A chance encounter and the fate of Hamble.
| Chapter 5
She was beautiful. Never had I been so entranced by a random face as hers. Her hair was reddish-gold, and hung to her mid-back. She raised from her bend and stretched her back. Her garden kept her busy, it seemed.
I was now three miles from the coast, had taken a meal and gathered my way once more. I had yet to happen upon any notion of where I should be going, one does not set off to find a mystic bowl with a spot picked out on the map, but I had little worry in that regard. I had been taught something on that island. I did not fully realize the nature of the lesson just yet, but at the very least I knew I had to press on. And now it was early morning on a dry, windy day, and ahead of me an angel wiped the sweat from her forehead.
She turned and saw me approaching. She spit, gave me a nod, and grabbed her hoe.
“Good morning,” I started.
“Same upon you,” she replied while hoeing strenuously.
“That’s a hard ground you work.”
“Been working it all my life.”
“Would you like some water?”
“I’d like some carrots, they’re the ones who’d like some water.”
“Dry season lately?” I asked.
She stood and sighed.
“I have a husband.” She said with a recited tone.
“Really? I have a rash.”
She smiled quickly, then suppressed it. I let her gain her composure, she was hell-bent on the upper hand in this conversation. I normally could not care less about any peasant I happened upon, man or woman, but I already knew my mind’s eye would not let me forget her beauty, I needed a memory to make the picture permanent.
“Well you take care of that, I can’t exactly treat my husband with an ointment and hope he fades. He’s more like a scar.”
“I have those too. Sorry to bother you miss, I’ll leave you. It’s just very rare to come across…you are…nevermind. May your crops grow well. Good day.”
“Give up so easy?”
I stood and stared at her, and although I tried not too, her comment forced a smile, then a choked giggle. Soon I was bent over with my hands on my knees, laughing uncontrollably. She allowed my hoots without interruption, but her curiosity was obvious. I stood straight, still chuckling and wiping my eyes, and turned my attention back to her. Her head was cocked, a small smirk on her full mouth.
“Am I being mocked, sir?” she asked sweetly.
“No no, sorry! It’s just that question…that question has been asked recently I think.”
“I see. And by whom, may I ask? It is obviously a fond memory.”
“Not at all.”
Her kitchen was quaint and clean. I saw hard work in every corner. I sat upon an old chair next to a small table connected to the wall. I couldn’t help but watch her form while she searched her cupboards. It was more than sexual observance though, somehow her curves spoke to me, whispered notions of a wonderfully sweet spell about to be cast on my heart. I pushed these ridiculous notion away, but the slow rolling ecstacy of her presence was lulling me into foolish ideas. I’d spoken only a few sentences to this woman, and already I felt a need to protect her, show her new things, make her joy overflow. And above all else, I wanted to feel her warm flesh against my own. Memories of Addie, while already fading, were now removed completely from my mind.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“I’ll run some water from the pump, lay out your skins. I have little food, but I’ll fix you some sandwiches.”
She walked towards the porch door with a large jug in her hands.
“Can you not live with Farm Girl?” she replied with her back turned to me. She stood still in the doorway.
“Can you live with Traveler?”
She turned her head slightly.
“I certainly can.”
She returned a few minutes later and filled my waterskins, taking care not to look me in the eyes. I felt like a creep. I could not take my eyes from her. I watched as she prepared some small sandwiches and wrapped them in a hide blanket.
“I am very grateful for your help, Farm Girl.”
“You come from the sea?” she replied.
“How could you know that?”
“I can smell it on you still. But there is not a harbor for many miles, how did you arrive? And you were coming from the West. Nothing out there.”
“Nothing?” I replied.
She make an impatient clicking noise and shook her head.
“No need to speak in riddles, sir, your business is your own. I was only making conversation.”
“I returned from an island,” I said. The words stuck in my throat; I could not believe I’d said it. The red-haired woman did not seem to care though. She nodded and continued her packing.
“May I help you with that?” I asked.
“No need. You’ll need to be on your way soon, my husband will be home, I’d prefer he not walk in on me and a dirty stranger making small talk in his kitchen.”
I hardly heard what she was saying, the movement of her full, chapped lips was enough to keep my attention. A thick curl of crimson hung down over her forehead. She stroked it back with her hand. It was the most sensuous thing I’d ever seen. I’d lost my head.
