All The Woes Of A World. Part 5
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For whole moments the Lady Sarah looked both confused and frustrated. Gabriel had never witnessed so much torment in one person. It turned his soul and twisted it, wrung from it almost as much suffering. He did not have the words to relieve her anguish. In truth they were all doomed and any idea of escape, however plausible, was just rain in the wind. And that, he assumed was the feeling of them all.
As he searched for an answer his mind dwelled upon the question of his own death. Would it be swift or slow, sudden or drawn out like wool on a spinning wheel, finer and finer, with agonising tension until, like the wool, his life-force snapped and existed no more.
He likened this to the action of a switch, on then off, having been was now no longer. He could not envisage the dimension of death however; in the blackness there seemed always to be some light for he could not conceive of the existence of non-existence. Put simply, there had to be something after the pain of death.
"Angelis must take some of the blame!" said the Lady, her voice steadier now, as if she was thinking with greater clarity. "Just for being here and allowing us, all of us, to suffer and be needlessly wasted.
"There are too many Groundlings, and Winged for that matter, to descend to the ocean floors. Even with Poseidon, there would still be too many.
"You must also accept that the cities of the seas may not survive such a holocaust. We can have no knowledge of the forces at work here. What happens when a planet rips itself to pieces? Can we even imagine what we are about to face?"
Gabriel was reminded of at least one, Par Inos, who seemed to have no small conception of what they were to face. He said nothing, watched the Lady reach for the bowl of food at her side. Wisps of vapour indicated the temperature of the cowl. "And how do we knew...," she continued, "...if the domes are self-sufficient enough to support us in the vacuum? They draw air from the separation of water. That same water provides them with food and is filtered and distilled to give them water for other uses, and drinking. How much of these things can any one city store?"
She took a spoon from Gabriel's proffered hand and tested the contents of the bowl. She became then curiously silent, as if she had surrendered to the needs of her stomach and had forgotten that she ought to provide answers to her own questions.
Gabriel, encouraged by the apparent cooling of the Lady's vehement outburst, saw the need to continue discussion. If they could talk, if they could all talk, he was sure he could manoeuvre them into a more positive frame of mind. It would however, be only a psychological trick on his part for they had nowhere near enough information with which to create a valid scenario.
"You forget of course, that in the time available to us a large proportion of the people will not make it to the cities. Some are in fact so remote from these places that whatever happens they are to die in blissful ignorance."
Brielga heard the words and felt physically sick. A cold sheen slicked his forehead, a wretched tremor took his body, his skin paled and he felt appalled that a Winged could think in this way. It wasn't just the words; by the use of which they were condemning huge numbers to death and by them the three assembled here were ultimately responsible. He wanted to protest, such things should remain unsaid. Why was Gabriel saying these things? Of course it was true; tragedies were full of truths, horrific truths, more so for the events to come were out of their hands, out of everybody's hands.
He saw the Lady choke on a mouthful of cowl, not for its temperature, but for the surprise. Gabriel's words had caught her too. In a different time and place her reaction would have been humorous, even comic. In this place it merely added to the tragedy.
"Oh let us wallow in moral beneficence!" she said with sarcasm, face cherry-red with the effort of speaking, of hacking words through choking coughs. "Someone just has to feel righteous enough to talk about the losers. 'Oh thank the Lord we survived, but wasn't it a shame about the millions who didn't?' It's trite! Very damnably trite and in the end bloody callous." She noted the changing expressions and knew they did not agree with her choice of words. "Yes! I said callous! Callous, because by raising the subject of the Damned you are subjecting us all to feelings of guilt that we don't deserve. Well, I'm not going to feel guilty, Gabriel. I'm not going to weep tears for people I don't know. And do you know why, oh Great Winged?" She didn't wait for him to reply. It was his turn to look comical, his and Brielga's, for open mouthed and wide-eyed they alternatively looked to each other and to the Lady. "Why? is because I'm doing everything I can to save them. Right now and right here, stuffing my face and force-feeding my stomach I am doing my utmost to save the lives of every living soul on the planet. And how am I doing this? By doing nothing! Yes! That's right! Nothing!" She took Gabriel's eyes and held them with a look of deadly fury. "Because that's all I am capable of! That's all any of us are capable of! So don't give me any more of your sanctimonious drivel. I'm not bloody interested. If I can get off this planet and live to speak of it, so be it. If anyone else can do the same by my hand then good luck to them and Hurrah for me! If not, then I'll see you all in hell!"
