Ruthern Valley Publishing

Ruthern Valley Publishing

Cornwall Publishing Studio

Shadows Of Cayhurst: The Awakening of Droluk

Below are the first 2 chapters of
 
SHADOWS OF CAYHURST

BOOK ONE
THE AWAKENING OF DROLUK

By
Yvonne Arlott
Copyright © Yvonne Arlott 2014

This novel is a work of fiction. All characters, events and places in this publication are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Published By Ruthern Valley Publishing.
 
Chapter 1
Desrahl
Year 4288 CE 
Orkron paused at the sound of his footsteps echoing down the long arched corridor, they sounded too loud in his ears. The last thing he wanted was to chance discovery after having made it so far into the castle undetected. The patterned rugs laid over the cold stone floor were thin and did little to dampen the noise no matter how carefully he trod. Tapestries lined the wall on his left in between numerous doors whilst to his right windows set into the thick stone walls looked out onto the rapidly darkening day, as storm clouds gathered overhead. Cautiously he moved further on pausing at each of the heavy wooden doors to listen for any sounds of occupants.
   A crash of thunder boomed out making him jump and a bright flare of light lit up the window behind; he risked stopping to glance out. From his vantage point on the fourth floor he could clearly see the surrounding city of Desrahl laid out at a lower elevation to the castle and the ramshackle settlement outside the city’s ancient stone walls. It consisted of dilapidated wooden huts, with their decaying thatched roofs that stood as a shrine to their owner’s poverty. Beyond, far off in the distance, snow-capped mountains spanned the horizon.
   The usual hub-bub noise of Desrahl had ceased as the storm unleashed its full fury. Great streaks of lightning ripped their way across the sky before hitting the ground, occasionally causing one of the wooden houses to erupt into flames. The heavy rains that had started soon extinguished the fires before gathering into streams of floodwater, which gushed through the city, eroding the muddy roads as it went. A fierce, bitter wind had also sprung up, sweeping through the streets and dislodging anything that wasn’t firmly tied down.
   Turning away Orkron carried on checking each door but the storm had made it more difficult to listen for any voices beyond or even hear anyone approaching. Several of the rooms appeared to be occupied but their voices sounded wrong, not the distinct, deep tone he was searching for and the longer he took in his task the greater the risk of discovery. He was running out of doors when at last he heard him, sounding irate and stressed as he spoke to someone, his voice loud enough that Orkron could make out the words through the hefty oak door.
   ‘What is going on Malkor?’
   A thin, wispy voice answered. ‘I can’t tell you much more than you already know. I have confirmation that our outposts have been overwhelmed. I had no choice but to pull your forces back to Desrahl to fortify it in preparation for an attack by this enemy.’
   ‘Yes but you must have found out something more about who it is attacking us?’
   ‘I wish I was able to. The reports from the outpost sentries who survived are all the same. They talk of some kind of dark mist that obscured the forms of their attackers and those close enough to see were killed.’ Any response the other man may have made was drowned out by the clash of thunder that seemed to make the very walls shake. When next he could hear Malkor had resumed talking. ‘… I thought it prudent. Without more information about our enemy it seemed to me our best course of action was to fight behind the security of the city walls. Most of your forces are in place already and we should be able to quash any attack.’ A sudden violent boom of thunder roared out as if in answer, deafening and overpowering but only a tiny whisper compared to what was headed their way at alarming speed.
   ‘And the Queen? Did you send her to safety as I requested?’
Orkron bristled at the mention of the queen, wanting to burst through the door and claim the man a liar but he restrained himself. He needed to know what had become of her.
‘Yes as you commanded.’ Malkor said. ‘I must point out that I think it was an over cautious act though.’
   ‘I can’t risk anything happening to her.’
   It isn’t his place, Orkron thought, his anger flaring at the man’s concern for the so called queen. Everything that has happened, all the pain is because of him, once more he felt the agony inside that constantly threatened to choke him and wondered if it would ever go away. Pain and anger was all he ever felt anymore though.
   Beyond the door the man continued. ‘I have to protect her at all costs.’
   To hear him talking about her that way was more than Orkron could tolerate. Another bright flash of lightning lit up the window behind him then faded into darkness, the rain was still pounding loudly outside as he pushed the heavy door open and entered the room. Both men inside stopped abruptly at the sight of him, taking in his long black hair that hung loosely to his shoulders, his thick set jaw covered in stubble and his most prominent feature, his silver coloured eyes. They glistened like jewels, drawing in anyone who looked at him.