“I am on a sacred journey. I have seen a wonder, and have been chasing it ever since. I may be promised,” I said, and awaited her reaction. She stopped her work, lifted her head, and looked into my eyes. I felt the warmth of her regard.
“You’re a crazy then? I might’ve known,” she said.
“Haven’t you ever questioned things?”
“Questioned? Oh sure, I’ve questioned, pleaded, begged. The crops still fail. That’s all one has time to question. What in the world are you blabbing on about?”
“Haven’t you ever taken a step back and thought about this world we live in? There are so many lives, so many towns and villages and countries. But no one seems to have any sense of things, there is no curiosity about how it all began, how it works, who controls it. I’ve heard stories in my travels; that once our world was united in one kingdom. I have walked much of it, and today I see no allegiances. Everyone is ignorant of each other. All I see are men and women begging for crops. Haven’t you ever wanted to see who you’re begging?”
She stared at me as if I were a visible enigma. I could see her struggle to register my words. I continued.
“I once spoke with a monk. He was an odd old man. He sat in a tree most days, with a monkey on his shoulder. I had to climb that damn tree, a feat worthy of praise itself, just to get an audience with him. He mostly muttered, but he did speak to me directly of a few things. He told me that he once saw another realm, our realm is the dreaming image of the other. There he learned of a word. Heest-ohry. He explained the meaning the best he could, but what I could make out of his ramblings was this: heest-ohry means remembering, looking back in order to look forward. Accounting what happened yesterday in order to face tomorrow. Why do we not see this in practice?”
“See what? You’re a curious one indeed, sir. A seed that is planted becomes a crop. Yesterday becomes tomorrow. Your magic monk word is everywhere.”
I placed my hand on hers. She stiffened but did not pull away.
“Where did that seed come from? The crop before, right? And where did that one come from? And the one before? The one before that?” I squeezed her hand gently, “Where did the first seed come from?”
I saw the confusion on her face. I had been born different, had always known. People just did not consider these things. My curiosity was remarkably unique, it seemed. The more I saw of the world, the more I felt removed from it. This woman, just like every other person I’d observed, seemed incapable of asking why?
“I…I…” she muttered. Her index finger moved ever so slight upwards and caressed my palm.
“This is my quest, my dear. To find that first seed, and perhaps its planter. I’ve seen evidence I am not alone in my search. There have been others before me.”
“Why are you telling me this? Keep your insanity to yourself!” she said, and pulled her hand away.
“Others mean there may be some heest-ohry at work here. It’s been hard to dig it up.”
“I don’t care! You’re scaring me.”
“I don’t mean to.”
“Do you always speak such nonsense with every passerby you see?”
“Not ever,” I said. She could tell by my eyes I meant it.
Her posture was changing slightly. I could see her hips dipping forward, her back tilted very gradually.
“What makes you tell me?” she asked. Her fingers slid slowly up and down her side.
“I have no idea, Farm Girl. You are drawing me out,” I said.
“Please just take your sandwiches and leave, I have work to tend to.”
I stood silent, and probed her eyes. She was breathing slowly. She licked her lips.
“I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. My sense is dimmed, I am sorry for upsetting you. I am leaving now.”
Her eyes narrowed a bit. The corner of her lip curled up in a half smile for just a moment.
I packed my bag with the supplies, and walked toward the doorway. As I walked through I heard her voice behind me. She whispered seductively.
“My name is Cora.”
We fell into each other like liquid and oil; a swirl of warm passion. Her taste was a calm ecstacy. We writhed and glided in each others arms; our moans echoed off the walls of her small corner bedroom. Never had I made love to a woman so passionately.
I landed on a thin bale of hay. The blood from the back of my head clotted my hair. I reached back and felt the gash, the bleeding had stopped but the pain was still present. I’d been attacked from behind.
Two brutish young men were locking my cage, sick smiles painted on their faces. A third stood behind them and regarded me with a look of fear and pity.
“I’ll remember your faces,” I said as loud as I could. The one setting the lock chuckled.
“You can remember my ass as well if you like,” he replied, then turned and pulled down his pants and shook his rear while laughing hysterically. His buddy next to him snickered. The boy behind them shook his head and walked away.
“You tell Hamble…” I began.
“You tell Hamble yourself, he’s on his way. I’d think he’d be tying up the mutt at the moment. Maybe having a spot of fun with it first? I plan on training that bitch with an iron myself later tonight if the weather stays fair!” he said, and tittered. The other agreed and began to swing his arm in a clobbering motion, while the other made yelping sounds at each blow.
