Lauren stared at the masked man with no little fear and apprehension. He was stood in front of her doorway, blocking her way back into her workshop and appeared to have no intention of moving. She let go of the sack she was holding and it rattled onto the floor, screws and small brass rods spilling out onto the ground.
“You’re going to have to listen to reason eventually,” the man said. He was dressed in simple farmer’s clothing, a rough cotton shirt and thick trousers tucked in to heavy boots. The mask covered his whole face, a rough-hewn thing to look at; bark fronted with two eyeholes crudely cut out. The edges showed a bit more care though, sanded flat. Three or four pieces of bark made a sort of crown up from the top of the mask. It neatly covered his eyes and nose. He could have been anyone.
“Vael Holston, I know it’s you,” Lauren said. She put her hands on her hips. “You can just take that mask off and we can have a talk about what’s bitten you.”
Though she couldn’t see his face, she could see Holston’s eyes widening, then narrowing. “I think I’ll leave it on, Engineer.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Engineer? That wasn’t what you called me two years ago at the winter solstice. Least I remember then, you were tryin’ so hard to get your hands in my shirt that you’d have called me anything I wanted.”
Holston swore and tore the mask off his face. “You’re makin’ this hard, Lauren.” He was about nineteen, she remembered, and suddenly looked every inch of it. Then again, she thought as she stifled a chuckle, not like I’m much more mature. Twenty five isn’t an ancient by anyone’s reckoning.
“Are you goin’ to let me in so I can put the kettle on, Holston? Or are we going to stand out here until the sky darkens?”
For the briefest moment he looked like he was going to contest it. Then his chest deflated and he stepped to one side.
“What’re you drinking?” Lauren asked as she gathered up her bag.
He looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head and smiled. “Tea, one sugar,” he said, stooping to pick up a long angled brass pole. He handled it awkwardly, holding it with both hands, then followed Lauren in to the workshop.
The drapes were over the skylights, full of dust; Lauren coughed as she tugged them open and let the light in. It had been a while since she had had guests; no-one much wanted to come out here after Dad had… moved on. Holston was already sitting on one of the two armchairs in the tiny living area, carved out by dint of a piece of moth-eaten carpet on the floor. It was like the single token piece of normality in the workshop which was otherwise full of giant pieces of brass work, long tables with dusty tools scattered at random, half-finished pieces of work and a half-destroyed cuckoo clock.
“So,” Lauren said as she put the kettle onto the warm stove and added more fuel, “What brings you here? You with the Growth Movement now?”
Holston nodded, his leg jiggling as he sat on the very edge of the chair. “They’ve got a thing, Lauren, a creed. ‘Touch lightly, Nature is watching.’” He jumped up and came over to the cupboard. Opening it and took out two chipped mugs. Lauren, looking over, sucked in a breath; one was her fathers. Holston plonked it down on the worktop and drummed his fingers.
“Where’s your tea?” he said.
“I’ll get it. Sit down,” Lauren replied, motioning back towards the chairs. She picked her father’s mug back up and turned it round. The worn chips in its handle and rim winked white against the lacquered paint, faded but still clear, that read ‘Wurld’s Best Dadde’. It was the one she had made him after he had lost his favourite red tin mug.
The kettle boiled, disturbing the silence. She made the tea and put a drop of milk from the jug she kept in the cold room into each.
“No sugar,” she said, bringing the steaming mug over to Holston. “Sorry.”
He shrugged. “Just like old times, Lauren.”
“Us sat sharing a drink. Just like old times.”
Lauren took a sip and stared through the steam at Holston. Without the mask he was almost handsome. “Just like old times. Except now you work with terrorists and I have to deal with the both your mob and the SIC. Thanks for that.”
Holston put the mug down and wriggled in his chair. “Look, I’m sorry about that. They said I had to do it. Gave me the mask and everything.” He picked it up from where it was laying on the table. “Not even really sure why.”
“Scare tactics,” Lauren said. “They’ve tried before; you’re not the first. At least your lot don’t tend to get violent. The SIC just send goons to beat me up and take my father’s things.”