   ‘Orkron,’ the man breathed, staring hard in disbelief wanting to be certain his own eyes weren’t deceiving him. It was clear from his reaction he had hoped never to see him again; Orkron felt a sense of satisfaction that he had denied him that wish as he responded.
   ‘Hello Zardon or is it King Zardon?’
   ‘How did you find me?’
   ‘Surely you didn’t really believe I wouldn’t eventually find you.’ Orkron’s soft spoken, crisp voice held a menacing edge to it. He paused to take in the plainly furnished room with its large, sturdy wooden table on which sat an empty wine cup. ‘So where have you hidden her?’
   ‘Where you’ll never find her,’ Zardon snarled, knowing full well he meant the queen.
   ‘The same arrogant fool. Always thinking you know best and interfering in things you have no business in.’
   ‘I did what was best.’
   ‘No you did what you wanted. You have no idea, you never did.’
   Zardon’s face reddened in anger at the accusation. ‘Are you responsible for the attack on the outposts?’
   Orkron faltered looking momentarily unsure, confusion marring his features as he tried to make sense of the king’s words. Was such a stronghold as Desrahl really about to come under attack as their conversation had suggested and if so who by? It didn’t matter; nothing mattered anymore apart from finding her.
   There were strange sounds drifting up from below, barely audible above the storm. Malkor pushed past through the door to look out the window in the corridor. ‘There is something attacking.’ He shouted back. ‘It’s chaos down there; I need to go oversee the defences and I’d advise you to be there too.’
   The king nodded but Orkron barred his way. ‘Not until you tell me where she is.’
   ‘Never.’ Zardon responded. ‘If you don’t let me go many innocent people may die. I need to help protect them.’
   Orkron stood unmoving and Malkor edged back into the room ready to protect his king from the intruder if the need should arise. Their confrontation was disturbed by the candles suddenly blowing out in the corner furthest from the door and a dark, red mist filtered into it from some unseen source. It briefly erupted into a blinding white light and they all turned transfixed, waiting to see what would occur next. The bright light faded into a murky reddish hue, in which a dark shape emerged.
   ‘What have you done?’ Zardon gasped, turning to find Orkron’s face mirroring his own expression of surprise and fear. Before Orkron could even attempt to form an answer, there was a scream from the doorway. Something ripped into Malkor.
 
 
Chapter 2
Fifield Village
Spring, Year 4302 CE

Falrick paused at the edge of the forest to look back at the village of Fifield some way in the distance. It was aptly named having a history steeped in farming and owed its very existence to the rich soils of the lands surrounding it. He had a clear view of the many fields where men with horses toiled away ploughing and planting. Normally he and the other children would be among their number but with Jerlari taking place the next day they had all been allowed a day of recreation in deference to the sacred festival that most just referred to as the trial. He knew his siblings would be playing or relaxing, he was the only one his mother had asked to forage wild mushrooms and he’d learnt long ago her questions were ones with only ever one possible answer. He had not minded though as he enjoyed the solitude the forest afforded and the mushrooms grew in abundance although he had to be careful which he collected.
   A thin strip of scrubland covered the remaining distance between the fields and the forest where young children whooped and screamed in delight and pain as they played the ever popular game Squalkins. It was named after the small fist sized rodents that littered the scrubland with a maze of tunnels and were a constant blight to the farmers as they encroached ever more into the fields.
   The animals themselves were fast and it was rare to get a good look at one alive but everyone had seen their corpses when they were brought home for the stew pot. They were ugly looking things with four legs, a short stubby tail, tiny eyes and a set of razor sharp pin like teeth. Their faces looked deformed, being squashed flat in places and protruding heavily at the sides of their eyes. Their most prominent feature was the four whiskers that spread from their face, two above the eyes and the other two below the flat chin.
   The rodents were harmless but their bites hurt or so Falrick had heard. The objective of the game was to catch one and kill it, the first child to do so won but during the course of a game bites were a common occurrence. Despite this the adults still encouraged the game, seeing it as a way to rid themselves of some of the tiresome pests.
   Falrick watched silently as a Squalkin bounded across a patch of heather and dived into a hole, narrowly evading a horde of children’s groping hands. He had never played the game and now at 14 he was too old for such things.