“Enjoy each other while you can. I’ll be sure to leave your corpses sprawled in each other’s arms,” I said. They continued laughing and left.
I sat back and tried to think. The pain in my head from the villager’s club was throbbing its pulse through my head, it was hard to concentrate. Diamond was captive. I needed to clear my head and think of a way to get to her; before Hamble summoned the nerve to meet the miners with their prized light beside him.
I felt a strong wave of fatigue spreading its way through me. My eyelids began to drop, the world was swimming. I struggled to stand. Once upright I began to pace, I would not let the head injury slip me into a doze. The jail cell felt like it was on a tilt.
I heard heavy steps down the hallway. Hamble stood in front of me, a neautral expression on his face.
“It didn’t have to be this way Scott. It gives me no pleasure,” he said.
“You’re a coward,” I said.
“I am a leader boy. I made a decision needed made, that’s all.”
“You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“No? Anyone can tell that dog shines somethin’ special. I seen it the moment you walked in. You were safe in the mountains, somethin’ kept you safe. And the only way that could be is if the ghosts up yonder wanted something other than to deal death. I see the cuts on your arms, there was a scrape alright. But my guess is they was otherwise occupied. Your dog is going to save this town, I know it. Tomorrow I go to barter a deal,” he said, and waited for my reply. I gave none, “I’d ask you to tell me your story, but you’d as likely not tell, or if you’re as pert as you seem, you’d tell a fancy tale to steer me wrong.”
“You want to hear what happened to me up there Hamble? You want to know what you’re facing?”
“Aye, do tell.”
I stood and faced him eye to eye.
“White smiles, all moved, darkness,” I replied.
Hamble’s eyes twitched with fear. He tapped the bars and left.
A few hours later, a young boy appeared in front of me. He leaned his head on one of the bars.
“Mister,” he whispered.
“Go away boy,” I said.
“Mister, are you the Scott?”
“She wants a trade,” he whispered, and looked both ways for any signs of visitors.
“Who? What do you want? Do you know what they’ve done to my dog?”
“Will you trade, that’s what she wants to know!” he replied with frustration.
“Trade what…for what? Boy, explain yourself or leave me be.”
He sighed and gripped the bars.
“Listen mister, when Melda asks for a trade, you’re supposed to already know what for! It’s what she wants ya never know.”
I sat up. The urgency was clear on the boys face. He was terrified, but couldn’t leave until I answered.
“She the witch-doctor?” I asked.
“Momma says she a soos-sayer. Says I’m to stay away from her mischief and wickedness. But she grabbed me out of my own bed, she was so strong! Please say you’ll trade, she’ll let me go home! Mister!”
Smart woman, this Melda. I wasn’t sure what her chip was in the game, but I got the picture. She’d free me from the cage, but I’d have a debt. A payment of her choosing.
“Please! They’ll find me! She gave me a key, took it out of one of her dusty chests in her house. Says I’m to open the cage and let you free of it, but only if you says you gonna trade! You gotta say it!” the young boy yelled.
I hated it, hated the whole idea. Every bit of it felt wrong, but I was cornered. Whoever this Melda was she knew this. I had no choice, I would not abandon Diamond to the pale miners.
“Ok. I’ll trade. Now let me out and go back to your momma.”
The cage opened. I rushed down a dark hallway and ran up the staircase. Outside I heard the roar of a mob. I pushed the wooden slat upward at the top of the stairs, and found I was in a barn, the wooden slat was a drap door. I ran to the barn doors and opened them a crack to look outside. I saw what might’ve possibly been the entire town amassed in a crowd, torches burning bright. Before them was a great bonfire, behind which stood Hamble, on an incline, ready to address his town. They all regarded Hamble, who raised his hands to the sky. Diamond was tethered by three ropes in all, each held by massive brutes. They were Diamonds security.
“This is going to be rough,” I muttered to myself.
“My kinsfolk! Hear me tonight!” Hamble hollered, addressing the crowd with arms upraised, “We believe we have found it!”
The crowd roared in response.
“We go at first light up the mountain. Tonight will be our last night in shame! Tomorrow the curse is lifted! The traveler who came from the hills has told me this dog is our chance for survival. The terror that lives in the mountain will be satisfied with this gift, these were his words and we have all the reason to believe him. He lived, aye? He LIVED!”
