UKArchive ID: 36766mitch
Originally published on July 29, 2016 in Fiction
Chapter 30 of the Light-Father: the storm finally breaks as the Phoenix stirs to life and Harold's Army gets ready to leave their last refuge and take on Schimrian and his insane Order...
Fria muttered and stirred in her sleep as something wet and rough was rasped across her right cheek. It happened again and her eyelids fluttered open. She awoke in an instant to grope frantically for the hilts of her long knives because barely a hand’s breadth from her face was a distorted muzzle full of sharp canine teeth. Someone had moved her weapons out of reach so she only stopped panicking when she recognised the piercing blue once-human eyes staring lovingly down at her. “Bethwin?” she gasped, wrapping her arms joyfully around the neck of the shaggy-haired Feral. “Bethwin, it is you! Oh, I thought you were dead!”
“Frrrr-iyahhhrrr,” Bethwin growled contentedly. “Luuufuuuuu. Merss sooffuu… Sowrrrycara…uuuu… Ethriiin crryyowl…”
“I still miss them, Bethwin, and I still cry about them too. Oh, dear heart, I never thought I’d see you again.”
Bethwin placed one gnarled finger to her eyes then pointed to Fria’s heart. “Nahhhr, Behhrrthrriiin warrtch oerrr Friiiaaaa…”
Fern was watching them from the doorway of the store room where Fria and Surl had been sleeping. “She’s been watching over you for years, Fria. She always talks about you and how you looked after her in the hospital. She owes you her life - such as it is.”
“How can I understand what she’s saying?”
“That’s because you listen with your heart. Get dressed - we have to leave before the Order attacks us. The Phoenix is ready to fly so wake Surl and gather all your belongings. My sisters have made you some broth so eat as much of it as you can – it’s on the tables – then you must hurry and do your toilet for we won’t have time to stop for that later. Hurry! The storm is almost done - the Order will be sending out more rotor-craft than we can handle and there is still a Tally-man out there watching us.”
“Surely the Ferals could’ve hunted him?”
“Yes, dear heart, I wanted to send them out but the others didn’t want to lose any more of our children – the storm was too much even for their acute senses and strength.”
“That must be David,” Fria said, still hugging Bethwin. “They destroyed him - I will never forgive them for that.”
“Pooordarrviiiidddzzz heeez thh walllkinnng dehhhd,” Bethwin growled sympathetically, patting Fria’s back. She said a lot more but Fria couldn’t follow it and looked to Fern for help.
“She’s longed for years to talk to you but she thought you would be afraid of her,” Fern translated. “She’s watched over you from a distance for years and knows what David means to you. She may have lost her human form but he’s lost his mind and soul – all that’s left is a puppet manipulated by those Guides in his head. Eliza and Jacob still cry for him as well. Ah, Surl, so you’re awake?”
“Mmm, hello, Mother Fern. Is it morning yet?”
“It is, dear heart. You have to get up and get ready to leave but before you do, here’s a Feral who says he knows you – apparently you used to feed him in a garden six years ago and despite what’s happened to him, he’s never forgotten you.”
The young male Feral came up to Surl cautiously and nuzzled her. “Berckarrr, remmurr uff-uff?” he sighed contentedly. He tried to shape some more words but she couldn’t understand them.
“He says you were starving but you still shared your food with him,” Fern translated. “He can hardly remember his real name but he’s never forgotten you or the time you spent playing with him as Ruff-ruff after his dying family beat him and cast him out.”
“You’re welcome, Ruff-ruff,” she smiled, hugging him. “I’m so glad Mother Moss saved you - I was so worried about you.”
“He says he’s glad you’re alive too,” Fern said after the complex growling had subsided. “With Bethwin, he’s watched over you whenever we allowed them to. He owes you his life and he says that he will protect you with that life.”
“Thank you, Ruff-ruff - only I’m Surl now.”
“His real name is Shenkin but he says Ruff-ruff will do,” Fern chuckled. “He knows that he has the face of a dog and a tail but he will never forget what you did for him. What you must understand, Surl, is that so many Ferals were lost to us. For each Ruff-ruff we saved, we lost a dozen more to madness and death. Now get up, pack your things and eat some food. Can’t you hear that hissing? The Phoenix is eager to take us away from this place!”
