady sheets, growing ever heavier as a mass of darker clouds moved in above them. Far off in the distance a faint clap of thunder could be heard, and it soon became clear to the group, now struggling desperately to steady their shelter that the storm would not pass any time soon, and that they had better make arrangements to wait it out. The commander radioed his intentions to the ship and with a crude shelter adequately assembled, the party sat in silence for a long time, taking rations and performing maintenance on the scientific equipment that they had brought down to the planet’s surface.

After several hours of monotonous routine tests, and when the group began to show signs of boredom Will moved to position himself at audience with the rest of the party and began to speak:

“Does everyone here know,” he began, “the story of the origins of the Old World scriptures, and the founding of the Ethos..?” Will had left the ship on several worlds over the course of their mission, however each time with different groups of people. As always, he was eager to show off what he had come to learn during his time at the academy, and took great pleasure in retelling their histories.

Half seeking respite from the downpour at the edges of the shelter and half in muted interest in a story every child of the Empire had been raised on in their earliest years, the group edged closer to Will and listened regardless with keen interest to his excited and passionate accounts of the elder legends, often punctuating the story with rousing vocal effects and an engaging ability with oratory. The tale was long and wore on until the last light of dusk began to fade behind the hulking ruins of the alien city, looking almost in the dark like crooked teeth on the horizon:

“In the year 2045CE by the old chronology, the Old World from where all the foundations of the Empire had been lain had been gripped by a great and terrible civil war, a global conflict arisen from a centuries old hatred which had been fermenting until the catastrophe that crippled their society. Wild skirmishes were fought between the cities of Terra, and oceans were dried up and mountains torn down by science and weaponry kept secret since the time of the Great Prophet a century before, killing billions of men and beast alike and casting the world into a dark age from which it would take decades to recover. Far beneath the surface of Terra, like a dormant seed waiting for the rains that would always come, the adherents remained in secret and prepared to rise as a phoenix from the ashes of a world lain to waste. They would return and establish a new Imperium, and eventually draft the Ethos that had grown to bear the fruits of their Empire.

Certain accounts of the great wars have varied slightly over time, however the fundamental timeline of events which had brought humanity towards a final reckoning conflict remain the same. In the early years of enlightenment, the Great Prophet had gifted his people with a doctrine that would eventually become the earliest form of the Ethos. The Prophet had come to identify the path to Imperium, and the true form and nature of the enemies among them that would seek to bring about the destruction of the Empire. He had fought a courageous and costly war in his time against the forces of evil, who had proved in the end to be far too cunning and powerful to defeat and so the first and earliest manifestation of the Empire was doomed to collapse beneath the sheer weight of biological entropy.

Of the decades that directly followed the fall of the Great Prophet little is truly known, save that it was by all existing accounts the darkest and most chaotic time in humanity’s history, and one during which all hope of hegemony and cohesion amongst the adherents of the doctrine was very nearly lost forever. Within a century however, and by the one-hundred year anniversary of the Prophet’s fall, a new resistance comprising brave and fanatic adherents had succeeded in consolidating considerable power and influence and by a leaderless uprising against the oligarchy that had administered the chaos that threatened Terra, the Great War finally began.

It was a war not only of adherent and oligarch, but of brother and brother also as so many had already been tricked into the service of the overlords. It was as much an ideological war as a war of weapons, of light and darkness and of truth against lies. Many millions of our strongest and bravest on many colonised worlds, those with the greatest potential to serve the doctrine were killed in that conflict and in a few short years, the fate of their world and ultimately of the galaxy was finally decided.

The New Order was founded in their victory on the core principles of the doctrine, and sealed with the blood of the last of the remaining oligarchs, who were hunted down to a man and put to death in great public ceremonies to the rapturous applause of the survivors that had gathered in droves and on various worlds to bear witness. Shortly after the purification of those worlds that were deemed salvageable and as the constructing of the Federation began, their doctrine was revised to encompass a galaxy and was ratified and sanctified henceforth as the Ethos.

It was the Great Catastrophe that had finally rendered Terra and its system uninhabitable, the price of freedom proving ultimately to be their home-world. Their forces withdrew from Terra and went on to eventually conquer a galaxy, and all knowledge of that irradiated planet that they had come from slowly faded from memory over time, remaining only in scripture and legend.”

At the end of the retelling and after a sober minute’s silence, Turner stirred from adjusting the settings on their purifier and sought to clarify with uncharacteristic interest the story surrounding the Great Prophet:

“The Prophet,” he started, pointing a ratchet in Will’s direction,” you say that he had identified the enemies of the Imperium. I know we can all list with detail the forms and factions of the resistance as we have struggled against it in our lifetime – what can be said of the oligarchs, who were they and where did they come from..?”

“Well,” started Taylor with a sigh, “what little we know of the oligarchs is that they were not so dissimilar to us in form, but the fact that that they were not unlike us in appearance was their most dangerous quality. They had, over many centuries succeeded in amassing vast quantities of wealth, power and influence in our societies and worked to bring them down from the inside. They were deceivers, thieves and manipulators and where adherents to the doctrine sought to create and control, to prosper and to innovate, the oligarchs had only greed and chaos in their hearts.”

“They had nothing but envy and contempt for those who would strive, invent and who desired beauty. It was our naivety, and our compassion that they had exploited, and by these qualities we very nearly risked losing everything. That is why we must never again compromise our doctrine, and our vision. Never again can we allow our people to lower guard against alien blood. Never again.”

“Well I’m not sure exactly how much of what you’ve said tonight is true,” replied Turner with a smile, “but I am thankful for the Empire, such as it is. With things as they are now, I think we can all clearly see the continued existence of our people and a future for our children, for generations to come. No compromise is worth risking that.” He turned and returned to making final adjustments to the machine before turning-in.

The storm continued to rage about them, torrents of cold rain belting against the thin synthetic walls of the shelter that they had raised and in which they had managed at last to reconfigure the air-pressure to a somewhat tolerable measure. It was arranged that one of the group would remain on watch throughout the night, less for confronting hostile life forms and more for making sure that the shelter remained pressurised throughout the night, should their equipment somehow malfunction. The planet’s rotation against its sun and its present seasonal axis would see a night of some twelve to fourteen hours pass, before they could again resume their mission.

The party on the planet’s surface had grown weary from the excitement of setting down on the new world, and from the retelling of the history of Federation. With no predictable end to the storm forecast until morning by the ship’s computers, the group made arrangements to camp on the planet’s surface until dawn when, weather permitting, they would enter the ruined city in the hope of finding answers. They slept in shifts, each of them to a man excited for tomorrow’s journey.

The next morning, the group awoke to patchy cloud and a thick, murky haze, however found that it had finally stopped raining and so after quickly sharing rations, they packed their equipment and set-out once more in the direction of the city. They walked for several miles before reaching the outskirts of what appeared to have been a massive metropolis which sprawled ahead of them. Where there must have once stood monolithic structures and causeways, little more than massive hewn stone foundations now littered the ground in all directions to provide an idea of what once was and make the way forward a difficult one.

