UKArchive ID: 36566mitch
Originally published on May 30, 2016 in Fiction
Chapter 14 of the Light-Father: The three sisters are swept through the ruins of the bridge at the mercy the torrent. It will take all their strength to survive then something in Shield stirs as she finally awakens to her craft...
“Come on, Shield, don’t stop there,” Harold prompted. He raised the output of the lamp so that their shadows loomed upon the walls of his wagon. “Tell me what happened next.”
She sighed and placed a hand upon the coal-black staff laid across her lap. “It’s painful,” she whispered. “As a child, I thought that being the heroine in a saga would have been all noble and beautiful with exciting orchestral music getting louder as we faced great perils and struggled through to a happy ending. But this isn’t a cinema fantasy – there’s no music here but the sound of our own screams and no happy ending in a world where it always rains and all these Fathers and Mothers want to kill us or use us; where Ferals watch us and dogs and Tally-men hunt us.”
“I know it’s painful but like all the others you have to talk about what happened,” he urged. He handed her a small notebook and pen he’d found in Saul’s house. “You should all keep diaries and write it down or write poetry; anything. It may be awful and frightening but, like it or not, you are in a great saga and I know a real-life heroine when I see one.”
“If you say so, Light-Father,” she said with a half-smile. “But the memory is hard to bear because I nearly got us all killed…”
She despaired as the Barnacle swung out into the centre of the swollen river and was swept along in the fastest part of the current. “K-keep down!” she cried out in terror as Mouse curled up in the foetal position and screamed. Fierce stayed at the front, staring wild-eyed and white-faced as the Barnacle rocketed downstream, buffeted by debris and waves. “Lie flat in the bottom, Fierce. We have to keep the Barnacle as stable as possible – that’s what Dad said we should do in a stormy sea.”
“No!” Fierce snarled over her shoulder as Shield lay flat and wrapped her arms protectively around Mouse. “If I’m going to die, I want to see it coming!” she shouted. “I’m not a coward!” Despite that boast, she screeched with fear as a huge tree loomed over them then rolled slowly away almost swamping them as it crashed back down into the water like a wounded whale.
Shield immediately began bailing the water out with her frying-pan as Mouse clung to her in sheer terror. “Help me, Fierce,” she cried. “We’ll sink otherwise.”
“It won’t help because here’s the bridge and everything is getting smashed up as it goes through!” Fierce yelled and flung herself into Shield’s arms. Their screams were drowned by the roaring of water and the deafening grinding of debris that was steadily demolishing the rest of the bridge and the river walls beyond.
The Barnacle swung giddily in great eddies then it righted itself to rocket through the gap of a destroyed arch. The front plunged into a wave soaking them and filling the Barnacle over half-full with freezing floodwater. There was a great crash and a splintering of wood as a great oak slammed into a bridge support sending great blocks of masonry tumbling into the river.
Shield roused herself and resumed her frantic bailing with the frying-pan. She paused to slap the transfixed Fierce and Mouse across their faces and force the pans back into their hands as countless waves slopped into their life-raft which was now riding dangerously low in the water. “Bail!” she screamed at them. “If we don’t get this water out, we’ll sink!”
Stung into action, Fierce and Mouse responded with a frenzy of scooping until most of the water was cleared.
“Now we have to get to one of the banks,” Shield said as they raced past the once-magnificent riverside mansions of the Crawcester elite whose gardens were being submerged by the rising flood now sweeping downstream. “We’re almost out of the city and into the countryside but we have to stay in the city – it’s the only place we’re going to find food and shelter.”
“We’re st-still going to drown,” Mouse whimpered. “C-c-cold! I’m s-s-so c-c-cold!”
“We can’t paddle against this current,” Fierce said, ignoring her shivering little sister. “It’s impossible.”
“We don’t,” Shield decided. “Dad told me what do to if you got swept out to sea. He said you have to swim at an angle to the current to save energy – that way we can reach the bank and try to grab a tree or some branches or something and swing the Barnacle into shallower water where we can jump out or swim.”
“How can we do that?” Fierce demanded crossly. “We can’t hold on to anything - the water’s moving way too fast.”
“Wh-what about using this?” Mouse suggested.
“Of course, Mouse, the rope!” Shield exclaimed, grabbing the end of the coil and looping a length. She knotted it awkwardly, hampered by the growing numbness in her hands. “We’ll try getting into the shallows first then we’ll try to lasso a low tree branch or a post and pull ourselves in.”
She and Fierce paddled furiously and made several failed attempts to get into the flooded gardens but the water wasn’t deep enough to get the Barnacle over the bank and they were dragged back into the main current. With Fierce keeping them as close to the bank as she could, Shield tried lassoing branches and after six failures, she could feel her strength ebbing.