   ‘What do you think you’re doing?’
   Falrick turned at the sound of Xenak’s voice, astonished to find the boy was right behind him accompanied by a girl and Aldor, Falrick’s brother. They all matched him in age but Xenak stood a full foot taller in height than the other two and his stocky build made him look much older than he was. Falrick was the same height but his scrawny frame gave him a lanky and ungainly appearance in comparison.
   ‘Nothing,’ Falrick stammered, ‘just collecting these,’ he showed the basket of mushrooms to them but Xenak ignored them. The large boy’s arms were covered in old scars from past bites which gave him a higher status amongst the other children and those who didn’t look up to him soon did after an encounter with his giant fists.
   Xenak now raised one of his muscular arms and gestured towards the scrubland. ‘Ah does Falrick want to play with the little kids.’ A mocking smile spread over his face as he goaded Falrick, his comments making his companions laugh cruelly.
   ‘I have work to do.’ Falrick tried to return to his task but Xenak blocked his path.
   ‘Nobody wants someone like you around.’ Xenak continued.
   They were just words Falrick told himself but that didn’t make them hurt any less. To hear what he’d always known said out loud hurt badly, the truth behind the words making them so much more powerful. Other children started to gather around them attracted by the harsh tones. Falrick began to feel trapped in the circle of faces and tried to move away but contrary to his words Xenak stopped him with a shove.
   The stocky boy looked at him thoughtfully as if trying to decide how best to torment his victim. ‘Maybe if you had the courage to prove you’re not the weak coward you look we would be able to tolerate you.’
   Falrick stayed silent, his eyes downcast, not wanting to provoke Xenak.
   A crooked grin spread across Xenak’s face, his eyes remaining cold and hard. ‘You do want to prove you’re not a coward don’t you?’
   ‘I’ll be taking part tomorrow in the trial.’ Falrick offered.
   ‘Huh that’s nothing, we all will.’ Xenak gestured to the other boys of 14. ‘But we don’t want you making us look bad to those officials. You need to prove yourself to us now.’
   ‘How?’ Falrick stuttered feeling like he was being cornered and manoeuvred into a situation he wasn’t going to like.
   Xenak looked back towards the forest thoughtfully. ‘Go 40 paces past the old Oak.’
   Falrick heard gasps from some of the younger children behind him, as he felt a cold chill run up his spine. Everyone knew that he was referring to the remains of the giant, dead, gnarled tree that lay further into the forest and marked the start of more treacherous territory to the south. There the trees were sparser and a mass of Muneabris brambles with particularly large thorns had grown up between them. Stories were rife that some horrible creature of nightmares lurked in amongst the bushes waiting to pounce on any person who ventured there and even the older children believed them. The adults on the other hand feared the area for other reasons few would mention. They knew people had actually died, caught in the thick mass of strange, deadly brambles covering the ground. The victims had struggled to try and free themselves of the thorny grasp of the plants but the more they had thrashed the more entangled they had become. The thorns cut into them at every movement, preventing their escape and without aid they had died of blood loss or starvation.
   The brambles never spread past the dead Oak though which some people put down to magic whilst others reasoned there had to be something special in the soil the plants needed. That led to them thinking their own crops would perhaps grow so much better on such soil and they decided to convert the area to farmland.
   The village folk had tried to remove the dense brambles and few trees to make way for the new farming land but no matter how many Muneabris they had pulled up the area never seemed to clear. They persisted on but the thorny stems cut into them savagely at every opportunity weakening their resolve. Then someone came up with the idea of burning the brambles but as soon as the foliage caught light a noxious, green gas rose up into the air killing three people within minutes and those who managed to get away from it were left with a severe cough. After that no one would go past the dead Oak and an unspoken fear of the area gave rise to the stories of monsters.
   ‘You can’t make him do that!’ Aldor looked aghast. ‘He’ll be ripped to pieces.’
   Xenak turned on him fiercely, slapping him across the face with the back of his hand hard enough to send him to the ground. ‘I can do what I want; besides I’m not making him. If he’s too chicken it just proves my point.’
   Falrick gritted his teeth realising the difficult position he was in. If he didn’t go he’d never hear the end of it, life would become even more unbearable but to risk going past that twisted tree was sheer madness. Maybe if he won the trial tomorrow he could get away from Fifield but his chances were slim to none.