The group were awestruck and a little excited – of all of the worlds that they had surveyed so far, they had not yet come across anything like this. Their commander slapped the wide base of what must once upon a time have been a massive pillar, declaring, “Solid stone, ladies and gentlemen. They just don’t make them to last like this anymore.” He couldn’t have been more right, either. Samples from the ruins that they had camped beside the night before had tested to be almost a millennia old, and looked to the group as though they might yet last a millennia more.

They slowly snaked their way along, over and between piles of earth and pulverised rock, following the more established foundation blocks of the city as they grew in size and, they hoped, indicated that they were nearing the heart of the ruined city. Whatever had happened in this planet’s history, it must have taken place right at the cusp of a cultural zenith; the city sprawled for miles and miles and in certain places the landing party were able to catch a glimpse through gaping earth at sections of what appeared to be an extensive underground catacomb, which ran beneath their feet.

After another hour or so carefully navigating the city, they reached what looked to be the remains of a massive central square and the monstrous stone foundations of a grandiose structure, the purpose of which they could only wildly speculate about. The rubble formed piles on the outskirts of the foundation, swept to the side by strong winds and they took a long moment to stand and look out over it before moving on. The atmosphere was a grey and shifting fog, and the sunlight filtered through it in a way that almost seemed to animate their surroundings, bringing them to life.

Gigantic stone megaliths locked-in beneath their feet, forming a wide expanse so massive that it had over time caused the foundation blocks to sink well below ground level. Their hearts were beating heavier now, as the enormity and complexity of the civilisation that once inhabited the planet became apparent and they quickly covered the expanse and made their way toward a dense mountain of stone and rubble that obscured their view of the rest of the ruined city. Will Taylor was the first to reach the foundation of the outcrop, and without waiting for the rest of the party, found a foothold and began climbing to get a better view of the alien world that they had stumbled upon.

Captain Green and the others were several meters behind Will when a sudden yell from up ahead caused them to stop dead in their tracks. He had ascended the summit of the hill, and thrown both of his arms up in the air in the direction of the view, calling loudly and emotionally out to the rest of the landing party. “Oh my god,” he started, “I don’t believe it..!” He placed both hands on his head, and his team could hear him softly sobbing over the communicator that lined his helmet. Still at the foot of the rise, commander Green desperately called-out to him for further intel before he and the rest of the group too threw caution to the wind and ascended.

“What is it, Taylor. What do you see – answer me..!” He was fearful, excited and himself eager to burst into a sprint and join Will at the summit and just as he was about to begin the climb, Will replied, “We did it, we found it. Comrades.. we’re home.” The rest of the group broke into a mad dash to reach him, and as they too caught a view of the ruins that lay beyond, one by one they dropped their arms by their sides and stood in stunned silence, the feeling of home finally washing over them.

The Empire was ready now. The Federation had finally conquered the galaxy, enforcing its doctrine over all and bringing harmony to a thousand new worlds and systems. Its vision finally realised and her true origins reclaimed, a new Imperium could now at last be established that might invite its children out further still into the universe to conquer and explore, to create and destroy – to plant that hallowed flag into the soil of eternity where it might continue forever to serve as a bastion for the one true Ethos.

In the distance, still intact and lining the central esplanade of the ruined city, weathered iron eagles flanked the way towards a solitary concrete arch which once marked the entrance to the greatest hall their ancestors had ever built. Inscribed upon that archway in deep letters that had only just survived the ravages of time, the moniker and closing words of their Ethos still proudly remained, for all of history to see;

“Tomorrow, the World.”

Thomas Wasn’t Like All of the Other Children..

‘THOMAS’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

Thomas wasn’t like all of the other children. From the moment he had been delivered by the midwives at St. Mary’s Hospital eleven years earlier, his mother Kathleen had quickly realised that something had gone terribly wrong. She could tell by the looks on their faces as they held him at arm’s length, several of them crying softly that her son had not been born whole. During an earlier routine check-up, her nurses had told her that there were several minor anomalies that were relatively common, however as her term was many weeks shorter than it should have been and complications during her labour had caused her to be in an incredible amount of pain, she couldn’t help but worry.

Her carriage had been extremely difficult overall, and as the child grew inside her she had begun to feel strange sensations of movement that were abnormal, at least insofar as what she had been told to expect. Thomas had struggled, kicked and tossed in the womb almost constantly, and the terrible nightmares that recurred throughout those months had caused her a great deal of discomfort and distress. She had tried to dismiss her concerns however, just hoping and praying that she would make it through the other side without losing him.

On the morning when he finally arrived, a gale outside the hospital had raged and roared, the noise only drowned out by her own agonising screams as she struggled to give birth to her first and only son. She laboured long into the night, naturally delivering her baby boy just as the winds stilled and dawn crept over the horizon, and when she had finally held him for the first time she too burst into tears. The child had been born with a strong defect – brittle bones and a large hump in the middle of his back and although he was remarkably calm and quiet, the sight of what could only mean a lifetime of pain and hardship for the boy was more than she could bear. Kathleen broke down, and for a long time could barely stand to look at him.

Throughout the pregnancy her own mother had often asked about the father, and every time she would give the same answer; “He was just a gentle stranger,” she would say, “a soldier on leave. I’d broken down on the road north out of town one hot summer’s afternoon, and he’d offered me a lift back to call a mechanic. He had the kindest eyes, and had asked to stay with me until I was back on the road.. a true gentleman.”

She refused to go into any further detail, more so because she was still hurt by the fact that so soon after their brief rendezvous he had simply up and left one morning, never to be heard from again. “Michael,” he had said his first name was, and had never given a last. She had fallen quickly and deeply in love, and had not been able to bring herself to be with anyone else since finding out that she was pregnant. Knowing that the child grew within her even early on had made it feel like he was still somehow close.

Michael and Kathleen had spent the better part of a week together before he just mysteriously disappeared one day. He had rented a room in a motel on the outskirts of town, and had explained to her that he was only passing through on his way back home from a posting on the front line. Kathleen had assumed this to have meant a tour of duty in the Middle East, but knew better than to pry too deep into where and what he had been involved with during his service.

All that he had said of his time abroad was that he had seen more than his fair share of violence and heartache, and was contemplating leaving the force for good this time. She poured her heart out, sharing her hopes and dreams as they talked for hours and hours, long into the evening on their first day. By the second they had found themselves unable to resist growing more intimate, quickly becoming passionately involved and Kathleen felt for the first time that she had finally found a man who could make her feel complete.

She had awoken early in the morning on the fourth day to stop-by the motel and surprise him with coffee and a homemade breakfast, however when she arrived was informed by reception that he had already checked-out a short time earlier. After asking to borrow the key to check his room, she entered to find that the other side of the queen sized bed they had shared was still slightly warm. When she walked back out into the parking lot of the complex and looked up and down the street, he was nowhere to be seen and she realised that he was indeed well and truly gone. He had left nothing at all behind save for a single page from a motel notepad at reception which had read:

“Dear Kath, I’ve received orders to leave this morning and return to my station. I feel that seeing you first would only have made things more difficult – I’m sorry. Thank you for everything, and I hope you can understand. Love, Mike.”

