Prologue~ * * * ~
Across veins of rope, unseen through darkened, arterial holes in crumbling mason-work. From the heights of belfries, frozen and unable to sound warning, to the ruts of night-abandoned roads.
Brackish waters scattered as claws skittered in a flurry of legs, leaving nightmares of pestilence. Flickering tails, shadowy blurs and twitching tails, the only portents to the madness to come. They raced themselves, driven insane by hunger and the unknown purpose of the mindless horseman atop.
Like the black, wind-whipped clouds scudding across the moon, it crossed the city. It died a hundred deaths; birthed a thousand more. And a silent army, save for the maddened clicking of their hosts’ claws, was born.
With the flickering of hellfire eating at their tails, the city overflowed, flooded and burst. Corkscrewing up sodden veins, from dark night to eternal shadows splintered only by fractured boards, darkness was carried.
It had conquered and spawned, and now even oceans bowed to its power. It ignored hope and spurned destines, for it followed its own. It was unavoidable.
The spear thudded into the floorboards.
“You missed again.” The scrabbling of claws could be heard over the guardsman’s restrained laughter.
“Curse these rats; they’re an omen, Aral, I tell you – you’d do well to help rather than laughing in the corner there. Especially tonight.”
Aral rubbed his hands together for warmth against the winter wind’s chill. In summer, the ventilation, installed by age, not design, was a pleasure against the coastal heat. In winter, it was a curse with few remedies. “Lay off it. Rats mean nothing more than that someone dropped their lunch.”
With a light grunt, Thom pulled the spear back out of the floorboards. He scraped the metal tip over his numerous previous attempts. “That’s not what the Chancellor says.”
“You don’t actually believe his rhetoric do you?” He leant forward as though on a podium: “Rats brought this winter on their backs.” Aral scoffed and laughed again. “They’re rats, Thom. They bring dirt and fleas, not plagues. You’ve been attending too many meetings. They’re getting to your head, they are.”
“Maybe I have gone to a few of the meetings, though he does make a certain amount of sense. I’m not saying everything he says is true, but it can’t all be wrong.” He lowered his voice and leant forward. “They say Akima was overrun by rats.”
“What are you getting at?”
Thom leant back, somewhat disappointed in his friend’s lack of reaction. “Well, it’s a ruin now, isn’t it? Surely you wondered at the lull in ships? A huge port… now burning rubble.”
“There’s your problem, then. It’s fire, not rats we have to watch for.” Aral’s voice danced, mocking his friend. “Perhaps you should run and get a pail to protect us all?” He eased the jibe with a smile.
He shook his head, refusing to rise to the bait. “They set their own city ablaze, to destroy the plague.” He leant on his spear, watching his breath rise in slow puffs.
In the lull that followed, both guardsmen heard the click of claws as the rat scurried for the safety of one of the holes in the wall. Thom lunged again, but caught unaware, there was no chance his spear would hit anything but wood before the rat was through and out into the winter.
Outside, the rat paused for a moment, nose twitching. The mindless ocean wind, funnelled by Forsayth’s narrow streets, whipped even the rat’s fur, worming its way to the bone. Whether the rat found the scent it searched for, or simply wanted someplace warmer, it set off, racing between the road’s cobblestones to avoid the wind.
Nearly half-way across, darkness fell across its path as something blocked the lamplight. Ignoring all pretence at hiding from the wind, the rat scrabbled for purchase on the cobblestones and leapt across the stones. It almost slid as it careened through a gap in the wooden wall beside the road where a drunken foot had kicked a hole.
The shadow completely ignored the rat that passed across its path. She had seen much worse than rodents. Besides, the vicious wind that raced up to torment her clothes, also threatened to trip her if she made any sudden movements.
She sighed to herself – she had been warm a few minutes ago – but the sound was lost amidst the wind. Holding her hood tight against her face to preserve warmth, she bowed a little and persevered, pressing forward. They could have arranged a mage to send me... or at least a carriage. Even tonight.
She knew she shouldn’t, that it would only exacerbate the cold, but it was hard not to think back to the ballroom. She hitched her bag up, and feeling the small vials move gently inside as she secured the bag a little more firmly beneath her cloak. He would have made this walk a little more interesting.