'Hell' was the Lady's last word, for as it left her lips she was already on her feet and flinging her food to the ground. In the sudden and total silence she left them and made her way to the pinnacle of rock. As he watched her leave, Gabriel wondered if at that moments the Lady wished she could fly.
Lady Sarah Callisto-Wingsdown stood on the edge of the rock and answered Gabriel's unspoken question. Through her tears she viewed the land stretched out before her and trembled at the feeling that now, in the starlight of a crystal sky, the land felt no longer secure and the planet seemed as a lump of unstable matter in the enormity of the cosmos. As for herself, she knew she was as insignificant as a speck of dust and about as important and yes, now as never before, she wished that she had wings, she wished that she could fly.
In the distance, presumably in the South, Brielga felt rather than heard rumblings of thunder. That it could rain was not a thought given heed to when Gabriel had selected their place of rest. The fact that no form of shelter had seemed necessary told Brielga that his companion still knew things about the weather he would never learn. Gabriel had said by his actions that here it would not rain and so it would be.
The rest of the meal was taken in silence, but Gabriel left the heating container simmering lest the Lady return in hunger. There was no legend; simply practised application of common sense for not all Crossings could be, nor were they, completed in a single day. Gabriel knew what was needed and provided as much.
Brielga watched as Gabriel prepared himself for sleep and marvelled at the quiet of their surroundings. Not a bird not an insect nor the call of some night beast gave any dimension to their hearing and as a result of this absence of sound Gabriel's movements seemed inordinately loud.
Gabriel obviously intended to leave as early as the weather would allow come the dawn for his bag was now ready to accept the heater and receiver-light. Beneath that light he settled himself against the trunk of the tree, its bark coarse against his tween-wings. With his wings wrapped around him like the folds of a cloak, the Keeper of the Heights let his chin fall to his chest and was almost instantly asleep.
Brielga moved closer to the heater. He stared at it, used it as his focal point and narrowed his field of vision until only the heater's warmer-plate had any optical meaning. Yet this position he found to be not to his liking and he looked around for a way to improve his situation. It occurred to him that if he moved a few feet to his left he could almost copy Gabriel's posture. In this he too rested his tween-wings against the bark of a tree, but unlike Gabriel he had chosen one that was not employed as a support for a receiver-light. Here he was almost in shadow, or at least not in the lamp's full glow. He hoped this would obviate any direct confrontation should the Lady Sarah return in malevolent mood. If her eyes had to seek him out that effort alone could defuse a powder keg of emotions. In short, he needed sleep, not vehemence.
The events of the day presented themselves before his inner eye and the receiver-heater was no more. For a time he could only envisage aspects of their Crossing, elements of which seemed disjointed, out of sequence or as fantasy, magnified or diminished as his consciousness so willed. In the main, the Crossing amounted to little more than a long, tiring, boring haul across the sky from the outskirts of Persephone, there to rendezvous with the Lady, to now, a place he knew only as a feature on a map and not a well-defined feature at that.
In his thinking it seemed strange that the spectre of their fate had to be consciously viewed for it had not raised its head for its own sake, nor had it seemed to be skulking in the shadows of his memory. To this Brielga attached the reasoning that he had not accepted his fate and that there was time aplenty to do so. As the days grew short in number he knew he would descend into a pit of madness and die gibbering in the realm of fantasy, reality having lost all its support for him. If this was to be then his biggest fear would not be of dying, but of being aware at the time of dying of some minute part of that actuality. If he was to die then he needed to be completely barking mad when something turned out the light...
...out the light. These words confused him for the receiver-lights had been extinguished and yet he could see plain as day. And that, of course, was the answer for dawn had broken and a cup of hot beverage was being held in front of him by a hand he did not recognise.