She had asked around town to see if there was anybody else that might spoken with or had an idea of how to reach him without any luck, and cursed herself for not insisting on at least getting a contact number from him. She kept the note, and checked-in back at the motel for weeks afterwards in the faint hope that he might return, before finally accepting the fact that he was gone for good, and she would be alone to deal with the consequences of their affair. That consequence was Thomas.

Her son had found adjusting to life as a different child to be extremely difficult. Not just for the obvious visible abnormalities, but also that his weak bones had meant that he needed to be treated with kid gloves. As with many premature children, Thomas was slight and frail, and prone to moments of imbalance and vertigo, as though he had never quite got the hang of walking.

Sometimes all it would take would be for him to lose his footing, and an awkward landing could easily result in several broken bones and another stay in hospital. He was extremely fair, with white blonde hair and pale blue eyes and almost seemed like a ghost as he softly wandered the halls of his school, careful not to draw any further attention to himself.

The other children throughout his early and primary schooling had quickly decided to ostracise him, calling him nicknames such as ‘Backpack’ and ‘Rickets’ and pushed and bullied the boy whenever they saw him. They would test Thomas constantly, cornering and trapping him in the corridors and hallways of his school and provoking him to fight his way free, thus inevitably injuring himself and not causing any of them to claim responsibility for his broken bones and bruising. His schoolmates were extremely cruel, as children often are, and sometimes made life for Thomas seem like a living hell.

It wasn’t just the other boys, either. Thomas also had a hard time finding the courage to speak to the young girls at his school, who found his appearance to be grotesque and despite his perfect manners and positive approach, not one of them would even give him the time of day. As the years crept by he became isolated, sad and alone, constantly looking over his shoulder only to catch snippets of hushed conversations and the jokes they would make at his expense.

Most of the time he sat by himself and during recesses would try to find an empty classroom to hide in so as to avoid the other children. He would then sit quietly and read until his next class, sometimes books about birds and animals but mostly fantastic stories of far-off worlds and amazing, wonderful people. Anything which might provide an escape from the reality of his own deformities. He also loved to paint and draw, and spent a lot of time trying to recreate those places and animals he had read about, particularly birds in flight. There seemed to be something about how easy it was for them to just pick up and move on at any moment they wanted to that appealed to him.

Often too he had found it all to be too much and would sometimes rush home from school early and burst into tears in front of his mother and grandmother, who would try their hardest to console him. “Why do I look like this..?” he would cry, “Did I do something to deserve it..? I’m a monster..!” He was so clearly wounded by the way that his classmates treated him, and it broke his mother’s heart.

She loved Thomas dearly, and on her own mother’s advice had come to look at his disabilities as a gift – he had in spite of everything developed an amazing empathy and sense of morality, and was painstakingly polite, concerned and well-behaved. “He is every mother’s dream,” she would often say to her, “take it as a blessing.” Deeply hurt, Kathleen would simply hold him close and remind him of just how special he was to her, and that things would get better in time.

Thomas himself found this hard to believe. As the years went by, he found that the hump on his back still seemed to be growing, although he noticed his bones to strengthen a little as he grew. His grandmother would make and alter clothing to fit around the long hunch between his shoulders which ran from the base of his spine and broadened as it reached toward the back of his head, forming a dense and irregular lump that jutted-out and made fitting into normal clothes almost impossible.

He had been forced to wear the same metal braces on his legs that one could expect to be found on a child with rickets, and whenever his class had had to take physical education, his doctor insisted that a special lined helmet and pads be worn, which only further fuelled the teasing, bullying and name-calling he received from the other students.

On the morning of his twelfth birthday, Thomas awoke to find a special breakfast that his grandmother had prepared waiting for him downstairs. It was his favourite – buttered toast, scrambled eggs and bacon, and although his mother had started work early that day, she had also left a small gift for him on the kitchen counter, which he couldn’t wait to unwrap. As soon as he had finished eating, he threw a quick glance at his grandmother who smiled and nodded, and he then proceeded gleefully to tear the brightly coloured blue and green wrapping paper from around it.

He gasped audibly as he held up a packet of brightly coloured pastels and a beautifully adorned sketch book that his mother had herself decorated by hand, with his name embossed in metal leaf on the front cover. He couldn’t believe it, and the smile that her gift had brought to his face quickly spread to his grandmother who told him to “Put that safely in your schoolbag dear, and thank your mother when you get home.” She turned to start cleaning the dishes, and Thomas did as she asked before securing his braces and leaving through the front door, a spring in his step.

As much as he loved his mother, he had grown to develop a strong affinity with his grandmother who seemed always to have the time to spend with him. Without his father around, Thomas needed as much support from his family as he could get and he was always excited and challenged by the wisdom she would impart to him.

She had used to read and tell stories to him as he lay in agony in his younger years, her soothing voice helping to calm him down as she spoke softly of far away places, clear skies and new and different people. While broken bones set and the sting of mockery and abuse burned deep within him, she would always be there to take his mind off of the pain and spirit him away to a world of possibilities.

Kathleen had become quite busy in working alone to provide for him, and with her mother now retired it was a welcome helping hand that she could provide by staying home and looking after Thomas while she was out. She stood by the kitchen window and watched him leave, inspired as always by his ability to smile in spite of his hardship and prayed as she always did for his safety and happiness.

Thomas arrived at school that day just in time to make it to his home room before his teacher, Miss Davis closed the doors locking any stragglers out. He was moving down the aisle between two rows of desks, rushing to reach a seat at the back of the room when all of a sudden his feet slipped out from under him and he came crashing to the ground.

His books flew into the air as he threw his arms forward to stop himself from landing face-first, and as his left wrist connected with the classroom floor the air was split by a sickening crunch as his brittle bones shattered under the weight of his body. Several students gasped and two girls screamed as they caught a glimpse of his twisted left hand, flopping about on the end of his arm while he himself rolled over and yelled in pain.

Thomas lay on the ground wincing in agony, and as he braced his wrist and went to sit up he saw two of his classmates high-fiving each other. One of the two boys, a bully named Mark was dragging his leg back from the aisle as they did and it was more than obvious that he had tripped him up. Miss Davis quickly rushed across the room to look after Thomas, helping him to his feet and asked him what had happened.

Thomas looked up at Mark who glared threateningly back at him, before saying, “It’s nothing, my.. my foot caught on the desk leg. I must have tripped – I’m so sorry.” She frowned, not entirely convinced and he choked back tears as he held his wounded arm close and was escorted out of class and to the sick bay by another student. As usual she had had her back turned to the class when the incident occurred, and as she did not see what had taken place could do little more about it besides calling his mother.

As he sat in the sick bay, Thomas took out his new sketch book from his bag and with his right hand began to draw a colourful scene of a lush green meadow, complete with horses, birds and butterflies. He knew it would be awhile before his mother would be able to stop by and pick him up, and used the time to take his mind off of his injury. Eventually she did arrive and rushed into the sick bay to hold him close, saddened to see her son yet again sitting there, hurt and alone.