The girls dressed quickly and accompanied by their faithful Ferals, they joined Fern in time to see the Phoenix come to life emitting huge clouds of steam. With a great clank and a judder, the locomotive edged slowly out of the shed with Saul, Harold and Ibrahim in the cabin. Fern smiled as the Ferals howled and danced around the Phoenix delirious with joy and wonder.
“Magnificent, isn’t she?” Fern sighed, placing her hands on the girls’ shoulders. “The Phoenix is thought to be a bird of good omen by Wiccans.” As the Phoenix cleared the main entrance, she ushered them to the tables where the other Mothers were busily feeding the Scatterlings and the Ferals from huge tureens. “Eat,” she commanded. “We only have a quarter of an hour before they couple up the carriages and we can leave this rail-yard.”
Pup ran up with Bas and flung his arms around Fern’s slender waist as Surl and Fria helped their Ferals to eat their broth – which was no easy task. “Good morning, Mother,” he said joyously and buried his face into her abdomen.
“I’m sorry, Mother Fern,” Bas said. There was a hint of jealousy to her voice as she regarded herself as Pup’s true mother. “You remind him of his birth mother. Even though he was a baby when I rescued him, he says there’s a familiar smell about you.”
“Maybe there is,” Fern smiled, ruffling his hair. “They say odours can trigger the strongest and earliest of our memories. I can hardly remember my own family who were originally from one of the Black Valleys. What was his family name?”
“Owain,” Bas said. “I remember them handing Pup to me as Saul’s uncle brought us to the Keep. They were dying in agony but they begged me to save him even though they knew I wasn’t quite human. Mother Fern? Are you alright? You look as though you knew the family. They were from the Black Valleys too but they never told me his first name and I couldn’t think of anything for him other than Pup. I’ve been mother to him since then and even Mother Moss said so,” she added proudly.
Fern raised a placating hand. “I’m sure you are, Bas. I got to know the family well when I was working as a spy in the Exodus laboratories.” She looked down at Pup’s eager young face and sighed – even a child this young had two lethal-looking knives strapped to his belt as well as a hunting catapult and pouches of ball-bearings. “I remember they were so proud of their new-born son. He had a name taken from the Bible but they pronounced it Cymric-fashion as Tomos rather than Thom-as.”
“My name is Tomos?” Pup cried in joy. “I’m a Tomos! Do you remember them, Mother Fern? What were they like?”
“Your father was called Steffan and he was a handsome man with a kind smile. Your mother’s name was Mavan and they were both from the Black Valleys. Your mother was slim with long black hair – she loved horses - while your father had hazel eyes and hair the same colour as mine and he was the same height as me.”
“The same colour eyes and hair as mine!” Pup exclaimed.
Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at Bas. “I barely remember my family. My powers manifested when I had but three years. I started talking to the birds in the garden and they would sing to me,” she smiled, patting the raven ornament on her staff. “I remember wondering why my mother would have hysterics over something so beautiful. She wouldn’t speak to me at all then one day I heard her crying in the kitchen as she talked to a woman dressed in strange clothes and holding this staff. ‘They’ll be coming for her,’ the woman was saying as I listened on the stairs. ‘We know the neighbours have been talking to the Order and the police. Soon they’ll take her and you’ll lose her forever…’”
“Your mother didn’t know the Order were evil,” Fria observed. “So why did she agree to let a Mother take you?”
“My father had already left home because of me,” Fern said, swinging Pup onto a seat. “So my mother signed the custody papers and the next thing I knew I was being bundled into a hired car and my new life as a Daughter.” She ladled them out a bowl of broth each. “All of you – eat as much as you can then do your toilet. Morning, Peter. Morning, Rabbit. Morning, Fierce – put down your Honey Bear, dear heart, and make sure that Mouse eats well. She’s looking better, isn’t she?”
“Thanks to you, Mother Fern,” Mouse said gratefully. “The infection is gone and I can move my shoulder.” She demonstrated several over-enthusiastic moves with her spear.
“I’m glad,” Fern smiled. “Now sit down, eat then see to your toilet as quickly as you can. Where’s Shield? Has she eaten?”
“Yes,” Fierce said, lowering her spoon. “She and Amos are over there helping the Mothers feed the rest of the Ferals – there’s a lot of them so where did all the food come from?”