He had managed to make the ball interesting, at any rate.
Her rank as court physician guaranteed an invitation, but did not guarantee anyone would talk to her. Then again, my demeanour probably didn’t encourage anyone to. She had a distinct dislike of crowds, too unpredictable for her, yet one couldn’t turn down a royal invitation.
So, she was happier being left to herself to wonder why Duke Weslan would risk bringing a rather poorly hidden blade to a royal event, which girl the young Dameon would be visiting tonight or where Jothan was.
From amidst the ever rotating swirls of noble-born, attendants and sycophants, she’d stood alone, drink in hand. He was, of course, surrounded for most of the evening by those who hoped for the promise of a future, yet when chance swirled the dancers and minglers and cleared a path across the room, his eyes found hers.
She would have turned away politely as manners dictated both she and he should, but something caught her. It was his smile. Too subtle to be noticed without a second look, only the corners of his mouth suggested it, the amusement never reaching his eyes.
Then the crowds swirled again, and she lost him amidst their colours.
“Tell me the secret to your soul, Kyla.” It took all her composure not to jump. Breathed in her ear, the words were soft and compelling, as was the hand on her waist; both definitely masculine, yet smoother than the strings of the band.
She didn’t turn, but remained looking out at the crowd. “And what would you do with it?” She wondered how he’d got behind her so quickly.
He leant closer to her ear. “Own you.”
Kyla spun at the overly confident words, but the smile dancing at the edges of his lips, mocking the very words they spoke, forestalled her.
She took his hand off her waist, dropping it and stepping forward towards him. “And if I prefer being in control?”
“Something may be able to be worked out.” He bowed slightly, one hand behind his back, but the same dancing smile withdrew any significant meaning by a bow from the youngest ever Vizier. As he straightened, his outstretched hand found hers, and pulled her into the beginning step of the dance.
“I assume you can follow?”
Kyla smiled at the innuendo. “I have no choice when he can’t lead.”
“Were I royalty, Kyla, I’d have to warn you against so open an opinion.”
The tap from the concierge on her shoulder broke their dance and conversation. It took Kyla a quick glance to the entrance of the ballroom, where a nervous messenger boy stood waiting, to know she was not going to like the end of the night.
And I most certainly am not. She pulled the soft wool inside her hood tighter against her face to better trap the heat, though it seemed nothing could stop the cruel wind this Night of the Dead.
Kyla turned the corner into the final street. Her pace had quickened as the street quality improved and rough cobblestones made way for smooth pavement. The houses on either side still stood tall, but with gardens in front of most, they no longer towered over her. The wind, however, continued unabated, as vicious as ever.
Above, only the vague outline of the moon was visible behind clouds whipping across the sky.
Snorting clouds of vapour in exertion, the collector’s horse struggled on the icy road. The short spikes extruding from its horseshoes scraped on the already compressed ice, failing to do anything more than scratch the surface. The collector twisted uncomfortably to look behind as the cart, with its load of the dead, threatened to slip backwards. The road snaked downwards at a slope that would easily send them careening out of control. Just before inertia gave way to motion, the horse found purchase as its spikes plunged through the ice.
Sitting at the front of the cart, the collector turned back to front and released his taut grip on the reins, expelling his lungs in a sigh. “Hiy, good girl, good girl.” He leant wearily forward against the wind to pat her in thanks.
Reins in one hand, the bell for the dead in the other, the collector continued his slow, sorry procession up the road, clearing the falling snow from his face with one sweep of his hand.
The ringing knell made its way through Sarin’s wolverine-fur hood and he lifted his head in its direction. Suppressing a shudder, he turned off the main street at the first intersection, brushing the crystallised ice off his cheek, long before the collector could be seen through the thickly-falling snow. He couldn’t face the man about to collect his family.
He lowered his head again, gaze fixed on the ground and walked on. There was little need to look where he was going: it was rare to see anyone outside on foot during the winter, when storms lasted weeks on end, and besides the collectors with their modified horseshoes and cart wheels, no one dared risk their draft animals on the slippery ice. Coupled with the fear of the plague, most felt staying indoors was safer from both horrors.