Then the top of a solid iron mooring-post came into view. It was set at the end of a huge sloping garden that led up to a large two-storey house which Shield knew instinctively would be the perfect place for them to hide out. “All or nothing – Mother Mary, guide my hand!” she yelled and hurled her rope lasso with all her might.
She’d put her whole will and heart into the effort but the lasso fell a yard short of the post. “God, no! Not after all we’ve been through!” she wailed then she convulsed as her anger and despair became a strange thrill, almost like an electric current, that ran up her body and concentrated at the centre of her forehead. Her jaw dropped as the lasso skipped off the water, rose up into the air and snared the mooring-post perfectly.
“Hoi! It bounced off the water! What a shot!” Fierce cheered as the Barnacle swung sedately to a halt some three metres from the submerged bank of the mansion’s riverside garden.
“Hosanna, Big Sis,” Mouse smiled but then she shivered violently. “I f-f-feel so c-cold.”
Shield didn’t hesitate and buoyed up by that strange energy, she lowered herself into the freezing water. She almost panicked as the savage undertow tugged at her legs so that they trailed behind her as she clung onto the edge of the fridge. “The current is really strong,” she gasped. “But I should be able to get to bank if I swim at an angle like Dad said.” She took a deep breath and let go and was swept downstream at an alarming rate but she managed to grasp an overhanging branch of a huge willow tree at the end of the garden and haul herself into the shallower water.
The bank was treacherous underfoot and gave way several times but she soon reached the Barnacle. “I’m going to use something to snag the rope and draw you in, Fierce. Where’s Mouse?”
“Huddled up in the bottom. She’s gone really pale. The cold water is really getting to her.”
“And me,” Shield said, struggling to keep her teeth from chattering. “Try to keep her awake. Dad told me that when you get really cold you mustn’t go to sleep or you’ll die.”
Frantically and with a huge sense of impending danger pressing down on her, she searched several flooded sheds and outhouses until she found a long boathook hanging on a wall. She felt her way with her feet to the bank’s edge and reached out with the long pole and snagged the rope. It took several tries and all of her failing strength to haul the Barnacle onto the bank. The water was waist-deep here and she realised that she could not let go or the current would swing it back out into the river.
“Fierce, climb out and take everything to the house and put it all on the steps by the back door.”
“But we have to get Mouse out - she’s just lying in the water.”
“Do as I say!” Shield yelled at her. “Without food and our weapons we’re going to die anyway and I can’t let go!”
Fierce nodded and immediately waded to and fro through the rising water as Shield kept talking to Mouse who was mumbling drowsily as she lay on her back in the waterlogged fridge. “It’s all right,” she smiled. “I feel warm but… so… sleepy…”
Fierce waded back but the water was now halfway up her chest and she was having difficulty keeping her footing.
“Take the boathook,” Shield said, handing it to her. “Go up the slope a bit and hold the Barnacle steady with it for as long as you can while I lean in and grab Mouse. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Fierce said bravely. She took up station, snagged the rope and gripped the boathook with all her might. “Ready!”
Shield heaved Mouse from the bottom of the fridge but Fierce was pulled forwards as the Barnacle began to quickly move away from the bank. Mouse was hauled out just before the boathook was torn from Fierce’s hands and the Barnacle swung back out upon the river. As they waded to safety, there was a titanic splintering and snapping of branches as several huge uprooted trees were carried downstream in a tangle of limbs. One of them smashed into the bank demolishing a boat-house before destroying both the mooring-post and the Barnacle.
Shield stared at the destruction with relief and disbelief – another ten seconds more and they would have all died. “We’ve got to get her warm,” she declared, panic gripping her as Mouse was not responding. “She’s hardly breathing!”
Fierce led the way in to a large drawing-room that overlooked the river and found wood and paper laid in the hearth. The room was dry as were the matches and she immediately set about getting a fire going. It took a while as the kindling was still damp from the heavy rain that had come down the chimney but it was obvious that these expensive houses had been spared the giant hail and the wedge-shaped vortex that they’d seen during the storm.
Shield’s heart rose as the wood crackled and snapped in the bright flames. She laid Mouse on a fur rug in front of the fire but she was barely responding and her eyes were rolling up and her eyelids were fluttering. “I’ll get these wet clothes off her. Fierce, do you think there are any dry towels upstairs?”
“We could ask him,” Fierce suggested, jerking a thumb at the high-backed armchair facing the patio doors.
Shield looked over the back and was almost sick with shock to find the desiccated corpse of an elderly man with a box of cigars, a glass and a bottle of brandy on the small table next to him.
“The poor man wanted to die while watching the river,” Fierce shrugged, seemingly unaffected by the body. “I’m surprised the place isn’t filled with flies or rats but at least he doesn’t stink. I’ll go and look for some towels.”