“They brought it with them and the Light-Father told us where everything was in that building over by the west wall,” she said, indicating Harold’s grill, the canteen stoves and the tureens. “Many Ferals can’t feed or clothe themselves properly so those with any dexterity left in their fingers help the others. Look - they seem to like Amos and those fearsome sledgehammers of his and he’s now enjoying life – yet another miracle of the Light-Father.”
“We all know you have feelings for him,” Fierce said suddenly and was rewarded with a scarlet blush. “Hah, I knew it!” she crowed. “You’re in love with him!”
“Ahem!” Fern coughed to hide her embarrassment. “It’s just nice to talk to a man who doesn’t want to tie you to a post and set fire to you in the name of God. He’s not a handsome man; I’ll give you that but remember, I have the gift to see into people’s hearts and souls - I can read the book and not just the cover.”
“And you like what you read,” Fierce persisted with a predatory grin. “You want to marry the Light-Father!”
“Tell us! Tell us if you are!” Rabbit piped up. “Can Surl and I be your bridesmaids?”
Fern looked at them helplessly then she saw the desperate yearning for the family life that had been so cruelly taken from them. “We’ll see,” she relented. “But promise me you won’t tell the Light-Father anything about you being bridesmaids until we bring an end to the Great-Abbot and his Great Computer.”
“We promise,” Pup, Peter, Rabbit and Surl said in unison - then they giggled and nudged each other.
“Arowlldzz luffahrrrr,” Bethwin growled happily then she too nudged Ruff-ruff in the ribs. “Ahrrrffeeern arh arh.”
“Oh, not you two as well,” Fern sighed theatrically.
“How are you able to talk to us while the other four Mothers keep their distance?” Fierce asked suspiciously. “They’re nothing at all like you or Mother Moss.”
“We keep ourselves to ourselves,” Fern said sadly. “This we have done for a very, very long time. We are taken at a young age to be trained as Daughters then initiated when we have more than sixteen years. You don’t learn much in the way of social graces or skills when you’re focussed solely on the craft. They don’t talk to you simply because they wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Hello would be a nice start,” Fria said pointedly.
“They are also afraid,” Fern replied sombrely. “Moss has quietly prepared you for this moment yet we know we’re going to face something beyond our powers. We fear we may all perish in that struggle so we must prepare ourselves.”
“We’re all scared too,” Fria said as Bethwin patted her hand and growled reassuringly. “But I want to punish them for killing our families and everyone we ever loved.”
“Bethwin is frightened too,” Fern translated. “But she and the others will fight to the death to save you and avenge their families. Now hurry up and finish your breakfast and see to your toilet needs - we won’t be able to take any hot food with us.”
“Pfft! You never hear about the heroes in sagas and myths going to the toilet,” Fierce said contemptuously. “Imagine what those old tales Mother Moss used to read to us would be like if a hero like Theseus had to say: ‘please just wait there for a couple of minutes, Mister Minotaur - I need to find a toilet and empty my bowels – sorry, it’s that scary face and attitude you have there - um, you wouldn’t have a book or a newspaper I could borrow?’”
Fern laughed out loud. “My dear Fierce, you look so grim and dour yet you have a wonderful sense of humour. Yes, I do agree. All the great tales leave out the mundane aspects of a hero’s life – people are naturally more interested in the gore and carnage.”
“They are,” Fierce nodded sagely. “They like to read about the disembowellings but not the actual emptying of the bowels.”
“Um, yes, quite,” Fern nodded, relieved to hear the rumbling of the coaches as the Phoenix reversed the carriages into the shed. “Ah, look everyone – the Light-Father returns!”
“You’re blushing again!” Rabbit said gleefully.
Some of the Ferals became over-excited and had to be shooed off the tracks by Saul and Ibrahim who strode ahead of the three carriages to make sure that they didn’t get under the wheels. When the Phoenix finally came to a halt, the train took up the entire length of the building. “My, those are splendid carriages,” Fern said wistfully. “I remember riding in one when I was a young Daughter with Mother Iris – we had a compartment to ourselves of course as nobody would sit anywhere near us but it was magical to me as I watched the stations and towns sliding past my window.”
Harold jumped down, waved to them then headed over to a large work-bench. “Kai! Come here!” he called out and the young Brother dutifully raced across the shed to join him. “Fern, could you and the other Mothers come here as well? The storm’s almost done and we need to work out our strategy and teams for when we get to the Great Abbey.” The children and the Mothers gathered around the table as he opened out Kai’s maps and sketches of the Great Abbey drawn as seen from the railway line that cut through the southern part of the complex. “Kai, tell us everything that you know about this place,” he said.
