Ok! So I can share a post now, as the last two were either plot from after the current canon or background-related info.
I kind of had trouble moving on after the last chapter. It's taken me most of three days to write Trip and co. away from the cozy semi-safety they were in at Lord Rennin's. Poor Trip; he's not had a pleasant time of it recently, and things are only going to get worse.
I've been reviewing my stats on NaNo and I've discovered I've been almost bang on par or over it since Day 11. That's 13 consecutive days. I think I can actually do this again. It's almost miraculous considering how bad last year went.
Anyway, enjoy the next chapter! Things are definitely moving towards... A CONCLUSION!
It was early morning when the call came. Trip was jerked awake by the sound of bells ringing all over the city.
He got out of bed and shuffled into his sandals, moving to the window. He bit his lip in worry; was this a step up in the search for them? In the five days since they had sheltered in Lord Rennin's house, the search had continued; several times guards had walked past the front gate, rattled it half-heartedly and left. Rennin's name, emblazoned across the gatepost, was enough to keep most away. Of Lord Rennin himself, there had been no sign.
Trip looked out of the window. In the streets outside, people were moving slowly past, streaming down the streets and all in one direction. He watched for a minute or two. It soon became clear that there was some sort of disturbance in the flow of the people and that it was heading towards Lord Rennin's house.
Lauren had made several trips outside; each time she had reported that guards were on high alert for them. Each time she had been forced to adopt a different disguise, alternating through the various coats and hats they found in the house. Trip watched as the disturbance came closer, until he could see the most recent attempt, a low-brimmed green hat, bobbing through so many other head-coverings and hairstyles. He ran downstairs.
"Victor! Open the door!"
The old fighter looked up from where he had been sat by the fire. His sword was across his knee, whetstone in one hand. In a trice he was on his feet and by the door, hand on the latch.
"What is it?" he grunted.
"Lauren's back, but there's something going on outside," Trip said. "People all moving the same direction. Did you hear the bells?"
"Aye," Victor said. "Cain't be good."
As soon as the rattle on the door came, Victor had it open and was pulling Lauren inside. She staggered slightly. Trip took one of the woven bags she was holding and put it on the table.
"You alright?" Victor said. He led her over to one of the chairs.
"I'm fine," she said. "I don't need help, just a moment not surrounded by people." She took a deep breath and emptied the bag out onto the table. A couple of loaves of bread and some potatoes spilled out.
"I got all I could but things are pretty crazy out there," she said, rustling the bag so that a few greens fell out. "The bells started ringing and it was… odd. Everyone just kind of stopped what they were doing, put down their things and started moving."
Trip sat down while Victor went to look out the window. Even from where he was sat, Trip could see that the river of humanity was still flowing past the gate.
"Ain't seen nothin' like it afore," Victor rumbled. "T’ain't right."
Trip frowned. "I've never heard of anything exactly like this, but we've seen something like this before."
Victor turned and came to join them at the table. He nodded slowly. "Deep Round."
"That's right. The people there all came together in the church each night."
Lauren bit her lip pensively. "You'd think that, after doing all the horrible things they did the night before, the last thing they'd want to do is submit to it again."
"They din't remember it," Victor said. "Or they was happy about it. Either way, they was willin'." He looked at Trip. "You know of anythin' that could cause this?"
"No," Trip said, then took a deep breath. "I wonder if the Gargorians might-"
"We ain't havin' this talk again, boy," Victor said, his fist crashing down on the table. "Them Gargorians have caused enough pain in this world for one lifetime, 'owever long that is."
"I'm just saying that this is the sort of thing they might know about! Surely there's not any harm in trying to get in contact with them?"
Lauren sighed and picked up the other bag she had brought in. "There's something else you need to see," she said, and gently upended the bag.
Out fell Sabir, twisting gracefully in mid-air and landing on her feet. She looked around, miaowed and began to clean herself.
"Sabir found me in the shopping district. At first I thought she was just an incredibly stupid or confused cat." At Lauren's words, Sabir stopped licking herself, looked at Lauren and then turned her back, frisking her tail.
"Pretty soon it became clear to me that she was something a bit special, though. It could be the part where she went into shops and fetched food items out. Or maybe," Lauren said with a wry smile, "maybe it was the bit where she scratched her name into the wood of a table."
Trip was unable to keep the grin off his face. He scooped her up and hugged her, despite the claws she instantly sank into him.
"Sabir! I knew you'd be ok," he said. "See, Victor? Not all Gargorians are bad."
"Prolly a spy," Victor muttered. "This ain't the important thing here." He got up and leaned over the table, spreading his hands widely. "The important thing is, why ain't we out there walkin' along with the rest o’them?”