Looking to the side, though, Sarin wondered just exactly what safety that offered. Over half the buildings lining the street, once grand buildings of two or three stories, were now little but empty shells of burnt houses, their blackened timbers and fiery end a contrast to the dirty snow and ice that piled unceremoniously around their bases.
Only the dead, overlooked by the collector, were outside to pose an obstacle to Sarin, their frozen carcasses, blackened and diseased by the plague, hidden beneath snowdrifts, to be revealed only by the howling winds or the thawing Spring. Or the rats, of course. As long as he stayed in the middle of the road, however, he was unlikely to come across either.
He hefted his bag a little higher on his back, wincing as his chilled fingers changed to their new position. He was sure he’d only packed the basic essentials, not that he had much to choose from, yet it seemed much heavier than it should have been. He shrugged and continued forward through the storm; there wasn’t much he could do now – everything in there he needed.
Sarin paused for a moment at the crossroads to glance up the deserted streets as far as the blurring snow allowed, trying to work out where exactly he was. Unprotected as it was at the intersection, the wind had a life of its own, snatching at his clothes from every direction and crying through his ears.
He hunched back inside his hood against the wind and turned around uselessly. As far as Sarin knew, he’d never been here before. But then, that was no real surprise. With most of the buildings so destroyed as to be useless for firewood, even places he used to frequent with Jyal and Maya had become nearly unrecognisable.
Turning once more, Sarin plodded north again up the desolate street, leaning against the wind. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what route he took, as long as he made it out of Akima.
Passing into the relative protection of the houses, the wind settled down, letting his coat drop back around his feet. The crying continued though. Sarin spun, nearly slipping on the ice as he did so, trying to locate the voice. His paternal instincts were still strong.
“Maya?” Sarin all but whispered the name to the falling snow. He leant forward, as though to move back towards the intersection, then shook his head. She died, he reminded himself. They both died. He had no time for anyone else.
Turning back resolutely, Sarin wrapped his scarf around his mouth to warm his face against the snow. Again, she called out. “Mu-mmy!”
Sarin stopped, eyes blinded by memories. “Maya…”
He turned, sending the snow that had settled on his head and shoulders spinning off. Sarin ran through the snow, thrusting aside the thoughts that came sinuously through his mind: This isn’t Maya; you’re risking yourself; she could be infected; this isn’t Maya... Sarin ignored the snow biting into his face as he ran.
Sarin turned around the corner, his feet skidding slightly on the snow. His head turned wildly as he tried to place her amidst the storm. Burnt out hollows, small alleyways and crevices passed him by, yet still her voice cried out from in front. Maya.
Had it not been for a sudden lapse in the wind, he’d have missed her. Almost obscured between the shells of two burnt houses, she was huddled against a box, perhaps about eleven or twelve. Snow had built up around her legs, so long had she been there, and although she shook uncontrollably, her brown eyes never left Sarin’s as he started in at her.
See? Not Maya. But Sarin just shook his head and took a step forward, pity and compassion forcing his legs to move.
He crossed the last few steps between the blackened timbers quickly, pulling the girl out of the snow and against his chest to warm her up. He felt her struggling against his grip and loosened a little to look down.
In her blue hands, she held two tickets.
“Mama said these were for me and her.”
Her voice was so similar to Maya’s, that Sarin only had to close his eyes and she was there. “And where’s mama now?”
“I can’t find her. She said these would save us… but she never returned… I can’t find mama.”
He looked down into her eyes staring up at his. “Was she sick at all?”
“No… she said it was only a cough.” Her eyes begged him to make it all better.
Sarin couldn’t bear to keep eye contact, and wrapped his arms a little tighter around the girl. “I don’t think she is coming back.”
“No! Liar, she is coming back!” Her hands beat futilely against his chest.
Sarin hugged her, letting her expend her energy as the snow continued to fall down in tiny flakes, undisturbed in the hollow between the two buildings.
|19 Oct 2005|| D Joelle Duran|
Just had to take first comment here, it's been too long, my friend!
Well, I won't pick at things, seeing as I already did that. But I wanted to tell you I quite like the addition of "He couldn’t face the man about to collect his family."