   ‘Well?’ Xenak pressed mercilessly.
   Falrick took a deep breath and headed for the Oak with the now large group in tow.
   ‘So you really are crazy.’ Xenak laughed.
   That was it Falrick decided, he was crazy and that was why he was so different, after all he couldn’t really explain why he was doing such a stupid thing. He had to be crazy to risk his life just in an attempt to fit in. He was that desperate he thought as the creepy tree came into sight, causing sharp intakes of breath from the smallest children.
   The brambles seemed even taller and more impenetrable than he remembered them with very few spaces of clear ground left to pick his way across. Many strands of thorny stems hung from the few tree tops, dangling down as if waiting for some animal to tangle in their twisting embrace.
   Slowly he watched his leather shoe as he moved his foot past the Oak from the leafy mulch into the forbidden zone. As it landed he looked up sharply to make certain nothing was about to descend upon him, relieved to see it all clear. Only another 39 steps. The quicker he did them the quicker it would be over he reasoned but the more chance he would have of becoming entangled in the shrubs. Carefully he picked his way through them, feeling the thorns catch on his tattered clothing and cut into his skin below. He ignored the pain as more thorns scraped along his bare arms and ripped into his trousers and legs beneath.
   At the 40th step he pivoted sharply avoiding the temptation to run back and instead concentrating on retracing his footsteps. The brambles were waste high and he felt one of the stems hanging from above catch in his hair, scraping his scalp. It was so much quieter in this part of the forest as if the very world were far away. Even the other children he headed towards looked distant, their faces tight with interest.
   With only a few paces to go he couldn’t resist the urge to race back and be free of the constrictive plants. He broke into a run, feeling thorn after thorn scratch at him more savagely, one catching in his shirt and halting his progress until he ripped free of it.
   He raced back past the tree coming to a halt, breathless with nervous relief. All the other children had drawn back some distance and he walked towards them unable to stop himself from grinning with success. They pulled back further, only stopping when Falrick stopped.
   ‘You did it,’ the girl said, her tone one of fear rather than awe.
   ‘He must be possessed by some dark evil,’ one of the younger children squealed, believing the stories he’d heard and certain no one else could have gone past the tree and returned.
   ‘Anyone normal wouldn’t have attempted it,’ Xenak agreed, amusement sparkling in his eyes as he watched the fear take hold in his younger companions, his own words inciting it further.
   Falrick wanted to say, I did what you asked, but the words caught in his throat, stopped by the looks of revulsion.
   ‘You’d better stay away from us,’ Xenak threatened, menacingly. They turned their backs on him and left.
   ‘Aldor!’ Falrick tried.
   ‘Just leave us alone.’ Aldor said with contempt, hurrying off after the others.
   A feeling of despair and helplessness washed over Falrick. Whatever he did it would never be right he would always be the outsider everyone knew he was. Life seemed so unfair. It had been the choice of Aldor’s parents to take Falrick in when they had found him as a baby on their doorstep. He hadn’t asked them to do it and over the years he’d tried so hard to be good, to please them and make them see how grateful he was for their kindness in taking him in but whatever he did it had never been good enough. Maybe they hadn’t mistreated him but they had never let him forget he was not part of their family and also made certain the rest of the villagers knew it too.
   Falrick trudged back to where he had left the basket of mushrooms only to find it upturned and some of its previous contents spread across the ground, the rest had no doubt been taken. Slowly he bent and retrieved them and then carried on searching for more without complaint. His mind consumed with his only hope of escape. Jerlari, the trial.
   It was early evening when Falrick traipsed back along the dirt road through Fifield to the small cramped wattle and daub cottage they called home, carrying the now full and very heavy basket. The cottage consisted of just two dark rooms, the main chamber containing a cooking fire that caused a haze of smoke in the room despite the hole in the roof designed to act as a chimney. The other room, the sleeping area, was empty except for straw that covered the hard earth floor they slept on.
   He entered into a world of chaos and commotion. Aldor and his father sat at the wooden table eating some thin brown vegetable stew. His mother tended to his youngest siblings, a boy of 5 who was currently trying to get her attention and a girl of 3 who ran around wildly completely disregarding her mother’s screams to stop. No one apart from Gilstrom paid any attention to him. The 5 year old boy’s face lit up as he ran over to him in delight, his arms outstretched as he begged for a piggyback ride. Falrick couldn’t suppress a laugh at the child’s behaviour and the small pout he gave when he refused his request saying he would later. Gilstrom was his only friend and the only one who treated him like family, he would always view him as a true brother even though they weren’t related.