Shield had to tear her eyes away from that macabre sight to remove Mouse’s sodden clothing. Fierce returned and despite their own chills and aching fingers they towelled Mouse vigorously and wrapped her in the fur rug.
Shield added coal to the fire then opened the French doors to admit a chill damp breeze and the dull roar of the swollen river. With a grim determination and help from Fierce, she hauled the chair and its occupant out onto the steps and toppled them into the waters with a brief prayer for the man’s soul. “Forgive me,” she whispered as both corpse and chair drifted slowly away to be finally caught by the river current and swept downstream. “Well?” she said quietly. “Did you find anything else upstairs we can use?”
“I haven’t checked all the rooms but there are no flies or rat droppings up there so I think he must have lived in this big house by himself. This place is gigantic. He must have been very rich – not that it did him any good in the end.”
Shield closed the doors then she went out to search the kitchen. She found a clothes-horse, opened it out and hung Mouse’s clothes on it to dry. “Ugh, they stink,” she grumbled as she examined them. “We’ll have to wash them.”
“You don’t smell so good either,” Fierce said bluntly, holding her hands close to the fire. “Ah! I can feel my fingers again.”
“Take your clothes off and dry yourself,” Shield ordered and soon both girls were wrapped in thick towels and huddled around the fire feeling life slowly returning to their chilled limbs.
“That’s better,” Shield sighed contentedly. “I’ll go and bring the food and weapons in now and see what else is in the kitchen. Keep an eye on Mouse for me.”
“At least there’s some colour back into her face,” Fierce noted, placing a hand on her little sister’s head. “I love this place,” she added, indicating the old-fashioned furnishings and paintings. “It’s much nicer than that spooky old museum. You can imagine the men all coming in here from the dining room to have brandies and cigars in the old days to talk about politics and stuff while the women gossiped in the parlour. I’m glad I wasn’t alive then,” she said angrily. “If I was a woman, I’d be in here smoking cigars and drinking brandy and telling them how it should be done.”
Shield stood up and carefully tucked in her towels. She brought in all the weapons to set by the fire put their meagre stock of tins upon the kitchen table along with the sauce-pan and the one remaining frying-pan. She was relieved to find a well-stocked larder but she knew better than to open the fridge. She almost whooped with joy when she found skewers and jars of olives and sausages in brine. There were even boxes of vacuum packed smoked mackerel and meats and she realised that the late and recently departed owner must have been very wealthy indeed.
Mouse began to stir as the smell of hot food began to overpower the other fouler odours. “I had a horrible dream we were all drowning and that Father who came to the house was laughing at us with the blood pouring from the wound on his face,” she said miserably but she soon revived enough to nibble on a couple of sausages then wolf down some olives – her favourite food.
After their meal, they fell silent and leant against each other for reassurance, content to watch the dancing flames as midday came and went, savouring the novelty of a hot meal and actually being warm and dry for once. Mouse and Fierce eventually snuggled together on the fur rug and fell into a light doze but Shield could not sleep and having locked the back door and the French doors, she explored the house with a knife in her hand.
Upstairs, there were six bedrooms, two bathrooms and a study crammed with books and several computers. In the old man’s bedroom, the blankets were thrown back and the sheets stained with the ravages of the plague but on the wall above the bed was a large picture of the old man and his extensive family. She knew that they were all now dead apart from, she realised with a chill of foreboding, a boy of twelve who was proudly wearing the robes of a postulant of the Order.
Satisfied that there were no immediate threats in the house or on the road to the front, she returned to gaze into the angelic faces of her sleeping sisters. She smiled as she realised how much love she felt for them both despite Fierce’s stern character and Mouse’s impulsive but infectious laughter.
She went to the window to watch the grey river surging past but she was surprised and then puzzled to see a rowing boat come into view then cut impossibly across the fast-moving torrent. The oars were dipping leisurely into the water as if the oarsman was sculling across a calm lake. The boat entered the shallow waters covering the garden and halted at the bottom of the patio steps. Her mouth opened in shock as she saw her mother and the old man who owned the house sitting side by side upon the stern seat. They smiled and waved up at her then her father shipped an oar to place his hand on his heart and nod at her, the approval plain upon his face.
She felt a hand upon her shoulder as he whispered into her ear: “Thank you for keeping them safe, Ro - we’re so proud of you.”
She whirled around but there was nothing there and when she turned back, the boat had vanished leaving nothing but a piece of driftwood turning slowly in the murky waters.
She sank to her knees, pressed her forehead against the cool glass of the French doors and cried her heart out.
(c) Paul D.E. Mitchell 2012 2013
Archived comments for Chapter 14: The Awakening
Mikeverdi on 07-06-2016
Chapter 14: The Awakening
Sorry to be so long reading this Mitch, I need a clear head to read stories or I lose the plot. Finished Chemo now so I should start improving, maybe even write something. Still enjoying the story line, will move on to the next.