“Lauren, they told me stuff. About what you do; about what your father did. He was involved in some really sacrilegious stuff, experiments with the Tree and everything. If you had any idea-“
“Don’t you ever speak that way about my father again!” Lauren jumped to her feet and slammed her mug down hard enough to make tea slop over the sides. “He was twice, no, three times the man any of you are and he didn’t have to hide behind a mask!”
Holston’s brow creased into a frown. “Lauren, they showed me the gear your father was working on out at Figger’s Cross.”
“I can’t understand why you believe half the lies those idiots feed you,” Lauren said, pacing back and forth, then she paused mid-step. She turned around and strode back towards Holston, who cowered back slightly. “Say that again?”
“Figger’s Cross? Your father was working on amber-infused energy crystals, right?”
Lauren sat back down, sudden doubts clouding her thoughts. “He worked out a Figger’s Cross, but he wasn’t working with amber. We didn’t do that sort of thing. He was…’” She combed her memory. “He was working,” she finished lamely.
Holston leaned forward. “He never told you what he was working on, though, right?” He took her hand in his. “Lauren, you need to leave this life behind. Repent your sins and-“
That broke the spell. Lauren’s eyes glittered dangerously and she snatched her hand back. “Oh, get out. Just go. You’re a follower, Holston, and you’ve always been. Not enough brains to be original.”
He scowled but got up and moved to the door. “I might not be the best thinker, but I knows wrong when I sees it. Go out to Figger’s Cross, Lauren, and we’ll talk again.”
Lauren heard the door open and close as she sat staring into space.
A storm was blowing in and the air was a knife-edge on her cheek as Lauren slid down off her horse. She patted its rump and pulled a sugar-lump out of her pocket. As it licked her fingers clean, she looked around Figger’s Cross.
She was stood in a slate quarry about ten miles away from home, open on one side and curved at the end. Several openings into the hillside yawned invitingly with wooden barriers blocking most of them off. Notices in dwavish and the common tongue all said the same thing: Danger, do not enter. Restricted access, danger of rockfall.
Chewing absently on the inside of her cheek, Lauren moved towards the hillside that curved around. If what Holston had said was true, her father would have been working at the roots of a One Tree. Finding one in the wild was very rare, though. As she walked, she ran through the possibilities in her mind. The Arbour, the One Tree in the centre of Ehrian was the progenitor of all trees and life in Ehrian, or at least so the Church said. Each settlement that was founded throughout the land took with it a cutting from the One Tree so that everywhere you went you were able to worship. A cutting of the Arbour in the wild meant either that someone had brought a cutting here and planted it, tended it and then abandoned it, or that the Arbour had somehow spread seeds far and wide. The latter was unheard of; the former was unlikely, but possible. Unauthorised cuttings of the Arbour were sacrilege though. The Church would hound you for ever and a day. And, possibly worse, if the cutting were authorised, someone in the Church was developing research into amber power, going against Church teachings. Lauren shook her head; it was far too confusing to think about without more data. So far, all she had was the ravings of Holston, and they couldn’t have been counted on even before the Growth Movement got their hands on him.
She swore quietly; she’d been too harsh on him, but he was a follower. He didn’t have the stones to have come up with that lot on her own; the puppet master was always hidden in societies like that, but there would be someone in the shadows, tutoring him, telling him what to say. His mouth, but his master’s voice.
She was so preoccupied with her thinking that she tripped over the thick cable that was half-buried in leaves. She went sprawling, sudden pain flaring in her elbow as she fell heavily on it. Gritting her teeth, she stood up and looked at the cable. It was thick, a smaller cable wrapped around it; she knew that, inside there, the cable would be tightly-pressed copper tubes for transferring the energy of amber crystals from their source to a machine or a method of storing it, such as a cat. It was a common sight in any engineer’s workshop, or at least anyone who dealt with amber as a power source; her father never had. Swallowing deeply, she looked along the length of the cable. One end of it went towards the quarry; the other went off into a small woodland. She shrugged and went in the direction of the woodland.
The cable went down a short hill, across a single stone that bridged a tiny stream and then into the woodland. It wound between trees, pine and fir, and Lauren began to feel more hopeful. Over this sort of distance, a massive power source would be needed for the strength of the amber to be transmitted for anything useful.
She was so busy watching the cable, and hoping that it wouldn’t happen, that she almost walked into the Arbour cutting.