I think it brings the collector bit from the abstract to the personal very abruptly, nice touch.
I'm looking forward to see where you take this piece! Ben Cameron
replies: "Glad you liked the addition - you were right that it definately needed a personal touch to give him a reason for leaving at that point in time.
And I know exactly what the next chapter's doing, but I'm afraid the little girl refuses to be named... I'm thinking of Mihai, but still not fully decided."
|20 Oct 2005|| Becca Lusher|
((Uff, too wordy as always... Part Two)) Never! Comments are great in any form (provided that form is written down and posted
- I don't do the whole telepathy thing)
Anyway, I enjoyed this. You really built the atmosphere of the snow and the grim winter, which of course added greatly to the idea of the plague - it's much easier to believe in death and pestilence in a cold surrounding - just adds to the bleakness, I suppose. Well, for me anyway. I'm going to have fun with this story. I plan to ruin an entire city as the reader goes through it.
Sorry, my brain is slowing down. Safely say I am liking this, I am much intrigued, not least by the hints you dropped about the Vizier and the doubts cast on the current ruler. As well as hints of confusion as to what is causing the plague and possible strains of social unrest. Can't wait to see where this develops next ^_^ Great stuff, Ben, glad to have you back.Glad you like it. There'll actually be something happening in the next chapter (makes me wonder if I didn't start this at the wrong point...) and all the things you brought up will be addressed more fully.Thanks for the critique - and hopefully the rat-commas won't reappear in the next chapter.
|20 Oct 2005|| Becca Lusher|
Oooh, the crawling, scuttling way that you manage to convey the opening there is very evokative. Rats! Ack, rats! I'm not scared by them, but the idea of a swarm does unnerve me. I particularly liked from - "They raced themselves, driven insane by hunger and the unknown purpose of the mindless horseman atop." - to the end. With the idea that they're being driven onwards, and not in control of what they do. Quiet creepy really. That bit was very much inspired by Ted Hughes' "Ghost Crabs". Check it out next time you're near an anthology.
"In summer, the ventilation, installed by age, not design, was a pleasure against the coastal heat." -- Ah! The commas! Are you sure they're not rats?
I know I'm a fine one to talk, but in such a short sentence do you not think four is a bit much? Installed by age rather than design? Maybe, or do you even need that one before not? Hmm... I have no confidence in my commatical (I like that word) ability, so I'll leave it up to you, but there are a lot just there ^_^ I fear I love the little rat-commas. It's something I'm consulting doctors about.
“You don’t actually believe his rhetoric* do you?” -- comma. There, you can rehome that other one now ^_^
"He eased the jibe with a smile.
He shook his head, refusing to rise to the bait." -- You end on paragraph with he, and start the next with it, but mean two different people. You don't want to start confusing me now, do you? But confusing people's fun! Actually, no - I most definately don't want to confuse people, not in that way. Consider it changed.
"the rat scrabbled for purchase on the cobblestones and leapt across the stones." -- stones, cobblestones, nice try, but it's still repetition
What's wrong with street? I'm not sure actually... street sounds pretty good to me now. Can't imagine where it was when I was writing it...
"She hitched her bag up, and feeling the small vials move gently inside as she secured the bag a little more firmly beneath her cloak." -- Felt, surely?
Jothan? Wasn't that the reporter in 'Hidden Consequences'?
I knew I remembered that name from somewhere! In my defence, in Hidden Consequences, it was used as a surname. But it's a great name... so for the time, unless I think of something better, it'll stay as is.
"Then the crowds swirled again, and she lost him amidst their colours." - After this I think you might want to put it in italics to make it clear that she's recalling it, because you change from past participle to just past form, (I think that's what I mean, correct grammatical terms I can rarely remember.) and I thought he'd caught up to her in the street for a minute. Mmm... point taken. Joelle had a little chat with me too about my transitions. I was trying to make it flow a little more, but I think I may just succeed in confusing the reader. Something will have to change there, I think.