“What happened..?” she asked, holding out his wrist, “Did one of the other boys do this to you..?” He then gave her the same story that he had given Miss Davis a short time earlier, despite knowing full well that he had been tripped on purpose. In spite of what had happened, he felt that there wasn’t much point to retaliating and getting Mark in trouble. Thomas then remembered his birthday gift, and kissed his mother on the cheek, “Thank you so much, Mama – it’s just what I needed.” The two of them returned home where he sat and rested under the gentle shade of a tall oak tree in the yard, drawing away while she watched from the kitchen window feeling fearful and concerned.

The next day, Thomas returned to school with his left arm braced and bandaged. It did little good for the school nurse to apply plaster, as if they had done so for every time he’d broken anything he’d never have had it taken off. Luckily he found his bones to knit quite quickly, and all that was needed were a few sturdy steel rods and tightly wound bandages to hold it rigid. He had made it through his home room class without any further incident this time around, although the same boy Mark and his best friend Danny had spent an unusual amount of time staring back at him, laughing and whispering to each other which made him feel uneasy.

Mark’s own parents had recently separated, and this had caused him to look outward for ways to distract himself from what had become a volatile situation at home. He had teased and bullied Thomas in the past, but now more than ever he hounded the boy, finding him to be a useful tool for escaping from his own problems. Danny was his lackey, and seemed himself to take a kind of sick thrill in picking on the weak and vulnerable.

The bell eventually rang for recess, and as usual Thomas waited for all of the other children to leave before discreetly making his way for the door and scanning the buildings for a room that looked to be unoccupied. He wandered across to a long row of classrooms with his book and pastels in hand and peered through a window whilst standing in the garden bed outside. “Yes,” he thought to himself, “no students or teachers – this is the one.” He then turned around to make his way to the entrance and suddenly stopped dead. Mark and Danny were right there, standing arms crossed and staring him down with their usual throng of followers. They had quietly formed a semi-circle around him and as he stood back against the wall, he began to feel fearful and claustrophobic. Mark spoke first:

“Hey Rickets – just what do you think you’re doing, peering in the windows like that..? Are you some sort of Peeping Tom..?” The children around him laughed, and Thomas gulped before replying, “Hi Mark, no I was just seeing if the class was empty, I.. I just wanted somewhere to sit and draw, that’s all.” The other children giggled, and Mark stepped forward to snatch the sketch book out of his hands, causing his brand new pastel set to drop to the ground and several to shatter as they fell. “What have we got here..?” he asked.

He held the book up to the others, saying, “Get a load of this, guys – it’s Quasimodo’s colouring book..! Let’s take a look and see what the freak’s been doodling.” He then proceeded to tear-out the first few pages that Thomas had been working on, laughing as he did and poking fun at the colourful and imaginative landscapes that he had put so much effort into the day before.

“You’re a real little sissy, aren’t you Tom,” he said, as Thomas’ eyes began to fill with tears, “you wouldn’t think someone with a back like yours could be such a spineless runt.” They began to push Thomas around now, and Mark and Danny both spat in his sketch book before hurling it face-down to the ground and stomping on it. This was the final straw, and Thomas suddenly felt something uncontrollable stirring in him that he’d tried for many years to suppress.

It wasn’t anger, and it definitely wasn’t hate. It was a strong and overpowering feeling of injustice at what was happening to him, and although he had become adept at bottling these sorts of feelings up whenever he was being bullied, the sight of his mother’s gift lying ripped and dirty on the ground and the vivid, colourful smear of his brand new pastel set that had been stomped into the concrete caused him to finally lose control and do something he knew would have dire consequences.

Out of nowhere, he balled his right hand into a fist and reached his crooked shoulder back as Mark, Danny and the rest of the boys suddenly hesitated. He swung his right arm with all of his might, and punched Mark across the jaw with such force that he knew even before the feeling registered that he had broken his hand. The blow sent Mark staggering back and as his arm followed through, Thomas twisted to his left and fell to his knees.

An excruciating pain coursed through his arm as he quickly rose again and found his feet, and for a long minute nobody moved. Thomas had never retaliated before when picked on by the other students, not even once. None of them knew just how to react at first, except for Mark who spat a mouthful of blood to the ground and raised the fingers of his left hand up to touch his lip that that had been split wide by the blow.

Nobody made a sound as the two just stared at each other, contemplating their next move. Mark was breathing heavily and was seeing red, “How dare that hunchbacked little freak fight back..!” he thought to himself, “Hit me..? I’ll break every delicate bone in his twisted little body..!” He was incensed and given his troubles at home considered this to be the perfect way to loose his aggression and get his mind off of the reality that he found himself trapped in. He pointed at Thomas finally, saying coldly, “You’re dead,” and turned to the others to command, “Danny, guys – let’s get the freak..!”

Thomas knew straight away that they were going make him pay for what he’d done, and he knew that they would chase him, beat him and there was even the real possibility that they might cause permanent damage. As little as he cared for his own welfare, he just couldn’t live with himself knowing that he would be responsible for putting his dear mother through such an ordeal and quickly decided that he needed to flee. Before the other children could react, he pushed past Danny and the rest and ran as fast as his legs would carry him, through the playground and out past the schoolyard gates.

The other boys were now so worked up that they took no notice that they too were leaving the school grounds, and they ran out of the gate and chased Thomas down the main street and towards the centre of town. He was running faster that he had ever ran in his life, and could feel his lungs burning and his knees beginning to buckle as his feet pounded the pavement. He knew that he couldn’t go on much further, that he would have to slow down and eventually stop moving altogether and so started to look around for somewhere that he might hide to give them the slip.

They were gaining on him quickly, so he couldn’t simply crouch behind a vehicle or run into an alleyway and besides, the last thing that he wanted was to find himself cornered again. He veered off from the road and sprinted through the doors of the local hospital which he knew was a big enough building to hide in, at least for a little while.

St. Mary’s was in fact the largest building in town, and rose six stories high above the rest of the shops and businesses around it. Thomas flew through the doors and quickly slowed down as he approached reception, careful not to attract any unwanted attention. He gave the receptionist a quick and nervous smile which she returned before he made his way over to the elevators – he was often visiting the hospital for one reason or another, and from his already bandaged arm she had just assumed he was in for another routine follow-up.

Not far behind him, Mark, Danny and the others also reached the glass entrance of the hospital, slowed down and casually wandered past while the receptionist’s back was turned. Just as the elevator doors closed and Thomas disappeared from view, Mark pointed and said to the others, “The elevators – he’s going up..!”

They stood by the grey metal doors and watched the panel above them to see what floor Thomas had gotten of at. “1.. 2.. 3..” the numbers climbed, “4.. 5.. 6.. R.” The display stopped there and Thomas leapt out of the elevator shaft as he reached the roof, and he searched for somewhere to hide hoping that the others had been caught in the hospital foyer and thrown back out again.