   ‘About time,’ his adoptive mother finally became aware of his presence, having succeeded in seating her daughter at the table. She threw him a frown as she saw the state of his torn and ripped clothing. ‘Do you think we’re made of money?’ She reproached him. ‘We can’t just buy you new clothes whenever you like. You’ll have to use them like that. What will people think?’ Her face reddened in anger at the thought of the embarrassing stares her neighbours would give her.
   ‘Tell them the truth,’ his father answered, ‘that he did that to his own clothes. We can’t be held responsible for the behaviour of someone that’s not our own blood. He’s a bad’un, they’ll see that and we done our best with him.’
   She dished up bowls of the same stew and sat down herself, looking tired and worn as she turned her attention to her eldest son. ‘Help yourself to the rest Aldor you’ll need all your strength for tomorrow.’
   His father frowned not being used to having to let anyone else finish up the food but tomorrow would be a big day with potential rewards if his son did well so he held his tongue.
   ‘I don’t see why Falrick should be allowed to take part, he’ll embarrass us.’ Aldor complained as he scraped the pot clean of its contents.
   ‘The other villagers would think worse of us if he didn’t go I’m afraid.’ His mother answered shaking her head. ‘It is expected for every 14 year old boy to attend. At least they’ll see we raised him to do the right thing and participate and if he does bad well,’ she paused and eyed Falrick without affection, ‘in truth he’s nought to do with us. We were simply kind enough to take him in.’ Falrick remained silent, he was used to them talking as if he were not in the room and they never troubled themselves with thoughts that their words could actually be hurting his feelings. As far as they were concerned they were saints taking the abandoned child in and feeding and clothing him.
   ‘Maybe we’ll actually be rid of the boy,’ his father growled helping himself to a mug of some homebrewed alcoholic beverage. There were only three outcomes to the trial, win and be taken into training, lose and carry on normal life or thirdly lose and die in the attempt. Somehow Falrick didn’t think his so called father thought he could actually win which left the other alternative.
   ‘I don’t want Falrick to go.’ Gilstrom chimed in, in his childish way, not actually certain what was going on.
   ‘Just be quiet and eat,’ his mother scolded gently.
   That night Falrick tossed and turned unable to shake an ominous feeling. Fire and darkness and creatures of nightmare consumed his dreams and he woke in a cold sweat. It was still dark outside and his other siblings around him were deep in slumber so he lay restlessly thinking about the coming day.
   Finally his mother stirred. ‘It’s time to go,’ she whispered to them both drowsily as she gently shook Aldor awake. Quietly the three of them headed out along the dirt roads past similar looking cottages to their own, wanting to reach the starting grounds before sunrise. The crisp, dawn air revived their senses fully, erasing all traces of tiredness.
   ‘Just remember Aldor, whatever it takes.’
   Aldor mumbled the words mechanically after her.
   ‘I want a better life for you than this, starving whilst working ourselves to the bone for those high and mighty in Lanjre … or worse.’ Her voice trailed off.
   They passed through the market square, unusually deserted and silent of the many carts and sellers crying their wares, even the blacksmiths lay silent just beyond. Another selection of ramshackle huts littered either side of the dirt streets before they finally reached their destination just outside the village.
   Wooden torches were stuck into the earth all around the clearing, illuminating the starting area where all the other boys were gathered. The mayor of Fifield stood between the two torches that signified the start position, preparing to give the same talk given every year.
   ‘The time has come in these boys lives to find out if their future will hold honour, fame and fortune. As is the case every year a task has been set all boys of 14 years of age in this and every other village across the realm of Aegarn. The task is potentially dangerous and there is no shame for those who choose not to attempt it. The two quickest boys who succeed in each village will earn the privilege of training to become one of the Burning knights of Lanjre, the greatest fighters ever and protectors of our great capital, Lanjre.’ At this point he paused and respectfully looked off into the distance, as if picturing the city but everyone knew he had never been there.
   Travel was rare so very few had been to Lanjre and most that had the opportunity chose to stay. It was said to be in complete contrast to their own meagre village. In Lanjre everything was new and overly grand from the marbled, ornately carved buildings and cobbled city streets to the fine wines and exotic silks.