Found nothing to pick at in that last section, was too busy reading. Bless, poor Sarin, he seems like an all-round good guy, who's been dealt a bad hand. Took me a moment to place an age on him - guess I'm too used to fantasy stories having younger heroes and heroines ^_^ But I soon sorted myself out when I realised Maya was his daughter rather than his sister... err... at least I think that was it.Yea, that's it. I didn't want to infodump on the reader, but depending how others read it, that may be necessary. I liked the way you had the collector approaching, then had him sneaking off into the night. Gave it that little bit more meaning, and brought the plague to the fore.By 'him', you mean Sarin right?
|23 Oct 2005|| Christabel Nolan|
Hey, I really liked the prologue, it gave a good sense of atmospehere, with the vein-ropes and the madly clicking claws of the rat army.
The first sentenct that I had to stop to think on was this: "So, she was happier being left to herself to wonder why Duke Weslan would risk bringing a rather poorly hidden blade to a royal event, which girl the young Dameon would be visiting tonight or where Jothan was."
The ony way I could make sense of it was to reinterpret it as this - "So, she was happier being left to herself to wonder why Duke Weslan would risk bringing a rather poorly hidden blade to a royal event, and which young girl the young Dameon would be visiting tonight, and where Jothan was?"
Is this right? I don't know, it was just a bit confusing.As far as I know, both 'or' and 'and' are correct in that sentence, though I feel 'or' gives the better impression of someone lost and ill at ease. That sentence reall is too cumbersome though, so I'll probably go back and change it.
"... to know she was not going to like the end of the night."
Seems a little clunky, but that might be me. maybe, "to know that what the last hours of the night would bring would not be pleasant" ? Just a suggestion.If you can explain why it feels clunky, I'd be quite happy to reword the sentence, but as it stands (might be an Aussie thing, or even just me being weird) it sounds reasonably easy to read and understand for me.
"behind clouds whipping across the sky" to perhaps "behind the clouds that whipped across the sky"I'll look into it
The story seems to jump from no-one knowing about the plague to the collector collecting the dead. Is this the same city or a different one? If it's the same one, it would be good to have some bit about the physician encountering her first case of it, and the dawning horror that it is only going to spread. If it's a different one, perhaps put in at the start of the paragraph that "in such and such a city" or "in a city not too far away" or something. maybe.
all just suggestions, of course. Yea... I figured there might be a problem or two in that transition. It is in fact two different cities, in two different countries. The first difference is that the first part takes place in a storm, whilst the second part takes place in a blizzard, with ice covering the road. At the beginning, the two guards describe Akima that's been overrun by the plague and mostly burnt to the ground. Here, the buildings are burnt and there are descriptions of rats as well as significant numbers of dead plague victims. Lastly, it actually says (only once, mind you.... couldn't work out how to make it more obvious) 'Akima' during that last section.Any suggestions on making that more clear are welcome.
You have some really good descriptions in this, and you seem able to draw the picture of it very well, without over describing things.
Besides that, I did enjoy this, and will it be continued? I hope so. I recently read a very good book on the plague called "year of wonders." It was good ... ahem, so, yes, I like the way this is going!!This will most definately be continued - but only once my hand gets better I'm sorry to say.'Year of wonders'? Sounds interesting, I'll check it out next time I'm back in Australia. Thanks for reading!
|24 Oct 2005|| Steve Doyle|
You do a good job setting the mood with this piece. The wind & snow & cold with death lingering on every corner really set the atmosphere. Ben Cameron
replies: "When I was writing this, I kept wondering if I wasn't overdoing it... but it seems everyone likes it the way it is. Thanks for the comment!"
|29 Dec 2005|| Anne M. Leath|
Nice job, I like it ALOT. Especially good job of portraying the child at the end, her reactions, etc. Also, I particularly liked this:
"Reins in one hand, the bell for the dead in the other, the collector continued his slow, sorry procession up the road, clearing the falling snow from his face with one sweep of his hand"
I dunno, it was just a "wow, great image" type of moment. Keep up the good work!
|21 Jul 2006|| Xinyi|
Ben, it's so nice to see an update. I love this chapter, and the stage is set for future developments. Kyla's my personal favorite at the moment-- but I have to go. The SAS theater tech team misses you, and so do I.