Kai pointed at the map. “As you can see, the railway line divides the Abbey from the southern rotor-craft compound which was added after the railway line was built. It houses the Angels, as we call them, in three hangars with six rotor-craft to each hanger. This large building here on the eastern side of the compound is the dormitory where the crews and technicians sleep. They’re an elite led by three Fathers and only go onto the main site for training and Mass at the Great Cathedral through a tunnel that runs under the track. The compound has a guard tower on each corner with two overlooking the track here and here. Nobody mans them as the Order is stretched too thinly across the globe and Abbot Camus deems that there is no force capable of mounting an assault left in Britannia. The walls of the compound are also difficult to scale – they are ten cubits high, two cubits thick and constructed from smooth masonry so there are no handholds.”
“What about the watchtowers along the Abbey complex walls?” Saul demanded. “There’s one on each corner of the Great Abbey and one in the middle of the west wall and one next to the east wall gatehouse. Are they manned?”
“Yes, Schimrian is far more cautious than Camus,” Kai nodded. “On the western end of the platform here, overlooking the track, is the south-west tower. Each Abbey tower always has two Brothers and two Tally-men on permanent guard duty so we have to take the south-west tower before they can raise the alarm otherwise we can’t use the platform doors to sneak into the complex.”
“What’s this at the eastern end of the platform?” Ibrahim asked, pointing to a small tower. “Will that be a problem?”
“That’s the platform-master’s tower but Brother Ignatius is an alcoholic – they’ve all but forgotten about him so he spends all his time either reading novels, getting blind drunk or asleep.”
“We can’t assume that he will be drunk,” Ibrahim said with a gleam in his eye. “I could slip along using the platform edge as cover, scale the masonry and deal with him.”
“We’ll decide who’s dealing with what in a minute, Ibrahim,” Harold said firmly “So that’s twelve Brothers and twelve Tally-men tied up at any one time in the towers, Kai, so what about the three gatehouses to the north, west and east?”
“Three and three,” Kai replied quickly. “Making twenty-one Brothers and twenty-one Tally-men permanently on lookout duty. There are also parapet patrols along the walls themselves but with so many of the Order abroad, this is the emptiest the complex has ever been. With thirty Brothers and three fathers in the southern compound, that leaves Schimrian, the two Abbots, nine Fathers and forty-three Brothers most of whom are technicians such as I was training to be. Basically they are not fighters and they reside in this block here to the east of the apse of the Great Cathedral. Eight Brothers-Martial currently reside in this block here to the west of the Great Cathedral – they are exceptionally skilled and are tasked with defending the Cathedral and the Annex.”
“I see – so they will be our most serious problem then. What about the rest of the Tally-men?” Harold asked, indicating several buildings on the map. “Where are they housed?”
“About ten permanently patrol the processionals along the inner walls and ten guard the Great Annex where the computer is housed. The other sixty are programmed to patrol at random and could be anywhere when we attack but at any one moment, forty are off-line in these two blocks. They are also close to the Cathedral so they can quickly move to defend the Great Annex and the Great Manse where Schimrian lives. About thirty postulants and novices live in the secluded dormitories in the north-west corner but they won’t know what to do when the attack begins.”
Harold stared at the map in grim silence for several minutes painfully aware that everyone was looking to him for leadership. “I wish I had time to make us some explosives,” he sighed. “If one team could get over the wall in the north-east and blow up these oil tanks here and this armoury here then that would create the perfect first diversion. In the southern compound, we need to destroy all these rotor-craft and there’s another fuel depot we could blow up. This would provide our second diversion and split the defenders north and south exposing the centre.”
Mother Veneris laid her dog’s-head staff next to the map and opened up her shoulder-bag to lay a metal cylinder with a fuse attached to it upon the work-bench. “We have these. Fern is quite skilled in matters of the Earth – the ashes of Prometheus, the blood of the son of Gaia herself and…”
“And we have gunpowder!” Harold laughed as he examined the device. “These are pipe–bombs with timed fuses!”
“Indeed they are, Light-Father,” Veneris nodded and indicated the young blond-haired Mother with the sun ornament to her staff. “The lengths are exactly timed so we can set them as we advance. I and Mother Rosemary will take twenty Ferals and create the northern diversion. Our main target has to be the armoury where they keep the firearms and begiullers - if we allow them to deploy those weapons, we will all be killed.”
