Hasuga's Garden - the Prologue and First Two Chapters

 

Hasugas Garden

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Prologue.

 

In the shade of a dark forest where a river passes, around a compound of trodden earth there is a humble cluster of huts – simple, windowless hovels with reed-thatch roofs peaked and open so the smoke of fires can ascend - a village made from reeds and mud.  As yet the sun has not climbed above the mountains at the valley’s edge, so it is half-light here, though still possible against the gloom to make out some crude essentials of subsistence living scattered among the dwellings; rough wooden tools, a rail of drying fish, a pelt on a wooden frame, bowls for grinding grain.

A small jetty of wood leads out into the deeper water of the river, moorings for a couple of dugout canoes that bob and rub one another gently in the current.  Two more such vessels are drawn up upon the riverbank a yard or so downstream.

Where all paths join at the centre of the village, raised high on a timber scaffold to gain the best advantage of the sun there is a curious thing; a perfectly symmetrical bowl made and moulded from cork-bark of the oak.  In depth and width this bowl is large enough perhaps for two grown men to sit inside, but no-one among those who live here would dare to try, for the symbols carved around its rim proclaim it a holy place.

On the compound’s western edge there is a dwelling smaller than the rest and within the dwelling, upon a table at its centre, a wooden jar.  From here as a new sun rises the old one steps out with his hands cupped around a precious cargo – a gift he has made, fashioned from the invincible power of his belief.

In the time of The Making all that begin are like this – a space to be filled in the order of things, tiny spoors, germane to a wish.  Triumph of a month of wishing, a century or more of plans and dreams.  And as a wish they come, to form in the darkness of the jar, in the darkness of the hut, in the darkness of the night.  The old one takes them up with pride, these last of his life’s labour, to bear them carefully the fifty paces to the middle of the village; to the scaffold and the bowl.  His legs are slow and weary.  Others gather around him as he walks – one steps forward to kindly offer a supporting arm, but pride will not allow him to accept.  Though it may be long, this journey, and though his manner of travel may be slow he rejoices with each step; and those who follow honour his joy with their respect.

They all await him, clinging to the scaffold or perched upon the narrow walkway around the rim of the cork bowl, chattering eagerly.  They part to allow him room as he falters up steps little better than a ladder, craning their necks to see what it is that he nurtures in his palms and breathing sounds of awe at the sight of the four tiny germs of life that nestle there.

Before the bowl the old one leans, his sinewy arms resting over its edge so his tired eyes can study the intense, odorous brown mist that swirls and fills the vessel.  His experience, his faith tells him where or how the vapour will receive his offering.   Meeting the eyes of the others of his community he begins a chant, a ritual verse that all about him know as well as he.  They join with him, raising their voices in celebration to their sky; and then, at his moment, and in a certain carefully allotted place, the fog reaches up.  Gently he delivers his gift into its care.  His work is done.

The old one will never look upon those seeds again.  Others will perform the fashioning, tending them as they rise through the mist to greet the sun, honing them, re-forming them, sculpting them to match their dream.  He knows he has taught them well.

But these things the old one will never see, for this afternoon with those he loves the best he will make the long climb to his seat at the hilltop, which has been placed so he can look down upon his greatest work.  Here, through as many sunrises as he has left to him he will study the tapestry of the valley, testament to his art.   He will not move from there – will never move again.  With time he will become part of all he has achieved; a part of the forest he has helped to create.


Chapter One:

 

Just when it seems that it must snow forever, it ceases snowing.  The wind drops, the clouds pass and there is sun upon the white garden.  Southward, the shroud of the storm draws aside to reveal winter-black trees, and across the valley of the Balna River distant hills glisten in the light of morning.

The child watches from his window.  “Mummy, may I play outside?”

She watches too.  Her eyes have not left him since she entered the room to stir him into wakefulness; for she loves this child more than life itself.  “I don’t see why not.  You mustn’t get too cold, though, darling.  Promise you’ll come inside immediately if you feel too cold?”  She knows his weakness, loves him for it and because of it.  “Come now, let’s get your warm clothes.  What would you like to do out there?”

He turns to her, eyes alight with joy.  “A snowman!  I want to build a snowman!”