The townsfolk yelled and cheered in agreement.
“All must remember this chap. His name is Scott, and he gave to us freely this barking talisman. After he heard of our plight he begged me to take her, wouldn’t even take a free drink for ‘er!” Hamble said. The people erupted in raucous laughter at this, “So we must all remember this man, an honor shall be paid to him every year this night. Little does he know, walking across the plains as we speak, how much he has given. Hamble will thrive again!”
I watched the crowd’s torrent of dumb praise, each of them drunk with the relief of Hamble’s words. Diamond was struggling to pull away from the ropes extending from her neck. Each time she moved, one of the ropes was jerked violently by a guard. I couldn’t help but think of her as a puppy, bound by wire to a swing.
The bonfire cast a glimmering orange light on the brush behind them. I was struggling to form a plan of action when I saw an indistinct pale figure emerge from the trees, momentarily illuminated by the firelight behind Diamond and her captors. The form was perfectly still for a moment, then quickly disappeared back into the woods.
In a small hut, half a mile West and out of sight, the old ruin Melda rubbed two rocks together in her parched hands. She hummed an ancient tune. Ancient in her mind.
“ Heeeueeeww….hok! Hok! Tonight they come, my weathered runes. Tonight they purge. Hooooooom…hyat! Hyat! The man-boy turns back, to gather his lost. His life may be forfeit. Heeyaaaaairrr…lost! Lost! Mine as well, should I aid his cause. Will his blood be true? Himmooooool…must! Must! His quest lies too close, I must have his smell! Will his musk carress this nose again? SHOW!”
She dropped one of the stones on the table.
“White,” she said, with a worried smile. Melda rose, grabbed her loaded parcel, and walked through the woven flap out into the night air.
“And now, my boon companions, drink yer fill! Crawbean, warm up that fiddle! Strike the lanterns! Crack the keg!” Hamble exclaimed. Music filled the muddy town square, drinks were passed, the crowd emanated laughter and praise.
While the festival began to take shape, I drifted silently to the right of Diamond’s guards. I posted behind a tree, only lit faintly by the distant bonfire’s glow. I looked at Diamond. She was hurt, likely defensive wounds. Her front paw was poorly bandaged, the bloodstains had become almost black. Her left ear was clipped. I saw clotted blood on the base of her neck beneath the tightly coiled ropes tied to a leather collar. Her head raised slightly; she sniffed the air calmly. I saw her tail wag, just once. Diamond’s head leveled again, and she remained motionless as before.
“She smells me,” I whispered to myself, “Be ready girl. Your man doesn’t see too many options. Be patient and calm.”
My only real chance was to wait until the crowd was drunk. A quick sprint through town would not be as difficult when the hoardes intent on your heels are swayed by the county label. But these three guards were obviously not partaking. They were almost impossibly tall, muscular, and judging by their apparent lack of interest in the raucous reverie displayed before them, I could only assume disciplined as well. The arms-length bone-clubs hanging at their sides didn’t help either. With my knife I may have been able to have executed a swift barrage of elliptical swipes, at the neck, navel and back of the third’s knee. It was a dance I had been trained far too many times by Sierra. Now I had a chance to use it, and my weapon had been confiscated. She would have laced my thighs with a thorn-switch for such incompetence.
Without a weapon, I would be overrun before the second behemoth fell. Maybe before the first.
Of course it was only a matter of time before Hamble was aware I had escaped. Waiting didn’t seem an option after all.
The crowd formed into a lapsed square-dance. I was at a loss.
As silent as a snake, Melda weaved her way through the crowd. Her hood hid her face, but no matter. She could hide her identity by pure will, but it was tiring. A spray of sour wicker-ale splashed across her chin. The peasant fool whose cup had spilled only tossed back his head in absent laughter. Normally this insult would encur a month’s impotence to the guilty party’s rod, Melda grasped the vial inside her parka by habit, but quickly pulled her hand free and snorted. Important work tonight. Two months it would be, she decided, once the smoke settled.
“That’s assuming he survives,” she muttered to herself. She assembled herself near the fire. Her bag dropped next to her huddled form. Melda sat, and waited.
Hamble was laughing uncontrollably with an old fat farmer when he was interrupted by two men. I saw his hand leave his gut and strike the man who had spoken. The man fell to the ground and actually skidded across the dirt. Hamble was no slouch.
“He knows, Diamond,” I whispered, “It’s almost time to make our stand. Get ready your fangs, they will be drenched in coward’s blood this night.”