They hadn’t however, and squeezed into the next idle elevator, pressing ‘R’ for the roof of the building and slapped and high-five each other for their cleverness. If he was in fact on the roof, then he was trapped. Thomas had decided to hide behind a large steel vent on top of the building and when he finally stopped moving, he collapsed to the ground to catch his breath.

His hand was throbbing and he could tell just by looking at it that several bones had been smashed or jolted out of place when he lashed-out at Mark. His left arm was still useless and his legs ached from the long sprint down Main Street. He knew that if he was found up there, there would be nothing that he could possibly do to defend himself, and nowhere left to run.

Mama had brought him up to be religious. She had taught him from an early age of her God, his angels and of heaven as she knew it, and would read to him from the bible often as he lay in bed either at home or in that very same hospital. As he sat on the roof out of view, he looked skyward and prayed that he might stay hidden and if not, that he might find mercy in the hearts of those who sought to do him harm.

Just as he finished his prayer, he heard the unmistakeable rattle of the elevator doors as they slowly squeaked open again from across the roof, and held his breath as he peeked out over the top of the vent. “Please help me,” he said to himself, “please get me out of here.” He was shaking with fear as they left the confines of the elevator shaft and spread-out across the roof of the building to look for him. The winds up there had suddenly become fierce, and several almost lost their footing as a gale swept across it.

It was only a matter of seconds before Danny reached the vent, and after peering around the side of it he turned and called back to the others, “Hey Mark, guys – I’ve found the little freak. Get over here..!” The rest of the boys converged on where he was hiding and again formed a semi-circle around him, trapping him at the edge of the building while Mark wandered over, glaring at Thomas with a fire in his eyes that resembled pure hatred. The long cut on the left side of his lower lip had dried, and he touched it with his tongue as he stood there, sizing up Thomas who was now himself as white as a sheet.

“So you think you’re a tough guy do you, Rickets..? Think you can step-up and hold your own in a fight – well I don’t think you can. I think we need to see if you can take a punch as well as you can give one first, hey guys..?” He threw his arms wide, bobbed his head and looked around the group, the rest of the boys laughing and egging him on. Thomas felt like he was about to be sick, and as he stood there, his hair tussled by the wild wind and waiting for yet another in an endless line of inevitable beatings, his mind wandered to a more peaceful place. He closed his eyes for a moment, and imagined that he was miles away from Mark, his school and its students and high above the town, far beyond the reach of anyone and just looking down at the rest of the world below.

Suddenly, he felt a strong serenity wash over him and opened his eyes again to see Mark pointing at him and laughing derisively. “What’s the matter, Tom, not going to faint on us, are you..?” he taunted. Thomas was tired. He was tired of the bullying, and the teasing. Tired of the names, the beatings and being pushed around by people that he knew would never, ever stop. He was tired of the pointless lessons, of the small town and its selfish people and suddenly from somewhere deep inside him was overcome by the feeling that it was time for him to move on, time to leave it all behind. Time to put an end to it all.

As the others watched-on in surprise, Thomas climbed up on the ledge at the front edge of the roof behind him and stood facing his attackers. As he found his feet, his thoughts suddenly turned to his mother, and his face sank as he somehow realised that he was about to leave, and might not ever see her again. But as the winds once again picked up, he felt sure that it was time. Time to let go.

“What the hell are you doing, freak..?” Mark called out to him, his voice nearly drowned-out by the rising winds, “Are you trying to get yourself killed..? Get back down here and take your medicine like a man.” Mark nodded to Danny and the others to pull him down, and several of the boys began to slowly edge towards Thomas who was standing perfectly still and staring up and out above their heads. They were only a couple of feet away from closing in on him and about to reach out when the most amazing thing happened, stopping them dead in their tracks.

Above the roar of the wind, the children suddenly heard a loud crack and a sound like the tearing of fabric from behind Thomas, and backed away as his face suddenly contorted into a wild and horrible mask of pain. He buckled and screamed a bloodcurdling scream as two magnificent feathered wings burst forth dramatically from the misshapen hump on his back and stretched-out either side of him, billowing majestically in the wind as it coursed over them. None of them could believe what they were seeing.

From somewhere deep within he had always known that this day would come. He had never known his father, yet to him Michael had always been more than just a faceless soldier. He had listened intently to his mother as she read from the New Testament, riveted and awestruck by those tales of angels and names that somehow seemed comfortable and familiar.

The other children just stood in front of Thomas, mouths agape and their eyes staring as his massive white feathered wings flexed and ruffled beside him, drops of a strange amniotic fluid dripping from them as they shuddered. No-one spoke for a long minute, before Mark looked up at him and asked, “What in God’s name..?”

“What indeed,” Thomas smiled to himself, “In God’s name.” He turned on the ledge then and faced the chill wind, smiling broadly he raised his arms and felt it run over his body. Only now could he understand just how important it had been that his bones remain light and hollow, and he took one last look over his shoulder at the other children before flapping his mighty wings for the first time, and taking-off into the clear and endless skies of his imagination. As the others watched him disappear into the distance, they could just make out a second dark and similarly winged figure descend from the clouds to join him before they both vanished skyward and out of view forever.

Kathleen was leaving the cafe in town that she had worked at for most of the morning when she heard the distant beating of wings from the sky above her, and looked up just in time to make out two huge shadows as they flew across the face of the midday sun and away into the distance. “Mike..” she said softly to herself, dropping her coffee as she realised what had happened. Somehow she knew, somehow she had always known and was filled with a profound calm as she stood and watched them go.

The sketch book that still lay in the playground had blown over in the sudden winds, and when it finally stilled the pages had stopped upon a drawing that Thomas had made the day before, a drawing of a pale blue sky above a sea of white clouds, and two winged angels soaring high above.

A Quick Teaser Chapter from the ‘Alluvion’ Novel

Here is a quick teaser chapter, from the forthcoming ‘Alluvion’ novel:

‘ALLUVION’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

ii. Prologue: Fall of the Ancients

‘.. this knowledge was given me, through the words of our elders that when the world was still warming there dwelt to the north a powerful race of men unlike any that we today could call our kin. Hidden far beyond shadow for centuries, they were a cruel and calculating people, possessed of a terrible wisdom and intelligence inherited from ancient times, and which they would have used to control and enslave the free-men of the Southern lands. The Ancient Ones, as we called them, were as deadly in the fields and vales of the South as they were in their cities beyond the mountains of ice, and stories of their raids and acts of savagery on the lands bordering the North remain to this day the tales told to scare our children on cold nights by the firelight.

I have come to know that the Northmen were in fact the first men, who millennia ago had once conquered and subdued the world from the farthest south and across the seas, and through sorceries since lost to them had mastered the secrets of fire and flight. In an age where true monsters still roamed the Earth, the Ancient Ones rose to proclaim themselves as a godhead; a power without equal. Matchless artisans, they had hewn a great many marvels and empires from solid stone, and would have sustained dominion over the world had the great mountains of ice not marched from their Northern realm to reclaim those lands taken from them. In a swift and catastrophic upheaval, the Southern continent which they called their home was too vanished beneath the seas as if by the throes of a wrathful leviathan, leaving their scattered brethren without to endure the coming Winter, near endless as it was.