She smiles.  “Then you shall, my dear.”

His face is lit like a thousand angels.  “Then we will have warm honey cakes, Mummy.  Lots of warm, warm honey cakes!”

Again she catches herself wondering if there is any way not to love him, for his beauty constantly astounds her.  Yet she is puzzled for a moment.  “Honey cakes, Hasuga my dear?  I don’t recall….”

“Oh, Mother, of course you do!  You make a batter with flour and ginger and eggs, and then you…..”

“Ah yes!”  She recollects the recipe.  “Very well.  You make the snowman, while I bake the cakes.  Then we shall eat the cakes together, darling, shan’t we?”

-o-

Just when it seems that it might rain forever, the rain stops.  With first light of dawn it parts like a warm curtain to reveal the rising sun.  Insistent sunbeams slip over the sill of Alanee’s bedroom window to nudge at her coverlet, tickle her nose.  She resists their invitation, sighs and turns in search of elusive sleep.  She would dream much longer if she could.

In her kitchen she stumbles beneath the weight of her night-time head as she brews tsakal, tries to think of food.  The hot liquid snaps at her throat, stinging her into wakefulness.  There is xuss mix in the chill room: she pours a measure onto her hot-top, flips the instantly-formed pancake quickly before it burns, adds a pat of sil and folds a xuss-bread sandwich.

She opens her door, tossing the heated xuss between skittish hands and pausing for a moment, as she always does, to breathe the fresh new air, to allow the sun’s gentle balm to prickle her skin.  Before her, beyond her patch of garden, the packhorse road winds like mudded rope between terraces of bronzed pledas peas and banks of magnolia down onto the plain: the endless plain of the Hakaan.

The vast fertile plateau that is food basket to her world stretches into apparent infinity - a rolling ocean of lush green and gold, washing into mists of distance.  Somewhere out there the Southern Hills make up an horizon; not visible now, for now, the ancestors have written, begins the Hour of Spirits, when under the first onslaught of morning sun such rain-water as the thirsty earth has not absorbed clings to leaf and branch like a billion jewels, each of which will vaporise and wisp skywards in a wraith no coarser than a hair.  Altogether these fine, transient ghosts cover the land for a while, waving like wheat-grass in a faint breeze and raising long white tendrils towards heaven.  Alanee watches them with eyes that never cease to wonder.  An hour is this, before the fierceness of day, with the power to bring tears.

Her reverie is interrupted by a cry from the village street.  The Makar!  She has not troubled to dress – why dress?  The morning is already warm and her kitchen door is not overlooked:  nothing between it and the majesty of the plain; nothing between her and the plain but the shift she wears when she sleeps.  Hurriedly, she retreats to her room, slurping tsakal with one hand, rummaging clothes with the other.  Shorts and a top of thin linen, a passing thought that in her shift she would show far less of herself, but….ah, such are conventions: conventions of dress, conventions of class, conventions of behaviour; conventions, conventions, conventions…..

The Makar cry sounds again - much nearer now.  She snatches a Mak-card from her chill-room.  No time to review it – she reaches her street door just as the Makar does, still buttoning the front of her top and treating herself to one of the sun-withered little man’s leery stares for her pains.

“Late again, Alanee-mer!   Scarce out of bed, eh?”

Alanee affects nonchalance, leans against her door-post.  He thinks she does not notice when his eyes slither down to feast upon a glimpse of her long legs.  “You are too much for me, Makar-meh.  Do you never sleep?”

The Makar grins broadly.  “If I begin my day early, I have time, Alanee-mer.”

“You do?  You do indeed?  Ah, such a busy man.  Two calls only on the street and it is your tsaka-time already!”

“We could enjoy a cup together, Alanee-mer.  What do you think of that?”  The Makar knows the most tempting young woman in his village will do no more than flirt with him.  And in his heart he would not wish it.  His wife and child live close by.

Alanee flashes him a look.  “It would not be appropriate. Register my card Makar.  You are wanted at Shellan-mer’s door.”

Shellan-mer is indeed standing on her porch.  Shellan is Alanee’s neighbour, with whom she has enjoyed many a good joke at the Makar’s expense.