I was summoning my nerve when I noticed the small figure sitting by the large fire. The bundled form was way too close, the flames were licking at the person’s feet.
“That’s her,” I said, “I hope you have an ace up your sleeve, Melda.”
This rock was brittle. This rock stood. It was everywhere. Push it away. It bends. Put the swaying tall rocks behind. Enter the Before Place. Forget the Dancing Lie. The Before People pretend to see it. They pretend it makes them warm. The Before People dance around it. They feed it pieces of the tall, swaying, bending rock. Make them pay for it. Make them learn it is a lie. Spill the water in them. Return to the true rock. Paint it. Remember the truth. No. Wait. Stop. The light! The truth! It is bound! Hold it. Love it. Remember it. The light! To it! Claim it!
The sound of drunken celebration was instantly pierced and deafened by an unholy impish howl that surrounded the gathering. Men and women were forced to their knees by the high-pitched wailing coming from every direction around the treeline. The townsfolk added their own anguished screams as their ears were overrun by the evil siren song emitting from the wilderness.
All of a sudden an army of thin, pale specters began sprinting out from the shadows. Their arms raised to the sky, mouths wide open, screeching. Hundreds of pale apparitions invaded the camp at full speed, striking fear into the hearts of every man, woman and child. A panic erupted. The frightened mob began to trample itself attempting to retreat the charging force of the mountain-dwellers.
“They’re here!” screamed an anonymous female voice. More screams followed as the white army neared at full pace from every angle. They’re was no retreat. The howls became louder and louder, they’re bare feet trampled the grass as they approached the stricken horde.
Hamble was knocked over by the smithy’s horse. Her grabbed his dislocated shoulder and grimaced in pain.
“The Pale Miners! The Miners! Quickly! Release the dog! Let her RUN!” Hamble hollered, hoping he was heard. Before he could see whether the bitch had been freed and his command obeyed, a snow-white foot stomped his skull to the dirt, cracking his skull in two. His flesh lay as melted wax across the broken shell of what once was a proud man’s face.
The albino charge only distracted me for a moment, I kept my eyes on the hands of the guards. They were shaking, but still held strong to the leashes. Diamond lurched back, her teeth were bared, but she did not struggle. She was getting ready.
Hamble’s command echoed from the distance, but was audible. The guards looked at each other, confused and frightened. I clenched my fist. Before the ropes were dropped, I had a brief moment to notice the hunched figure of Melda by the fire. She sat still, while hell was raging all around her.
The ropes dropped. I lept and swung from the arm of a thick branch and landed on the guards neck, forcing him to the ground. The guard to my right deftly removed his club and swung horizontal at my chest. I ducked quick enough to feel the air of the swing on my hair as I swept my leg across his shins, doubling him over on the ground. Diamond pounced upon his neck and ripped it wide with her teeth. I felt the thick arms of the third guard wrap around my shoulders and squeeze with gargantuan strength. My chest cavity was beginning to crack as Diamond lept from her kill and bit the man’s ankle deeply. He groaned, and I felt some release, but his hold was strong. I heard the other guard groan and begin to rise. I had meant to aim my weight at him so the impact would crush his skull upon hitting the ground. I was getting rusty.
I forced my weight to the left, causing my assailant to shift his to his left ankle, which was being ripped to shreds by Diamond. He tipped over and crashed to the ground, hollering in pain. I scooped up his bone-club and in one elliptical twirl that would have pleased Sierra I connected the round head of the weapon with the third guards cranium. He fell to the ground in a heap, dead in an instant. I turned to see the remaining guard’s intestines splayed about the dirt like red noodles. Diamond licked her chops and looked at me, tail wagging. What a beautiful sight she was.
Our victory was short-lived. The mass of albinos was literally ripping the town to shreds. In the faint firelight I saw limbs cast about, blood spraying like a geyser, screams and unsettling crunching and slurping sounds. But as the pathetic population of Hamble began to dwindle to a few crawling half-corpses, the bulk of the white army was now headed in our direction. No longer running though. They strode with the same slow, simultaneous pace Diamond and I had seen before. But instead of 15 or 16, we watched as hundreds of pale miners marched in our directions, completely in sync. And while I couldn’t tell for sure in the fire’s dwindling light, I knew each one of them had a smile on their face.
READ MORE IN THE SEVEN THUNDERS PART 4