For the true Gods are indeed jealous, and spare no avarice for the likes of mortal men.

What few survived emerged from the ice aeons later to find a new and different world, filled with new and different people. As the climate warmed and the men of the North ventured farther from conditions they knew, they were shocked at the multitude and prosperity of those frail, primitive creatures that had usurped the now fertile lands beyond their frozen prison. Enraged and incensed by their unearned entitlement, and with minds harkening to prior greatnesses now little more than a fading memory, they declared total and immediate war upon the free peoples of Silur-Mah in an effort to reclaim their world.

It is said then that a struggle for control of the South and indeed for the very survival of humankind spanned generations, costing the lives of countless thousands on either side and by the destructive forces of northern alchemy, reduced cities and vast tracts of land to little more than barren wastes. Only through the sheer strength of numbers were the people of Silur-Mah, or the ‘Magnificent South’ eventually victorious, as although the Ancient Ones may have been blessed with knowledge and extraordinarily long life, their numbers had become scarce and reproduction far diminished. Few that survived were captured, tortured and paraded through the towns of men in the years that followed, the rest put quickly to death in perhaps the most holistic genocide the world had ever seen.

Those half-cast as a result of their capture and the atrocities that followed the burning were exiled to the hills and wildernesses outside the city gates, seldom seen and reviled to the end of their days. It was decreed an abomination that the Gods would allow the blood of Northerner and Southerner to mix, the resulting seed and spirit regarded as a tainted monstrosity in the eyes of their religion. It has been said that the half-cast, miserable as they were came to refer to themselves as Watchers, and that theirs is a secluded and seldom seen settlement I have come to know as Uru-Mah, several leagues to the north.

Hundreds of years have passed since the War of the Ancients, warm and fertile years and seasons that have seen the men and women of the South blossom once more. Villages, through hunting grounds now teeming with game have swollen into city-states, others by tactful trade and military might have become strongholds and places where the higher arts are allowed to flourish, and the religion of the Seers is studied without distraction.

It is from a small village of hunters and gatherers to the south of Uru-Mah called Nevalı Çori where our story begins, in the home of the family Tau on the first morning of Spring, the year 10,908BCE..’

– Skara Tau, 23AC

01. .. of Antlers and Aurochs

“Give that back..!” demanded Kirti in a fluster, “Give me back my doll, or I’ll tell Father and he’ll make you give it back..!” She then proceeded to ball her little fists, clench her tiny teeth and give him as threatening a glare as she could muster, from well above her eyebrows. Small though she was, what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in earnest.

“It’s not yours,” teased her brother, Harna, “Father gave it to us both, and you’ve played with it long enough..!” he exclaimed, before grinning cheekily and running out of the house, his sister at his heels screaming in hot pursuit. He was lying of course, and in truth he could have cared less for the toy, but as with all young boys through the ages, Harna just could not resist winding up his little sister.

The two siblings had been cooped up in close quarters for all of what had proven to have been a particularly long and uncomfortable Winter, and were now unsurprisingly bursting at the seams with energy at the first rays of Spring sunshine. Kirti was five years old, flighty and with soft blonde hair while Harna was nearly eight, tall for his age with piercing blue eyes and thick, dark hair like his father and according to constant reminder from their mother, should know better.

The two ran frantic into the now bustling central plaza which divided the four precincts of their village, spooking a mule laden with fresh fruit and wild roots and nearly knocking over a butcher’s bench in the process. If one thing above all else could be considered vital to the peaceful coexistence of their modest community, it must have been the daily hunt for and division of fresh meat, fruits and roots. It is this fact which prompted the butcher whose table had been upset to raise both children sharply from off their feet by the scruff of their necks before bellowing loudly for all around to hear:

“Where is the mother of these two wild animals, who would nearly cause waste of a morning’s hunt..? Come out and claim them, woman, before it’s them that meets my blade..!” Several villagers, women and children stopped then and looked around, waiting for an answer for what was in truth a frightening thing to say of children.

“Let them down, butcher,” returned a voice from the crowd. A man of staggering height and build moved slowly through the crowd of mid-morning onlookers to address the butcher, graceful and even-voiced in spite of his stature, “they only play as any children might after the Winter we’ve had.”

The voice belonged to one Skara Tau, a huntsman and father to the two children. Skara had himself only just returned from the hills north of the village with his first kill of the season, delayed from a meeting previously arranged with an emissary from the city capital, Çatalhöyük. At this, the other man released the son and daughter and returned to his work, muttering warnings for wild children to no-one in particular as he did. Both siblings ran immediately for their father, Kirti pausing only momentarily to poke a tongue back at the butcher, who dismissed the gesture with a wide swipe of one hand.

“Father, Father..!” gushed the two children, both of them gazing excitedly upwards toward the mountain of a man who kneeled to embrace them both, “Did you meet with Mua’dar..? Did he bring you news from the capital – has he brought word from Ihreikas..?” they blurted, asking whether their father had received decree from their king to the west.

“Yes Daddy, did you bring us back anything from your journey, a doll for Harna, maybe..?” chimed Kirti with a smirk, prompting a red-faced scowl from Harna, embarrassed at the inference that he would actually still toy with such things. He quickly pushed the effigy they had quarrelled over moments before towards his sister, and returned an expectant gaze towards his father, who was still processing their flurry of questions.

“There is word..” he started, “but I’ll have you know in time. Now where’s your mother, I’ve game to have her prepare.” He again raised himself, hoisting Kirti up with a strong right arm and with a gentle left hand upon Harna’s shoulder, guided the two of them back towards the family home. Skara noticed then that their faces had dropped somewhat at the dismissal of their inquiries, and so as they walked discreetly produced two magnificently adorned articles from within the folds of his cloak; one woven headdress, beautifully crafted from vine and bead and embellished with red silk which he handed to Kirti, who squealed with excitement.

For Harna he had been gifted an ivory dagger from the emissary, into the handle of which was carved an intricate relief depicting the hunt and capture of a wild gazelle, its antlers stretching out to form the hilt. The blade was double-edged, and sliced Harna’s thumb ever so slightly as he ran it across its length, to test. “Now you be careful with that blade, child,” Skara warned, “that one is no toy. I had it carved just for you, to prepare for many a successful hunt ahead. I expect you’ll join us in a season or two, despite what your mother might say.”

Kirti bubbled and squeaked over her headdress for the remainder of the walk back to their home, while Harna, transfixed by the craftsmanship of the ivory blade and the promise of the hunt did not say a single word.