   The capital used to be Desrahl but around 14 years ago some dark army had ransacked the city, torching the buildings and killing anyone who stood in its way including King Zardon. The king’s sister had been away at the time and was said to have collapsed and been taken ill for several days when she returned to find the carnage. With the queen gone, presumed dead and no heirs Zardon’s sister, Sylnestra became queen but couldn’t bear to stay one more moment in the place and so ordered a new castle be built in Lanjre. After the suddenness and devastation the attack had caused few of Desrahl’s inhabitants could stomach staying in the city for long either and soon flocked to Lanjre, which became the new capital.
   It was said that Desrahl still to this day remained void of anything living and at night the moaning and wailing of ghosts could be heard echoing through its empty streets. No one had ever found out what had prompted the attack or for that matter anything about the mysterious army and their leader who had vanished as quickly as they had appeared. The many who survived relayed varying and wild descriptions of their attackers; the only constant in all their different accounts was the dark mist that surrounded the army. Rumours and tales had spread with people referring to the unknown invaders as the Gheyst, meaning mist army in the old language. The name had stuck and had been used many a time to scare children into behaving yet in the 14 years since the attack the Gheyst had not been seen once. Despite this the traumatic event had scared many people and prompted Queen Sylnestra to start up the Burning Knights of Lanjre, a special sub-division of the army trained to protect Aegarn and its capital, Lanjre against any such future attacks.
   Realising the sun was coming up faster than he had anticipated the mayor continued a rather abridged version. ‘This year the boys must retrieve an offspring, dead or alive, of the Tourqil lizard and their task will begin at sunrise. Good luck to you all.’ He threw his son, Xenak a stern, pointed look as he moved back so that they could watch the sun slowly begin to rise up above the dark shadowy mountains in the distance.
   They were not far from where the Tourqil's lived on their gently sloping, volcanic mountainside. They were normally fairly placid lizards, not much larger than an average sized dog but when it came to their offspring they were fierce and would defend to the death. With sharp claws, small razor sharp teeth and surprisingly fast speed for the look of them it would not be an easy task. All the other boys carried swords or some form of weapon and some of the richer villager's sons even had shields, only Falrick stood there in his tattered old clothes devoid of any form of protection. Even his leather shoes were worn and so thin in the soles he could feel every contour of the rocky ground.
   ‘Good luck.’ Aldor's mother said smiling before pushing Aldor to join the other boys, then with a curt stare and nod at Falrick she was gone, merged into the crowd that had gathered behind them.
   Jerlari had turned into a day of holiday and celebration every year for the residents of Fifield, despite the fact it would probably end as a day of grief for one or two families. Getting into the Burning Knights was crucial though, not only would the boy's family receive money yearly but they were trained for years to become the most skilled fighters with the promise of riches and glory at the end of their service.
   Falrick stepped forward to join the others, although secretly he would have preferred to stay where he was half way between the crowd of adults and the mob of children.
   The mayor had quietly called Xenak over to speak to him and the boy now stood rigid before him, nodding. Xenak looked unhappy as he joined the rest of the boys his eyes falling on Falrick as he passed.
   ‘You’ll never fit in anywhere, just give up now.’ Xenak snarled at him. ‘You’re weak.’
   The words stung but Falrick kept his face as devoid of emotion as he could. He didn't want them to see how he really felt inside, how much their hatred really hurt him, but the emotionless look on his face only seemed to irritate Xenak more who turned fiercely on Aldor. ‘What did you bring him for?’
   ‘I didn't want to,’ Aldor replied meekly not wanting to upset Xenak, no one wanted to do that. ‘At least we may be rid of him today.’
   Xenak relaxed slightly at the prospect. ‘Just keep away from me … in fact keep away from all of us.’ Xenak glared.
   Falrick concentrated on the light slowly rising behind the threatening face wondering if his whole life would be like this, one person screaming their hatred of him after another. What had he done to deserve it? That was the real question that troubled him most. Was he really such a terrible person? Had even his own mother hated him and that's why she had left him there all those years ago?