Something else was wrong he noticed, as he reached gratefully to take the cup and tried to assess which parts of his body felt the least discomfort. The wrongness came to him as sound. People were talking and that just didn't add up. There were simply too many voices. If Gabriel and the Lady Sarah were two, what of the other three...no...four?
For an instant, allowing just enough time for the fact to become etched on his mind, the blackness came and went. Brielga knew it for what it was. The sun had blinked and announced the arrival of another day, had placed a 'full stop' to the events and activities of yesterday.
The talking had stopped and heads looked skywards almost in reverence, as if they had all suddenly forgotten themselves, all lost their train of thought. This moment passed, but the conversation resumed in a more subdued manner.
Brielga rose slowly. Every quill seemed to ache, every joint seemed to creak as if unused for years. He found he could focus on those present and became alarmed at what he saw. He had been right to count four extra voices for indeed four was the number of strangers he now perceived. Then he corrected himself. These were not strangers for he knew them, or rather knew of them.
Daldareth stood out from the others and with good reason. He towered fully seven and one half feet in height with a wingspan in perfect proportion. To be here, Gabriel, the Lady Sarah and Brielga had first to cross Titan's Stairway, a dangerous undertaking in itself: far more so than the necessity of combating thermals, air pockets and high winds. But Daldareth had achieved much more than this. Simple fact and some geographical knowledge told Brielga that the great Winged had flown south to meet them via the Mountains of Triton whose weather conditions made those of Titan's Stairway seemed positively placid. And that of course had to be reason for his presence now. He was to guide them on this Northbound Crossing.
It suddenly occurred to Brielga that to be here now the four newcomers had accomplished a Night Crossing. This, compounded with the horrors of the route itself, to any normal Winged would be tantamount to suicide. That wasn't to say that any normal Winged could not cross the Mountains of Triton, such journeys were in fact commonplace. They did however, usually take place in the Summer days with the emphasis on 'days'. Weather conditions too were always given the most serious consideration. To attempt a Night Crossing over mountainous terrain was to lose one's life. To accomplish a Night Crossing in these circumstances was the stuff of legends.
From what Brielga knew of him Daldareth was a legend. Yet this served only to upset him further. He was a Privateer, Daldareth was not. His three companions were, in all probability, Guilded too and so it seemed that at a stroke he had been pushed still further down the 'pecking order'. He would now be almost useless. He would be given the least consideration, carry the least important baggage, have the least say and be consulted not at all. He could retrace his Crossing to Persephone and not be missed in the slightest: especially by the Lady Sarah who stood amidst a veritable throng of do-gooders, as he now saw them, basking in their courtesy and pleasantries. This seemed unsurprising when he recalled that she had dashed all hopes of reconciliation between them. In such a short time it seemed amazing that what had once been a very successful working relationship could be torn asunder and scattered as leaves on a pre-Winter's day.
He tried to remember who had handed him the cup of beverage and decided that it must have been Gabriel, in a calculated move to keep him occupied and therefore out of the way. So be it!
He made no move toward the group, content instead to await the outcome of whatever decision their words would arrive at. He vowed to remain with them for Persephone held no attraction for him: he could always take his leave of these people at a later time. He vowed also not to regret his status as a Privateer: this position still held some advantage, he still had his freedom after all for he could not be ordered save by his sponsor and she was not likely to order anything of him now. Here, she had members of the Guild to do her bidding, albeit temporarily.
Ignoring the gathering he cast the dregs from his cup and packed it away. The receiver-light followed it and moments later his bag was ready for the next stage of their journey. He then considered for a time the weather. Gabriel had wanted the promise of a warm morning in which to resume the Crossing. Brielga knew they would probably get it, but as he calculated the probable time of departure Daldareth called a halt to the discussion and indicated that now would be the optimum moment to leave.
The 'pecking order' seemed even now firmly established for as Brielga had correctly foretold (to himself) he was not consulted nor informed of the day's proposals. Whilst he was not about to wallow in a swamp of self-pity he was nonetheless surprised when Gabriel took it upon himself to address him.