The three reached the small wooden hut at the southern edge of the village, and both Harna and Kirti immediately ran inside to admire their gifts, to Skara’s laughter. He then wandered around the outside of the circular building, hoping to find Sura, his wife and the mother of his children working either at the grinding stone or else preparing a bench for the morning’s kill, however she was nowhere to be found. “Strange,” he muttered to himself, “perhaps she has taken clothing, and is with her sisters at the river..“ and before he could finish the thought, two slender hands crept from around the back of his head, covering both of his eyes. “Guess who..?” sang a soft voice, through a creeping smile she could not suppress.

“I’m not sure,” said Skara lowly, trying with all his might to stifle a smile himself, “but it sounds like.. RAIDERS..!” he shouted and turned quickly around and with his barrel-like arms lifted Sura high into the air by her tiny waist, spinning her around several times as she gasped and laughed with delight. He had been away for several days, roaming the hills and valleys in search of game (it had been said that a herd of auroch had passed nearby the village on the day of their departure, an opportunity that if true, simply could not be ignored), and Sura had missed her husband deeply, as always. Skara gently lowered her back to the ground, the two embracing passionately and once again, they were complete.

Skara brought his wife back to the far room of the house, beyond a hanging curtain where they then made love as husband and wife all the more meaningfully for their time apart. As always when he left for the hunt, his wife played constantly on his mind. Her soft voice, gentle curves and the touch of her body. She too ached for his return, and once across the threshold they could never wait for very long before shedding their clothes. Nothing about this was unusual in their village, either. Sura’s passionate cries as she was fulfilled were as typical in the air as the songs of birds, the cries of the newborn or the last breath of the dying. Such was the relationship with love, life and death in the village of Nevalı Çori.

“How was the hunt, my love..?” she asked lovingly from their couch as he caught his breath, “Tell me, did you find the auroch..?” She gazed expectantly up into his eyes, studying them as if believing she could find the answer there even before he spoke.

“Aye, we found a few.. stragglers only, the weak and ill. The herd must have made swift passage across the valley before we set out, possibly spooked by a predator.” He appeared visibly disappointed momentarily, dropping his countenance however he quickly recalled their fortunate return, “We may not have auroch enough to share amongst us, but bison we found on our way back to you – three were taken and remain in the plaza to be divided. We’ll not need leave of the village again for days.”

At this, Sura beamed – a successful hunt often meant a longer time spent together, the four of them as a family. So often through the Winter months, when game was most scarce and the soil unyielding the huntsmen would leave sometimes for days at a time, unable and unwilling to return until sufficient food could be brought back to feed their families. During these times, those left behind would often turn to talk of raiders and speculate as to whether the hunters would return. Sura too had become uneasy during these absences, and often found herself at the receiving end of covetous stares from those children and men left behind. Fortunately however, they were never so far from returning and with the imposing presence of Skara within striking distance, she feared neither man nor beast.

“Always must you leave us, but ever you provide,” she smiled, “I will leave shortly for the plaza, and return with your claim. Meanwhile, pray tell me – did you meet with Mua’dar, and what of it..?” Skara had made a point of keeping his family appraised of any dealings with the capital. As He-Xur, the blood-chieftain of their village had been in the court of their king at Çatalhöyük for many weeks, Skara, as strongest and the most able hunter had been named the honorary chieftain in his stead, receiving all word and counsel from the capital by way of emissary. His duties otherwise were largely unaffected, though a larger claim of any hunt was offered and of course warmly welcomed for his trouble.

“Come,” he replied, “let us gather the children, and I will tell you of Mua’dar and of the capital.” They walked arm-in-arm into the larger room of their home, and sat with their children by the dying morning fire, both of whom stopped admiring their gifts and looked expectantly to their father, remembering now those earlier questions left unanswered. Skara stoked the embers, in an attempt to chase the spring chill from within the dwelling, and started with a long, drawn-out sigh:

“Mua’dar has spoken of tensions in the capital..” he started, furrowing his brow, “the Seers have foretold of hardship, of omens proclaiming a great conflict, a destruction. They say that the constellations bleed, and a time for war again draws near..” he paused for a moment, first to reflect on his words, and then to assess the level of panic in the faces of his kin. Met with only looks of controlled concern and thirsts still unslaked, he went on, “Many of their order interpret these signs as a foretelling of a catastrophe, or famine. They believe that the Gods are once more vengeful toward the South, and would again send forth their mountains of ice to destroy us. Our king He-Tauhasa Ihreikas however, and indeed He-Xur believe this sign to tell of a coming war, of an invasion from the West..”

“An invasion..?” Sura interrupted him, unwilling or able to comprehend just what this might have meant. Nevalı Çori had never seen conflict, not since their kin had settled in the green valleys south of the high country several hundred years earlier. Their village was founded and had established itself as a small but close-knit community of hunters and craftsmen, and was hardly prepared at all for defence against invaders. In truth, the only reason that the bands of nomadic raiders that roamed about the hills and valleys to the North had never attempted ingress into the village was due to the ready abundance of game, clean streams and rivers teeming with fish and perhaps also, the promise of retribution from the capital.

“An invasion.” Skara went on, “Few among the Seers subscribe to this interpretation, but they are the highest of their order and carry the most influence. Ihreikas would risk poorer fortune still to go against the recommendations of his priests, and so considers arming the capital to prepare for war. He would strike our neighbours to the West before they would have a chance to do the same, and seeks counsel on whether to call home his villagers to join him.” Skara stared solemnly into the embers for a moment, considering the gravity of those words spoken. “No command has yet been given. We as they merely await the signs, and can do little more for now.” He waved a backhand at the air beside him, as if dismissing the situation for the time being.

There was a long silence as the three digested the information given to them. After several moments, Kirti was the first to speak, looking her father square in the face and with a complete deadpan seriousness, arguing, “They’re wrong, you know. The signs mean the Gods are blessing me with a sister, so that when Harna steals my toys we can beat him up..!” She laughed and without warning jumped up on her brother’s lap, landing with such force that his eyes nearly popped out of his head. As was the only reasonable reaction to such news. Skara laughed a booming laugh while Sura just smiled, and shook her head.

If only she could have shaken the feeling of dread gnawing deep in the pit of her stomach.

Three comfortable days had passed since Skara’s return to the village before stores had again run low, and the need to send the men of the village out once more to hunt had arrived. The bison from their last trip had been plentiful enough to allow for a great feast on the eve of their return, and amidst open fire and clear skies, the entire village had gathered to celebrate the beginning of the Spring season. In a rare gesture as thanks to the Gods for the end of another Winter, crudely-brewed beer stored throughout the Winter was offered to all, and the merriment and festivities carried on well into the night.

On this day however, Skara addressed his huntsmen asking of them to follow him further north this time, to where the frosts had now only just begun to melt and wild boar and oxen would return to the hills surrounding the green valley. He suspected that larger game would return to the hills quickly in search of fresh blooming plants and grasses, rejuvenated by the coming warmth and not expecting to yet encounter predators that were likely still weak from months of hibernation, or else themselves hunting farther south. Once all were prepared and present he began, addressing them with a trademark curtness: “We head north,” he started, “several leagues and if we must, as far as the foothills of the great plateau. We’re looking for larger beasts this time, and any man able to fell an oxen or auroch has his choice of share. We leave immediately.”