   ‘Go,’ the crowd behind were shouting at all of them, encouraging them on. Falrick started running forward over the rocky ground that sloped up gently before him. Far off in the distance he could see smoke rising up off the terrain in the region where he knew the Tourqil lived, the natural vents of steam warming their eggs. Even here small crevices dotted the ground, large enough to twist an ankle or worse but Falrick felt like he was flying as he jogged across the surface, his eyes wary for any hazards. Other boys stumbled behind, cursing occasionally while a few took off into the distance completely sure of themselves. As soon as the crowd behind began to lose interest, concentrating instead on their celebrations, the boys slowed to a walk wanting to avoid injury on the increasingly more pitted and uneven terrain.
   Sometime later and the scenery had barely changed except that now the sun had risen in the sky giving promise of a sweltering hot day and already the ground all around radiated heat. Steam vents were dotted all over the landscape and even tiny pools of bubbling water were visible in places. Large boulders and rocks obscured his view of one or two of the other competitors but for the most part the terrain was so flat he could see for miles.
   Ahead a Tourqil lay basking in the sun next to its precious young, the lizard’s scaly body lapping up the warmth of the sun. Falrick edged closer, his movements slowing with the growing feeling of guilt at the thought of taking one of its young. The lizard's eyes popped open but it remained motionless. As he closed the gap to only a few feet the reptile rose, its eyes locked on him. He froze, picturing its sharp teeth and expecting it to lunge at him any moment. They remained staring intently at one another a moment longer before slowly the Tourqil backed away allowing him to advance one step at a time towards its nest, its eyes never straying from him. Falrick kept his focus on the lizard, wondering at its bizarre behaviour, as he slowly leant towards the now squawking offspring and gently reached out and lifted one up. The mother still made no move and he allowed himself the leisure of looking down to inspect the tiny creature. It fitted entirely in his hand, its face turned up to him as though it was imploring him for something. Maybe it knew it would be dead within hours if he took it back. He looked back towards the impassive mother and knew in that second he couldn't do it. Carefully he put the baby down and backed away, feeling satisfied at the gentle, contented mewing sound it made as it curled up with its siblings. He stood rooted to the spot, imagining what their life was like. They looked so peaceful and warm huddled up together.
   ‘If you won't take it I will,’ Aldor swept past, making him jump, and grabbed at the young lizards. In that second the mother closed the gap with alarming speed and smashed into Aldor with such force it sent him sprawling back on the ground before he could even touch one of the baby Tourqil. Continuing in her ferocious onslaught the lizard’s jaws snapped shut on his arm, her claws scratching him in her rage.
   ‘No!’ Falrick shouted jumping forward and trying to separate the two, his blue eyes large and staring intensely at the Tourqil. The lizard seemed to understand and released her hold on his brother, backing away from the screaming, writhing form on the ground. Falrick turned his attention back to Aldor, momentarily shocked by the large gash in his arm. Quickly he ripped material from his own shirt and tied it around to stop the bleeding.
   ‘Kill it.’ Aldor screamed in between spasms of pain.
   ‘You're OK, it won't harm you. Just calm down.’ Falrick pleaded trying to quieten him. ‘I'll get help, you'll be fine.’
   ‘It tried to kill me, kill it.’ Aldor's eyes wide with rage and pain stared past him.
   Falrick felt his presence before he saw him.
   ‘Huh, bested by a lizard,’ Xenak laughed at Aldor as he unsympathetically barged past.
   ‘No, you don't need to kill her,’ Falrick pleaded, jumping up to block his path but Xenak brushed him off, his sword in hand.
   ‘No wonder you failed, you’re both too weak.’
   ‘It was just protecting its young.’
   ‘Why do you care?’ He snapped back. ‘It’s just a brainless lizard.’
   That's when Falrick knew for certain. Xenak had no respect or empathy for anything. He didn't care, he wasn’t interested in avenging Aldor he simply enjoyed the killing. ‘I won't let you.’ Falrick threw himself at Xenak's sword arm, an attack that in any other situation would have failed but the surprise worked in his favour and the sword flew out of Xenak’s hand and skittered across the rock.
   ‘Get off. What do you think you're doing?’ Xenak roared spinning around to confront him.
   Falrick stood his ground, which seemed to enrage Xenak further. Xenak was used to all the other boys cowering before him and he liked it, he was important. Here was one of the thinnest, most pathetic boys he’d ever seen looking in that defiant way at him, as if he thought he had a chance of beating him in a fight. This experience was wholly unpleasant. He had to teach this small thing who was boss. He hurled himself at Falrick whose vain attempts to fight back were overwhelmed but the fact he fought at all seemed to send Xenak over the edge. His rage exploded and he punched out cruelly sending Falrick flying onto the ground next to a natural pool of bubbling water.