Trip froze, then carefully allowed the cat to jump out of his arms. An uneasy silence fell on them all. Sabir walked over to Victor and jumped into his lap, apparently unmindful of his distasteful expression. She patted his trouser pocket, cocked her head and then jumped off.
"Well," said Trip finally, "Maybe we haven't been here long enough. Perhaps it's to do with the food. Or the water."
"You, maybe," Lauren said. "You were here, what, two days, then you were whisked off to Gargoria." As she counted, Lauren ticked off the days on her fingers. "Now five more days since we escaped. Victor and I, we had two weeks of prison food."
"Can't be anythin' in the air," Victor said. "Not the house either; we weren't all 'ere when it started."
"Something we have, then that keeps us safe," Trip said. "What if it's what we know? Perhaps because we know that this could happen, it keeps it from happening?"
"Whatever's going on, we should probably go and see if we can stop it," Lauren said. She got up and moved to the door. "I took the long route back, by the way. Checked the Belle. She's been impounded, but that doesn't really mean anything other than a word on paper. If we need to make a quick escape, I'd need maybe twenty minutes to get her going." She scowled. "All my kit's gone though. Damned thieves must have cleaned it out." Then her face brightened. “Found my knife, though. Dad’s knife.” She patted the blade, sheathed at her belt.
Victor patted the sword on the table. "Got all I need 'ere," he said, and sheathed it carefully. Trip shrugged and picked Sabir back up, who sat quietly in his arms.
"On the plus side," Lauren said, "We don't need to disguise ourselves. Once the bells rang, no-one cared who I was. They all just ignored me."
Trip looked around at the cozy room with its crackling fire. He closed his eyes, writing every moment of the last five days indelibly across his memory. When he opened them again, he was ready for whatever came next.
"Let's go," he said, and Lauren opened the door into madness.
Almost as soon as they reached the gates, down the short path from the door, they were swept into the seething crowd. People on every side were simply walking, almost in unison, and each had the same blank expression.
"Listen," Trip said. Victor cocked his head to one side, then shook it.
"Cain't hear nowt," he said.
"Exactly. No-one's talking." Trip looked around. "It's like they're being controlled already."
"It's… unreal," Lauren said, and they moved on in silence.
The crowd met up with other streams of people, eventually merging onto the large main road that ran all the way up to the palace. It was obvious at this point where they were heading and as the Duke's palace loomed ahead of them Trip began to worry.
"If we see Hork," Victor whispered suddenly, "I'm takin' him down. No waitin'."
"We don't know he's behind this," Trip said. "We can't just kill people left and right! What if it's tree-demons behind it all?"
"We'll know soon," Lauren muttered, looking ahead. "The guards are all leaving their posts. Same expression on their faces."
"It's not too late to call the Gargorians," Trip muttered. Victor's growl was all the answer he received, though Sabir uncurled herself from where she had been nestled in his arms and nodded. He clutched her tightly.
The crowd moved through the gates of the palace and towards the huge mansion itself, where they split roughly in two, passing either side of the wings of the palace. Going around to the right, Trip had a chance to stare into several windows; each showed signs of having been occupied recently, fires still burning merrily in their grates, food half-eaten, books simply dropped where the person had been reading.
"This is everyone, isn't it?" he said. "Everyone in the city."
Victor nodded grimly. "Looks that way."
Their path took them around the side of the palace, bordered by a huge hedge; the two crowds joined back into one and headed for the large building that lay behind the palace, still within its walls.
The One Tree of Fennica lay within a roughly oval building, built around its immensity. Open to the sky in the middle as all One Tree shrines were, there was room for a huge congregation to gather inside, more room than was ever needed. Regular services were held, Trip recalled, but few attended. Most preferred to give thanks from the comfort of their homes.
Now it was as if every person who had chosen idleness on holy days was having a change of heart; the shrine was filling rapidly and by the time Trip, Victor and Lauren entered the inner sanctum, it was a squeeze to get anywhere. People continued to flow in, filling the room up and then cramming as near to the doors as they can, the crowd spilling out into the grassy area outside the building. Thousands upon thousands of people manoeuvred themselves as close as possible to the Tree.
They stood in the corridor that ran around the open space in the middle, kept separate from the small grassy mound that the Tree was planted in. These cloisters served as storage for chairs, books and the other paraphernalia of worship, Trip knew. Now they were rammed with people of every creed and colour. Smiths rubbed shoulders with bakers, guards stood almost face-deep in the hair of criminals and, above all, the Tree's branches swayed and dipped.
The press of people coming in to the cloisters slowed, then stopped. An expectant hush filled the room. Then, from among the branches of the tree many dozens of feet above, something fell. Human in shape, it landed heavily. Trip winced; surely nothing could have survived that.
Then the man got up, and Trip saw that it was High Father Hork.