Grinning toothily the little man slots Alanee’s card into the reader strapped onto his hip.  It bleeps threateningly.  “Aargh!  A warning!”

Alanee sighs.  “Now what?”  Every day there is a warning.

The Makar turns the machine so Alanee may see its display.  “You haven’t any honey.”

“I don’t like honey!”

He shrugs.  “It is not for me to say.  Better order some, or they’ll censure you.”

The Makar walks away, leaving Alanee to glare at his retreating back.  Honey, now!  To keep company with the chocolate bars, the sugary cereals, the fizzy drinks, the processed beans and all those other things she does not like, but which clutter her chill room just so she can escape ‘censure’!  Is everybody’s chill room the same as her own?  She knows the answer to this, of course.  Shellan’s chill room is as neat and balanced as the system can make it.  But then, today she will be invited to join her neighbour for honey cakes.

Across the village street, Malfis, the old bell-ringer, tends his garden.  Alanee would return within doors, but something about his behaviour takes her eye.  His spade is turning the rich soil into a large ball – what in Habbach’s name can he be planting this time?


Chapter Two

 

Cassix is standing in the dome of the watch-tower when Ellar finds him.  From here seabirds can be seen, wheeling in grey winter silence over white fields:  the snow is back, misting the unmoving distance in waves, like ripples of soft organdie across a painting of pale hills.  But Cassix will not see this, for he is drawn to a thing beyond.

“Is it stronger this morning?”  Ellar asks.  “Sometimes I believe that even I can see it.”

Cassix turns to her, so she may read the apprehension in his eyes.  Those eyes: those deep, deep inclosures of wisdom!   If she could see but a hundredth of what those eyes could see!

“Cassix, is it stronger?”

She will not address him by the ‘Sire’ that is his title – they have been familiar friends too many years.  Beside him at the glass she seeks his hand as she squints into the distance, above the black ragged fissure of the ice-bound Balna; far, far into the horizon.  In a moment Cassix will join his senses with hers and then, if she has practised well, she might gain a scattered ounce of his greater vision.  She feels the surge, sees that slate of far-off sky become  distinct, picks out the ribs of racing cloud – and there!  A place above the Pearl Mountains (or is it east of that?) where the sky-scape might seem to lift and the direction of rolling procession turn inwards upon itself – a grey vortex in the greyer grey.  Just for a moment.  Then the pain comes and she must close her eyes to let it pass.  When she opens them once more the clarity is gone.

“Your mind is pure, Ellar.”  Cassix speaks in clear, bell-like syllables.  “That is good.”  He sighs.  “And yes, the Continuum is bigger this winter, without doubt.”

The snow is its fiercest now.  Below them in the garden Hasuga’s snowman is hunched to windward, figurehead upon the prow of a white ship foundering in a whiter sea.

“He wants a war-game again.”  Ellar says. Cassix says nothing.

“Go on, say it!”  She spits the words.  “Say he may not have one!”

“That is blasphemy.  You know it.”

“Cassix!  Oh, Cassix, it must be said!  A war game!  Thousands of lives!  Was that the intention of The Dream?”

“This was foretold in the time of Karkus.  It is Lore.”  The soothsayer shakes his head.  “He comes to his manhood.  These emotions must be expected.  They will pass.”

Ellar restrains the angry outburst she feels rising inside.  “The Treatise of Karkus was a criticism.  Karkus recognised the folly of electing a male child.  It’s a pity we cannot acknowledge the same.”

Cassix treats her to a bemused smile.  “What would you have us do?”

“Don’t patronise me.  Whose decision was it to move him on?”

“Again you remind me?  Mine.”  Wearied by his efforts, Cassix slumps into one of the heart-shaped blue chairs that are scattered about the timbered deck of the watchtower.  He is growing old now, and though his perception has burgeoned with the years, he has no energy to sustain it.  His body is ravaged by time; his craggy face blasted as a rock before an easterly wind.  “I know you doubted, Ellar.  I understand why:  but there were physical issues; very substantial ones.  When you keep a child at the same biological age for two thousand years it must deteriorate unless….unless it is permitted to grow.”

Ellar has remained by the window.  “And now?”