“So how will you get over the northern wall?” Harold asked. “The Ferals seem quite agile but as Kai said, there are no handholds in the masonry.”
“The Great Abbey is older than the compound,” Kai pointed out. “But the north walls are still smooth with no ivy upon them.”
“Oh, we’ll manage, Light-Father,” Rosemary smiled and Harold noted that her irises had changed to a brilliant yellow colour. “Masonry will not stop a Servant of Mars and wielder of water like Mother Veneris and a Heliodrammus - a Servant of the Sun - such as myself.” She pointed her staff at the north wall and a patch of masonry glowed red then the bricks exploded leaving a man-sized gap through which the neighbouring shed could be seen.
“Jesus,” Harold gasped in awe as the children and Ferals cheered. “No wonder the Order has tried to kill you all off over the centuries – you certainly don’t fit into their genetic ideal.”
“Exactly,” Nightshade scoffed, resting a delicate white finger upon the map of the complex. “Here in the south eastern corner of the Great Abbey lies the highest wall of all around these dormitories. This is where the Sisters of the Order exist…”
“Two hundred and twelve Sisters,” Kai said as Harold looked to him for an explanation. “They rarely leave their residences but for Mass and service, Light-Father. They are tasked solely to maintain the greenhouses, gardens and orchards about the walls - such as they are in this rain - and do all the cooking and cleaning.”
“They are no threat, Light-Father!” Nightshade snarled. “They are selected and bred for their timidity and mindless obedience. The Order has spent centuries creating these pious, brainless drudges and brood-mares to maintain the holy numbers of the Order. They are not deemed important or holy enough to be counted amongst the Twelve Thousands of the Tribes. Sister Ivy and I will lead our Ferals into the southern compound and set charges amongst the fuel tanks then destroy every rotor-craft we can find. We will engage and defeat the crews and technicians in the hangars and any that emerge from their dormitory building.”
Fern looked at Harold. “That leaves us to lead the children, Kai and the remaining Ferals into the Great Cathedral.”
Kai pointed to the Great Cathedral interior on the map. “The Manse and Annex are fortified to withstand an armed assault but not from within the Great Cathedral itself. The Annex was originally a transept that was walled off so this door from the nave is the quickest route to get at the Great Computer which is housed in the Hexagon at the centre of the Annex. Schimrian lives above the Redemption Cells in the top floor of the Manse which we can easily access from the Annex once we secure it. Simon told me that Schimrian is lulled to sleep by the screams and lamentations of the Unworthy in the cells beneath his bed,” he shuddered. “They break them completely before the trepanning so that they don’t struggle during the surgery.”
Harold felt sick. “You mean their victims remain conscious while they’re being lobotomised?”
Kai looked grim and nodded. “It’s important to know where to attach the Guides. The nine Fathers-Surgeon under Abbot Michael are exceptionally skilled in creating Tally-men.”
“Then we will bring an end to it once and for all,” Harold declared, clenching a fist. “How we coordinate our three assaults is the next problem. It will be chaos once the bombs start going off and we have no working two-way radios.”
Fern smiled knowingly at the other Mothers. “Whisper a number into Mother Ivy’s ear,” she suggested. She waited patiently as Harold complied then said: “One hundred and eighty. Darts? What a curious waste of one’s time.”
“How far can you carry the telepathy?” Harold persisted.
“We can communicate over at least four furlongs, Light-Father – more than the full length of the Great Abbey.”
Harold was dazzled by a brilliant shaft of sunlight that stabbed through a window. “They’ll be here soon. Fern, Saul, Ibrahim, Shield – you ride in the cabin with me. The rest of you grab your weapons and gear and get into the carriages!”
In the cabin of the Phoenix, Fern tapped his shoulder and pointed to Pup who had found a guard’s hat, flag and a whistle. He was running up and down shouting “all aboard!” and blowing the whistle loudly until Saul confiscated it and heaved him up into the first carriage. “For some strange reason,” she said, taking his hand. “Just seeing one innocent soul untarnished by the Order gives me hope and a reason to fight.”
Saul clambered aboard and Harold reluctantly released her hand to work the controls. “It’s time to go,” he said.
(c) Paul D.E. Mitchell 2012-13
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