Sunday, October 10, 2004


Day Eighteen

Sorry to leave that on such a cliff-hanger, but as I was grabbed by as many Churmuk as could fit in the wagon, accused of murdering their First Speaker, and carried off a to a cold, sturdy hut, there wasn't really any way I could even finish that sentence. The hut contained a wooden trestle, the sort of contraption that would hold up one end of a long table; I was stripped, and bent over along it, my ankles tied tightly to one end, my arms stretched down towards the other; my mouth was stuffed with a wad of cloth, a thin rope tied round my head to keep it in position, and then a leather hood was put over the top. It was all hellishly uncomfortable and humiliating, and cold, and, while I did eventually drop off to sleep, various aches and pains returned with a vengeance when I woke.

I've not really had a chance yet to go through Memree's morning with her, but I can imagine how lonely and helpless she must have felt, left behind in the guest wagon. Fran came to her in the morning, and they were able to visit me briefly; there was no choice, we took Fran into our confidence about why we'd come. On the general feeling that Churmuk judicial processes were probably rather speedy and informal, and that Natella might well soon be in charge, today was the day we had to get out, preferably with Kreston in tow - so Memree and Fran would have to find him, get him ready for the break, and, as someone would presumably be checking up on my lack of comfort fairly regularly, only then set me free. I didn't like telling them to put the gag and hood back on me, and leave me there, but I didn't see that there was much choice...though Memree did take away some of the gag-wadding with her. Ashil's cavalry wouldn't be in place to support our escape until the afternoon...

Memree had got dressed up in Churmuk armour, and they managed to contact Kreston - the death of the First Speaker meant that the usual guards had other things on their minds, of course. And Natella would want to concentrate on trying to become the new First Speaker before doing anything with me, so she was presumably too busy to come and have a little heart-to-heart... though it was weird to occasionally feel a breeze on my oh-so-vulnerable rear when the hut opened and someone looked in, either to check or to gloat.

At noon, Memree opened the glass vial that Ashil had provided - even hooded I could tell, the whole atmosphere of the place changed, it was cooler, I could hear shouting, distant screams, and an unearthly hooting. My hut's door opened - it was a guard. And then I heard a familiar voice - Memree's. "Is the prisoner still secure?"

"What's going on? The sky, the ghosts..." There was a definite tinge of panic in the guard's voice.

There was a thud, and then my ropes were being cut, and my hood removed. I spat out the gag when I could, and smiled at Fran and Memree, who were now removing the guard's costume... she was just about my size, luckily.

"Ashil's magic is doing its job out there - there's a huge figure of Atzmon, and you're fighting her - and there's clouds of smoke, and weird floating skulls and ghosts. It spooks me, and I know what it is!"

I laughed as I buckled the Churmuk metal plate kilt into position. "Sounds like it's doing its job, then - but it's just illusion magic, it won't last forever, so let's go and get Kreston, shall we?"

The sky was a dark green, but somehow it didn't make us, or the landscape, seem sickly. A skeletal head fizzed past, pale amber with glowing red eyes, leaving a trail of mauve butterflies in its wake.

"Kreston is in that large shed over there", Fran pointed. "I'll go and get your horse, and enough extra mounts, we already loaded up your saddlebags."

"Good luck, friend!" Memree and I headed in the direction she'd indicated, two Churmuk warriors among many running around. One of them ran towards us, in fact - and then a ghost of her split from her body, looked her in the face, and made as if to punch her, and she screamed and headed off in another direction. I looked up and saw Atzmon looking down on the camp as if we were all just ants.

"So what have you been promising Fran, then? She's certainly going out on a limb for us."

"It's a long story", Memree said. "But she's had enough of being a butch warrior woman, she wants to come with us."

We reached the shed, which was secured by a bar across the door - we pulled that off, and hurried in, to find four men, including Kreston, and two guards. "Kreston's behind all this", I told them. "We must take him to Natella, and quickly!"

A ghost Churmuk ran in through the walls, as the guards began to unlock the chains - we knocked both guards cold, and each lost a ghost figure, which screamed silently and fell to the floor alongside their unconscious bodies.

"Charol? You old hound, I've never been happier to see your homely old features", Kreston said, as he finished unlocking himself. "Your friends didn't mention you were the mastermind behind this rescue plan."

"A plan? Who said anything about a plan, we're just making this up as we go along", I told him. "Your friends are coming too?"

"Too right, girl!" They were all free, now, in shabby, worn trousers and with metal collars welded in place; Kreston and one other held the swords they'd picked up.

"Fine with me - our friend Fran should have the horses ready, so let's split, yes?"

Of course, things weren't quite that simple. The horses were there - but so was Natella, and five of her warriors - including Fran. I can't say that was a huge surprise, it was Natella who'd assigned Fran to us in the first place, but I do wish sometimes that adventures didn't have so many twists. Still, the odds weren't too bad - she'd not expected Kreston's fellow escapers, perhaps, or only wanted her closest followers to hear anything I might say. And of course Natella held a very high opinion of her own swordsmanship.

"Fran - how could you...?" Memree at least seemed shocked.

Fran sheathed her sword, apparently confident she could fight Memree on equal terms. "It was Natella's plan all along, sweetness", she said. "Giving Charol a clan trial for murder might have been risky, so she gets killed trying to escape."

Fran rushed for Memree, Kreston and his men rushed for the other Churmuk, and I grabbed my sword, the blade my guard had had, and turned to Natella with a smile. "Your fighting so far hasn't impressed me", I told her. "Maybe your talents lie in other directions?"

Memree and Fran were wrestling, with Fran holding handcuffs like a different version of "rope and tie" - I saw one of the men, weaponless, punch one Churmuk on the chin before she could bring her sword around, she folded noiselessly and he grabbed her weapon. There were still some ghosts and flaring, flying skulls around, but they were less substantial now, and Atzmon, fighting what looked like a giant Memree in her Churmuk armour, was no longer solid, I could see light through her. Natella and I started cautiously, swords alert, more parries than thrusts... I found that I was too annoyed to come up with my usual taunts. She'd used dirty fighting to try and enslave me, she'd used nasty tricks to try and win Memree off me, she'd killed a fine woman in the First Speaker and tried to blame me for it, she'd had me naked and trussed, stuff-gagged and hooded, all night and half the day, and then decided she would set me up to be killed in an attempt to escape...

It sounds stupid, but I hadn't been paying attention - yet Natella was now on the ground, weaponless, curled up and holding her stomach, and with what might well be the start of a black eye. The others were on horseback now, and I saw that Fran, tied up, was thrown across Memree's horse in front of her. There was some more rope on the ground, so I tied Natella too, and got her across the front of my horse's saddle. Kreston had Hengist on a leading rein.

"Come on, Charol, or we'll be here for the rest of our lives!"

I got on to the horse, a big, valuable-looking animal, black and glossy... the saddle looked high quality, too, and I smiled. "Okay, let's ride, we've got what we came for!" I shook the reins. "Let's get out of here!"

We rode, heading back the way we'd come - and we never saw any pursuit. The abduction of Natella would have caused some disruption... perhaps one of the warriors we'd left behind had decided to tell the truth, or maybe the leaders of the other factions had just been too busy to worry about us, and happy not to have Natella to contend with. Ashil and his cavalry met us a little while ago, before sunset, and now, just outside the Churmuk lands, we've set up camp for the night - with plenty of guards on the alert, rather disappointed not to have had a battle.

But now, if you'll excuse me, it's been a long and eventful day, so I'm turning in. There are plenty of loose ends I ought to mention, Ser Librarian - but I have to leave something for tomorrow's entry!

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