“He had to be allowed to go through puberty.  It had to be done.”

“And now we have a monster!”

“We have a teenage boy with all the fallibilities and angst and aggression any boy his mental age confronts.”

“For another two thousand years!  Two millennia of frustration, rebellion and war.  What price The Dream, Cassix?”  Ellar stands over him, forcing him to meet her stare.  “I don’t care if what I say is a blasphemy; I really don’t; because I know that when the Old Ones decreed that we should be governed by the pure mind of a child, this was not what they planned.  They would have, they should have, foreseen this.”

“You under-estimate Hasuga.”  Cassix is unflinching.  “That brilliant mind is capable of so much more than you will acknowledge.  However, I hear what you say to me, Ellar.  There will have to be changes.  The Domo and I have been getting our heads together on this.  In the meanwhile, you must find some way to divert our young master from his chosen task.”

The Lord Domo – the leader of Council.  In his hands so much of the administration of the land, so much of the trouble of the land.  The Lord Domo - unlikely as a master of anyone’s universe:  short in stature, fleshily substantial in most other ways – yet with a mind that would hold all other minds, other than that of Hasuga, in thrall.  A tower of intellect, a pillar of virtue; what changes he could wreak if only he were inclined!

“I will try.”  Ellar hesitates:  “Is the Lord Domo amenable to change?”

“Is he ever?  We have agreed certain…shall we say subtle…alterations?”

“And may I know them?”

“They must first be sanctioned by the Council.”

Ellar seems to accept this.

The descent from the watchtower is long – one hundred and forty stairs, eight landing levels.  Ellar takes them with a practised ease, though her mind is deeply troubled.  And Cassix, behind her, does not intrude upon her thoughts:  he knows how hard the road she travels is.  He admires much in Ellar:  she is the mouthpiece of Hasuga, the link between Mother and the members of the Council.  And Hasuga’s demands are never easy to satisfy, in either their complexity or their immediacy.  When Ellar emerges into the private courtyard of the inner palace he assumes Hasuga will be waiting for her.

Meanwhile Alanee’s morning is dominated, as she anticipates, by discussion of honey cakes.  Soon after the Makar’s departure she leaves her house to join the general migration of village women to the Terminal which forms the hub of their community.  As she closes her front door – she need not lock it – Malfis, the old bell-ringer is admiring the heap of mud he has piled in his garden; and Merra, from the bakery, compliments him upon it.

“Fine work, Malfis.  Always the craftsman!”

Alanee struggles:  “What is it?”

Merra, never shy of expression, rewards her with a look bordering on disdain.  “Of course, you not having a man…”

“I may not have a man, but I do have a memory.  There was nothing I recall that looked like that about my man.  That’s a lump of mud!”

And Merra replies:  “Now remember my husband….”

At the Terminal the day is busy.  There has been heavy snow in the north, blocking a number of major arteries which, as her village is one of the group of communities responsible for co-ordinating transport, particularly affects Alanee’s work.  She is assistant to Carla, the manager, a responsible job for one so young.  Paaitas, the village Domo is watching her progress with interest.  He it was who secured her early promotion and there are those who snidely suggest that his attention is not entirely focussed upon her abilities.  Alanee accepts the jibes with equanimity.  She is a good motivator, broadly liked, though not always understood – for example, in her open distaste for honey cakes.

“They are wonderful, Alanee!”  Carla is a bouncing, vital woman with enthusiasm enough for the entire village.  “I’ve been looking forward to baking them all year!”

From their nest at the top of the circular building they look down on the ring of women workers at their stations, each making their separate input to the mainframe which fills the centre of the Terminal floor like a huge, flat drum.

“I’m concerned about Namma, Carla-mer.”  Alanee says (each has their protégé, and Namma is hers).  “She seems distracted today.”

“I should not tell you this, perhaps.”  Carla leans a hand on Alanee’s shoulder:  “She has had her proc request turned down again.  The word came this morning.  She was in tears earlier – I think she despairs of ever having a child.”

“How so?   In Dometia they are begging for more fertiles.  If the rumours are correct the one-child edict has been lifted there.”  Alanee shakes her head.  “It seems so cruel!”

