I'm going back to work next week. Can't help feeling slightly trepiditious for a number of reasons. That's not even a word, but I'm claiming it.
I'm worried I won't be able to fit in writing, D&D and schoolwork; the latter pays the bills, though I sorely wish the former did. I have to concentrate on that. However, I'll be putting as much of my time as possible into this project.
I'm also now unsure who the audience is for this. It's turning into a sort of young adult type thing. Do those sell, I wonder?
Anyway, Chapter 6 after the jump!
(Fixed the numbering btw. Ended up with Chapter 6 on about three posts. This REALLY IS CHAPTER SIX.)
Trip heard Victor’s voice before he found the man, arguing with the stablehand. The two men were nearly nose-to-nose, or would have been had the stablehand’s nose not been missing its tip.
“An’ I’m tellin’ yer, this town owes me a horse. At least one.”
“Sir, I wasn’t even born when you came to this town, and as I heard it you rode off with a goodly portion of the treasury then anyway!”
“It was a contract, like all t’others, you spineless li’l runt!”
“I am not going to just give you a horse, sir, and that is final!”
Trip cleared his throat in the small silence that followed and Victor looked sideways at him. The man’s face was beetroot purple and he was breathing heavily. Then he turned and threw his hands up in the air.
“Bah! Prob’ly all dyin’ of colic anyway. Come on, lad.”
The pack was lying on the ground a few yards away, abandoned in the heat of the argument. Trip shouldered the load and caught up with Victor, who had already started to head towards the other end of the town.
“Victor, something’s wrong in this town. Look at this.” He held up the dead leaf.
“It’s a leaf from the church in the centre of the town.”
“Victor, it’s dead! The leaves of the Arbour don’t die, it’s one of the first things we’re taught. The blossom never stops blooming and the leaves never die and fall off like other trees. It’s one of the ways we know that the Arbour is special to us.”
Trip trotted up and stood in front of Victor, who tried to step round. “So this shouldn’t happen! And everyone here is badly injured, and they don’t care about the dead people in the farm!”
“Listen, kid,” Victor said, reaching out and plucking the leaf out of Trip’s hand. “This don’t mean nothin’ to me less’n I can sell it and buy a horse. If you’ve got a point, make it.”
“We need to find out what’s going on in this town! It’s like the tree is injured. Maybe its bandits coming in to town every night, or perhaps it’s wild animals like Father Liam said.”
“And maybe,” Victor shouted, suddenly towering over Trip, “Maybe it’s jus’ a dead leaf from another tree! Maybe you should keep yer nose out of other peoples’ business! Maybe,” he said, letting his voice drop, “maybe it’s time ter retire.” He turned and stalked off in the direction of the inn.
Trip watched him go, rooted to the spot by indecision and fear.
It was dark by the time the boy plucked up the courage to find Victor. He had spent the time wandering around the town noticing ever-stranger things about the townspeople; a blank look here, damaged property there. More than anything else he was certain that everything felt wrong, off-kilter.
There were three people in the bar; a man in the corner of the room, his features obscured by a black cloak; the barman, his walrus moustache jiggling as he inspected the progress of the cleaning job he was doing on the bar; and Victor, slouched by the fire in an overstuffed armchair. His eyes were closed, muscles relaxed. Trip padded up to him, his feet silent on the large rug that was laid out under the tables, stained and pitted with burn marks.
“I know yer there,” Victor suddenly said. Trip carried on anyway and sat down in front of him.
“We have to find out what’s wrong here, Victor. I’ve been doing some looking around this afternoon. The people here, they’re so happy despite the whole town looking like a wreck. And the tree, something’s wrong with it.”
Victor looked at the boy hard for a minute, then took a mouthful from his pint mug. He set it down with an audible click onto the small table that stood between them. Trip leaned forward as Victor began to talk quietly.
“I bin doin’ me own information gatherin’, boy. Y’hear more in an inn that ye’d think.”
Trip felt his face light up into a grin. Finally, a chance to work with the Great Victor in his prime!