   ‘No you're going to kill him.’ Aldor shouted, his pain and fear of Xenak briefly forgotten.
   Xenak wasn't listening though. Jumping onto Falrick he grabbed him and forced his head half into the pool, a satisfying manic smile spreading across his face at the screams as the boiling water and steam did their worst. In the next second he was sent sprawling by the Tourqil's tail. He had barely recovered from the blow when he looked up to find scores of Tourqil all advancing on him, abandoning their young temporarily in defence of the skinny little boy. With his sword lost his courage abandoned him and he scrambled up and fled with the lizards in pursuit.
   Falrick managed to roll away from the pool and lay rigid and motionless, silently trying to block out the unbearable pain, oblivious to most of what was going on around him.
   ‘What did you do?’ Aldor breathed in awe and fear as he propped himself up on his good arm to look about. Around other lizards who had not joined in the pursuit were becoming aggressive, attacking anything in the vicinity, their unusual hostility sending the other contestants running scared back to Fifield. ‘They’ve all gone crazy.’ He tried to ignore his own anxiety as he realised they alone were left with only the demented animals for company and a single figure that was hurrying across the rocks toward them.
   As the figure approached he could see it was an old man with a long wooden staff and large, old leather satchel slung over his shoulder. He headed straight for Falrick, pulling the boys hands gently away from his face so he could inspect the wounds.
   ‘Narvius?’ Aldor gasped surprised at seeing the old man. He lived on the outskirts of Fifield and usually it was rare to see him at all since he kept so much to himself. ‘I need help.’ Aldor demanded but when the man ignored him and continued tending to Falrick he grew angry. ‘He's possessed by demons, didn't you see the way he controlled those lizards. He's the work of the devil or a witch and you know what happens to people involved in black magic … don't you see you're wasting your time.’ Aldor ranted.
   ‘He probably saved your life. You should be thanking him instead of condemning him. I’ve never heard such ingratitude.’ The old man snapped, concentrating intently as he took strange concoctions out of the leather bag he carried and began applying them to Falrick's face. The scalding water had burned across the top half of the boy’s head including both eyes and as he had pulled away drips had run down parts of his face leaving lines of burnt flesh.
   ‘And I tried to save his, before I found out what he is that is.’ Aldor persisted.
   ‘And what's that?’ The man absently asked, his attention absorbed on what he was doing.
   Aldor winced at his wounds, feeling less sure of himself and at a loss for words. ‘Evil.’ The boy stumbled onto the word at last and Narvius knew he was right in one respect, once they heard what had happened the whole village would think Falrick was evil. They would be so scared of him they would almost certainly sentence him to death as they had done so many others who they had believed to be heretics. The old man focussed on tending to the burns as quickly as he could, wanting to escape from the volcanic hillside before the villagers turned up.
   Sooner than he would have liked figures appeared on the horizon in the distance and the old man redoubled his efforts grimacing at the groans from Falrick. When he had done what he felt he could he gave the boy a bottle of foul smelling liquid that he forced him to drink from, saying it would ease some of the pain before packing away his items. Then, despite appearance, apparently picked the boy up with ease and started walking fast down the hill in the opposite direction to the figures.
   Falrick was in a sea of pain that there was no escape from and what was worse whenever he tried to open his eyes there was only more pain and darkness. The sole sound he could hear was the ragged breathing of someone. Disoriented and confused he let himself be carried without resistance. He lost all sense of time, drifting in and out of consciousness.
   Narvius struggled over the rocks and stumbled around boulders, cursing at the expanse of open ground he had to cover but refusing to give in to his tiredness. They had been some distance from the figures on the horizon but unlike him the villagers were running at full speed across the rocks, their heads down absorbed in negotiating the hazardous terrain at speed. They were close enough that he could even hear them giving chase and realised with dread he wasn't going to be able to outrun them. He cursed again, this time at the simple minded people's ignorance, superstition and plain fear of the unexplained that would lead to Falrick's death if they caught him. He had to hide them both but that was going to be tricky given the present terrain. He took the time to look back again and that's when he saw it.


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