At this the company hoo-ha’d abruptly, and offered farewell and comfort to their families before beginning their long march north. Skara embraced Sura and the children, perhaps a little tighter than comfortable before telling them, “Look after your dear mother as always.” He turned to Harna, “Don’t let any harm come to her, and if you play up – you know I’ll find out.” He gave them both a stern look, before then smiling broadly, matting their hair and after a quick and passionate kiss, bid Sura farewell once again.

Skara did not like to leave Sura and the children, and were it not his duty to would have loved nothing more than to spend his remaining days doting on and teaching them the ways of the world. His stories, few as they were of the capital and of legends passed-on to him by his father, and his father before him, tales of beasts and Northmen, of Seers and spells had entranced Harna and Kirti on long, cold Winter nights by the hearth. He remembered his own sense of wonder in hearing for the first time of the heroism and valiance his forebears had shown in carving through the wild-men and predators that once called the green valley theirs, and of his disbelief at the sheer scale of the War of the Ancients as told by his grandfather. “Surely,” he had thought to himself, “no race could be possessed of such power as those Ancients are said to have wielded.”

If he was to be completely honest, part of him still doubted the truth in many of those stories. Stories that had told of villages and cities burned to the ground in a hail of fire, conjured from the heavens, or of giant war elephants from the North descending from the mountains, armour-clad and as big as hills trampling whole armies underfoot. Compared to the world he knew, the modest life of a hunter in the valley, such stories might as well have come from the imaginations of his children, rather than being told to them. It was his duty, however to honour his forebears by passing down these and other such tales, as much as it was his duty to leave for the hunt to sustain them, and the rest of the village he loved. “Such is my lot,” he ever mused, “and that of the company I keep.”

The group departed the village mid-morning, heading first east to leave the valley, then north by northwest following by night the guiding light of Deneb until they would reach the foothills. There they would camp and prepare for a full day’s kill, praying first to the pantheon for their slings and arrows to fly true, and spears and blades to cut deep. The company on this day was as always every able-bodied male of age, and only children as young as ten and those unable to endure the hunt for legitimate reason were allowed to stay behind. Often this might well comprise the aged or infirm, or the otherwise handicapped however on this occasion only Harna and a number of other young boys were left at home. The Winter had indeed been harsh, and all three village elders that remained that year were claimed before its break.

As they walked, the group began as they always would while still within earshot of the village by breaking into the Lover’s Song, as each of them had heard their fathers sing before them when they too left the mothers of their children, and departed for the lands beyond. The song began, as follows;

“While they, the women did pass on their way
While She, Inana, did pass yesterday
While they passed the day, and did so dancing
They sang sweet songs, and on into the evening

They met us, they met us
The High, the friend of Anu did meet us
The High took us into his arms and He met us
Ucumgal-Ana embraced us about the neck

Oh let us go, so that we might return to our home..!
Friend of Enlil let us go, so that we can return to our home..!

What lies can we offer our mothers..?
What lies can we offer our mothers, Ningal..?

Let me teach you, said She, let me teach you, Inana
Let me teach you the lies of women;

My lover was dancing with me in the square
She ran playfully with me, banging her drum
She sang her sweet songs for me in the square
I passed the day there with her in pleasure

Offer this as a lie to your own mother
As for me, let me make love with you by moonlight..!
Let me loosen your combs on the holy and luxuriant couch
May you pass a sweet day there with me in voluptuous pleasure..”

It is true that the song did go further into much more graphic detail regarding the inferred divine liaison, but it would only serve so much a purpose to delve into this at this point in the story. Suffice it to say, all took care to ensure that their loved ones were well and truly out of earshot at this point.

The company carried on singing, gathering more and more gusto with each verse until finally they were completely beyond sight of the village and once again in the wildernesses without. Skara reflected on their choice, theirs a song for men and men only. A song for those who would leave their loved ones behind, their mothers and women and who might seek to stave-off those feelings of loneliness, of longing for the warmth of home that came to all men. Knowing the Gods might provide, if only a fantasy to warm their hearts on the journey away was comfort enough to many. “Though this as painful as ever was,” he reckoned, “it could not compare with what might come to pass if the Seers visions are true.”

The group carried on their march into the day, crossing dozens of new streams birthed from the melting snow of the slowly thawing North as they went. The landscape was quickly turning from white and grey to a luscious, vibrant green as the waters and warmth fed the blooming hills. Flowers had begun to blossom from their thicket sanctuaries, trees were bursting into life and the air was filled with the songs and whistles of birds returning to nest amongst the canopies. The company felt a renewed sense of vigour as the day wore on, each man happy and optimistic at the visible promise of another bountiful season ahead.

Toward the end of the first day they found themselves making excellent time, having already reached the flats surrounding the foothills and so set a camp and fire to rest and prepare for the coming kill. Though they had not journeyed a great distance from their home, the lands around them were still somewhat unfamiliar and so a watch was arranged throughout the night to ensure that there were no surprise visitors. There had been talk of raiders farther north and east of the lands in which they found themselves, and as many of them were family men there was a feeling that extra precautions couldn’t hurt. The group drew lots for watch, set a fire and settled-in for a restful night’s sleep.

Just before midnight, Skara felt the touch of a cold hand on his shoulder, raising him to take a turn at watch on the northern edge of the campsite. It was a young forager-boy, who looked more than desperate for a good night’s sleep. As was his lot, he grunted, shook himself awake and made his way to the crest of a hillock overlooking the camp on one side, and the long and gradual incline preceding the plateau on the other. He stood first for several minutes, staring into the darkness to allow his eyes to adjust from the firelight he had awoken to, and standing face-first to a gentle mountain breeze, leaned on his spear and waited to be relieved.

Standing alone with his thoughts, he began to recall the folklore which surrounded the plateau, and the high-hills to the north. It had been said, in passing and through storytelling in his younger years that those half-bred, those born of men and the Ancients who called themselves the Watchers had settled several leagues to the north of where they now were camped, though neither he nor anyone he had ever known had ever actually seen them. He had only the stories of his childhood to go by and the warnings of his own father not to stray too close to the high hills, “lest the Watchers take their vengeance.” Children’s stories, he believed. As the years wore on, Skara found less and less patience to entertain the tales and warnings of monsters and beasts unseen, finding drama enough in the day-to-day struggle of the hunt, of a wife and the raising of two small children.

Suddenly however, about an hour into his watch, the winds stilled completely and Skara became aware of a presence, one that was extremely close-by. He started up, pulling his spear from the earth and turned a slow and complete 360 degrees, scouring the darkness for shadows that did not belong, his ears straining for the faintest scratch of movement in the undergrowth. The hairs on the back of his neck at full attention, he called weakly into the night so as not yet to awake the others, “Is anyone there..?” he started and waited a full minute, still straining for any sort of an answer. He called again, this time only ever so slightly louder, and walked softly out in the direction of the plateau, finally beyond reaches of the firelight..

.. it was then that he revealed himself, the Watcher in the dark.