Carla does not reply, and Alanee thinks of Namma-meh, who is desperate to be a father.  And so the morning passes.

At mid-meal Alanee and Shellan walk home together.  The five children of the village pass them by.  After their morning at the seminary they have eaten early and are on their way to work in the potato field.

“Good day, Widow Kalna!”  They greet Alanee with respect; she tries to smile in return, although just the sight of them revives the pity she feels for Namma.

“A fine boy, the Domo’s son, is he not?”  Shellan-mer suggests; and Alanee admits that Pattan, a sturdy-looking child now so near to youth, is all a father could want.

In Malfis’s garden the mound has gained a ball of clay for a head, a hat of woven straw and some button eyes.

“It is a man!”  Shellan crows her delight.  “Don’t forget now, you are coming to tea today!”

In the day’s heat Alanee draws out an awning that is stored above her kitchen door.  There she sits in its shade upon her step, pecking at a salad as she watches sun-mist shimmer over the Hakaan.  Dreams come easily in such all-pervasive peace.

These are times when she remembers her childhood on the plain, the farm with its bright white gate and penn-fowl in the yard.  Her father’s walk – the way he clumped his boots into the soil as though they tasted it – his rough skin as real as dry clay, the smell of the land in every crack and fissure.  Her mother’s tired eyes, the love in her smile, dust in her hair:  and how she worked, and worked, and worked, yet still had time, always, for the impudent girl-child her husband had prayed would be a son.

Although every childhood has its joys, they were not such happy days, in those growing years.  And a future of labour, the endless demands of sowing and reaping, the constant disappointment – yes, that may well have been the beginning of her rebellious spark.  So that when, at seventeen, she chanced to meet a foot-player at a local dance, she did not hold back.  She set her cap at him, poor Kalna, quite outrageously, and it was not for love – not then.  Love came later, love grew.

Alanee thinks of Namma in her pain and reflects that she too might have been a mother once.  Her thoughts drift to a memory – of Kalna-meh, that constantly quirky grin of his: the things they would do together, the games they would play, the touch of his lips on her neck when he wanted her and, yes, those pleasures too.  Then, always at the height of these reflections the sudden words upon the screen, just as they were on that dire evening:  ‘Foot-player fatally injured.  Hideous tackle kills Hakaani hero’.

One chance, one man; and the knowledge that by decree there can never be another.  Three years ago.  Three lonely years.

Deep in reminiscence she does not hear the Aerotran at first.  Only when it is passing, almost overhead, does she look up to see the teardrop shape of the flying machine, with government colours of black and gold striping its sides.  Even then, it does not concern her greatly: an official, probably, delivering some new mandate to the village Domo.  The sky is cloudless; there is no breeze to dissipate the fire of the sun.  Wearily, Alanee gets to her feet, ready for the drudgery of her afternoon.

On the street all talk is of the visit from the Aerotran, which now sits on the landing pad atop the Terminal like a rather rakish hat.  The Village Domo’s colours hang there too, a white and blue ensign draped above the doors of the building.

Who can this be?  Why is Domo Paaitas here too?

“Now I bet you wish you ordered that honey!”  Shellan shouts above the whistle of the Aerotran’s engines.  It is an intended joke, but Alanee, already nervous, shrinks inside.  Has the Makar reported her?

Her feeling of timidity is reinforced when she gets inside the Terminal.  Her name is on the entry board, with an instruction to go to the manager’s office.  Now her heart begins to pound, for her duties in the afternoon normally would keep her on the floor of the Terminal, with her workers.

“Will you look after the floor while I am gone, Namma-mer?”  Namma accepts her briefing board with a surreptitious smile.  She knows something, Alanee thinks!  What is going on?

At the head of the stairs she knocks nervously upon Carla’s door.  A pause; male voices conferring in subdued tones.  If there were somewhere to run to, she would run with pleasure now.  Carla, her face serious, opens the door.

“Come in, Alanee-mer.  These people wish to speak to you.”

There are three men in the room, only one of whom, Paaitas the Village Domo, Alanee recognises; the other two, she must suppose, arrived with the Aerotran.  But what could they possibly want with her?