Victor frowned. “Mostly, it was when yon barman tol’ me to stay in my room an’ lock the door tonight. No-one’s told me to lock meself in before. Lock other things out, never t’other way round.” He leant back and drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “P’raps we could-“
He broke off suddenly, holding a hand up for silence. Then Trip heard it too; a bell tolling, high and slightly haunting. This seemed to have an instant effect on the barman and the cloaked man; they both jerked upright, the cloaked man standing, then started to move towards the door as one.
Just before he left, the barman turned and spoke the Trip and Victor. “Remember, I’d lock your door, sirs. Wild things abroad this night.” Without waiting for a response he closed the door.
Trip closed his eyes, working his mind over the events of the day. The bell continued to toll, then stopped. He slowed the whirling confusion of events as they ran through his memory, then focused in on the image of a bell. He opened his eyes.
“They’ve gone to the church. There’s a bell hung just inside the front entrance.”
“Come on,” Victor said, rising smoothly to his feet. He plucked his sword up from where it was leaning against the chair and strode towards the door. Trip took a deep breath and followed.
Outside it was still. The moon was high and full, light beaming down and outlining everything in silver. It was as quiet as it should have been at nearly midnight, but all the houses were dark. The only lights shining onto the streets were from the inn and the church, ahead of them. Light was flooding out of the archway, spilling onto the last couple of figures walking in.
Trip followed Victor as he walked confidently over to the church building and peered in the doorway. Father Liam was at the front, perfectly framed by a pair of columns that stood either side of the small stage at the front, the tree his backdrop. He was walking back and forth, each time entreating the gathered congregation. Every aisle was packed with people, all of them swaying slightly from side to side.
Victor whistled softly. “Whole town must be here. This ain’t normal.”
“My friends,” Father Liam was saying, “It’s so good to see you all here again. Not, of course, that any of you would miss this. I know that it’s something you… need.”
He paused for a moment before continuing. “Let us go straight to business, my followers. I call for the first offering!”
Immediately the entire crowd surged towards the front of the church. Father Liam held his hands up and all movement stopped. Then he pointed.
“You there. Come here.”
It was the cloaked person from the bar. He moved through the crowd and flung back the hood from his head. He had ginger hair cropped short to his head, freckles covering his thin face. The cloak moved back as he walked revealing brown leather armour and sturdy boots. He stopped in front of Father Liam and knelt.
“Give yourself,” the priest ordered. The man put his hands out and Trip saw for the first time that one of his hands seemed to be covered in an articulated silver glove.
Father Liam drew a dagger from behind his back and showed the blade to all. An appreciative sigh came from his audience as he took the man’s ungloved hand in his own, then swiftly drew the knife across its palm.
Blood welled almost immediately and the man stood, a fierce grin on his face. He stepped forward and pressed his hand to the tree’s trunk, then stepped away. Trip could only watch in astonishment as the blood smeared across the tree trunk bubbled, then vanished.
“I am reborn,” shouted the man, then he turned and ran out of the church, laughing maniacally. Trip and Victor only just had enough time to flatten themselves against the wall as the man ran out, still howling with laughter, then immediately began to kick his way through the closest house’s door.
Inside, Father Liam was quickly working his way through the entire congregation. At a rate of about one every five second, men and women flooded out of the church. Trip stared up at Victor but the man’s face was set into a mask of iron, his eyes cold.
A woman came out, already tearing at her dress, only to be set upon by a band of four men. She was carried, half-struggling and half screaming with laughter, off into the night. A group of children came out all at once, snatched up small clubs and began to weave in and out of peoples’ legs, punching, kicking, biting and striking.
There was a long pause in people coming out of the church and Victor, pressing Trip back against the wall with one hand, risked a look in. Trip could only look out at the devastation being wrought by the villagers on their own property. Men, women and children howling and screaming, their faces disfigured into wild animal expressions.
“All clear,” Victor said, and went into the church. Trip followed him, not wanting to be left alone out there.
“We have a problem,” Victor muttered, looking around carefully. Trip peered at the upset pews, the books scattered around. The church was completely silent, thought.
There was no sign of Father Liam.