"You slept well." A statement of fact, not a question.
Brielga decided to refrain from any caustic remark.
"It's the waking up that gives me trouble," he answered, almost light-heartedly.
Gabriel took this to be a neutral reaction. He could see what might become of it. "Our friends from the North are here to assist us. I think it wise to trust in their judgment. Daldareth knows these Heights better than most."
"He would have to. A Night Crossing would have been no child's game. Will he take us to the transit gate or just over the mountains?"
"For the moment, just over the mountains. On the other side his sponsor may have other designs. We may have to continue on our own."
"We should be grateful for such consideration," suggested Brielga. He tried to sound facetious but found it lost on Gabriel. Or maybe he had just been ignored.
"Yes, I suppose so," Gabriel said uneasily, struggling to broach a change of subject. He couldn't be sure of Brielga's mood and despite current events, all of which had (for him) taken on a new turn of speed which obviated many of the usual pleasantries, he felt he had to draw Brielga into them. As a Winged, regardless of his social status as a Privateer, he was desperately needed. He had wings, he could fly, he knew the Heights. No post-pubescent fledgling this. As an adult Winged his value was and would remain incalculable. Yet a moody and recalcitrant Brielga would be of no use to them, no use to the world.
Though it was not Gabriel's intention to patronize the younger winged, he knew he might have to be prepared to say anything to placate him. He was afraid also that the rift between them, between Privateer and Guilded, was even now too wide to span. Like the seas, some Crossings were not possible without respite and that, Gabriel suddenly realised, was the way forward. By not acknowledging the present situation, by carrying on as normal (not that this could be construed as normality), Brielga might yet be drawn once more to them.
And yet in this way Gabriel knew that the main issue was not the rift (real or imagined) between himself and Brielga, but that existing between the Lady Sarah and the Privateer. Closing that rift would require a many and varied number of diplomatic moves, none of which he had time for.
"Daldareth has suggested that now would be the desirable moment to retake the Crossing. There are storms coming down from the North. Leaving now will give us the best chance of crossing the mountains before the storms do. If you wish you may travel unladen, one of the others can take our baggage."
Gabriel moved to begin taking his leave of the trees. The newcomers had already escorted the Lady to the rock of departure, their to preface the Crossing. As promised, a Winged, small and youthful, awaited Brielga's bag. He watched from the beaten path as both stopped talking and stepped quickly to catch up.
It was too early in the morn, considered the young Winged as he saw his breath condense in the clear air. He knew however, that compared to the previous night's Crossing and despite their obvious need for sleep, their journey would be far more comfortable. Brielga passed him his baggage and watched as he clipped it to his harness. Wordlessly, the youth allowed his elders to continue down the path ahead of him.
The Lady Sarah felt herself lifted to the edge and into the morning air. The carrier-harness snapped tight as Daldareth released his hold on her and prefaced at precisely the right moment. As he swooped the cold rush of air brought tears to her eyes. She blinked and squinted and observed her blurred position: Daldareth above her and straining mightily, his huge wings digging firmly into the atmosphere, the world already far below and diminishing.
Below and behind two Winged prefaced as one and strove to catch Daldareth. Side by side they soared with the effortless grace of youth and circled to await the youngest and the two elders.
"We must hurry now. This day might yet be cruel to us all. We need to race the storms," said Gabriel as he prefaced.
"Damn the world to hell," muttered Brielga as he too began the Crossing.
For better or worse he knew as much as any of them could know that to continue was the only choice left. To return to Persephone was to curl up and die. To continue held the smallest, the most minuscule chance that a means to their survival could be found in time. But entangled with all his hope, dreams and Yes! his fears was the knowledge that time was something they had so little of. In it all he knew that if he was to go barking mad the process would have to start soon. After all, he had no desire to be left with one tiny shred of sanity when the end came.
As Brielga gained on the others ahead of him, as the young Winged took up position behind him, he muttered words he had only spoken in his mind, words from his youth, meaningless even after all his years.
"...and all that lived did swallow hence, the sweet and bitter pill..."
(Continued in Part 6)
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