Behind her, the door has closed. Carla is no longer at her shoulder; must have withdrawn, Alanee assumes.  She quickly detects her own anxiety reflected in the face of her Domo, who is really a shy and reclusive man only picked for high office because of his very individual scripting talents.  His heavy brows are set in a downward scowl, and his lips work constantly, as though he were chewing upon something with an acid taste.  To his right a thin figure with hawkish nose and brown teeth who is tall even when seated, to his left a much older man, whose eyes glint like wet steel.  Both visitors are richly dressed in silken burgundy robes, and have a great distinction about them, as though they were set upon a high purpose.  She is overawed.

“Alanee-mer, come, sit down.”  Paaitas says, by way of introduction.  He waves at a chair.  “These are very special visitors, Alanee-mer.”  He introduces the thin man to his right as Proctor Remis, he who sits to his left as High Councillor Cassix.

A Proctor and a High Councillor?  To see her?

“You have snow in the north, Sires;” Alanee murmurs, her voice barely above a whisper.  “How was your journey?”

The one her Domo has introduced as Cassix smiles, though his eyes are unchanged:  they bore into her, so she thinks that they are hurting her head.  “Our journey was untroubled, Alanee-mer.  You live in a much friendlier climate, do you not?”

She nods, dumbly.  Her knees are shaking.

“Now we must ask you questions, and you must answer them with honesty.  Will you do that?”

“Of course, sir.”

The Proctor’s voice cuts the air, sharp and dry as a knife.  “You did not order honey on your mand-card today, did you?”

His words fall like blows from a hammer.  Now Alanee’s heart really sinks!  Her mind races through all the punishments that are meted out to those who fail their citizenship requirements; most of whom are never heard from again.

“No, sir.  I did order it, though – when the Makar reminded me.”

“Will you use it?”

“Yes sir.”  She answers without thinking – a reflex.

“You were told of the necessity to be honest, Alanee-mer.”  Remis clips his words.  “At the beginning of the year you ordered Kell Water (after the Makar reminded you) and that is still on your mand-stock; as is the wholemeal cereal you ordered last month.  I could quote you any number of items in a similar vein.  You have the largest mand stock in the whole region – I frankly wonder that your chill room is large enough to accommodate it all.”

So that is it!  The Makar said they would be watching her, and the Makar was right.  Alanee feels the tears coming, bites down on her lip.  “What should I do, Sire?”

“Why, eat it – drink it, one supposes.”  The Proctor replies.  “Do you feel no need to do that, Alanee-mer?  Are you not tempted by today’s honey-cakes?”

“No sir.  I don’t understand.  I have never liked these things, even though it seems everyone else does.”  Alanee strives hard to keep the sob from her voice, but despite herself her eyes are filling.

Cassix cuts in.  “Alanee-mer, last year you missed The Gathering, did you not?”

So they found that out, too, did they?  Oh, Habbach!  “I was forgetful.”

Remis and Cassix are exchanging glances.

“You had to remember?”  Cassix asks.  “Nothing…inspired you to go?”

Alanee is mystified.  “No sir.”

For a moment it seems as if Remis will ask more, but Cassix raises a hand and, with a nod to Paaitas, says:  “Very well, Alanee-mer, that will be all.  Thank you for giving us your time.”

She quells an urge to run from the room, to put these three weighty visages behind her before they reduce her to tears.  What should she be feeling - relief?  The Domo’s next words explode upon her like a bomb.

“Go to your home, Alanee-mer.  Namma will take your responsibilities.  You should pack a bag of belongings for your immediate needs.  Leave by the cargo door.  Speak to no-one.”  His voice is lowered, severe.

She knows now.

Somehow her feet find their way to the door; her shaking hand turns the latch.  There, she must turn back, because it is pointless to hide the tears:  “Please….tell me what I have done wrong?”

The one she knows as Cassix smiles at her.  His eyes do not alter their incisive brilliance, yet it is not an unpleasant smile.  “Sometimes, it is better not to know reasons.  Go now.”

Beyond the door, a uniformed guard in the colours of the High Council takes her arm.  The upturned eyes of every woman in the village follow her as she is led, gently but insistently, along the gallery to the cargo doors.  Everyone can see how freely she is weeping.

As soon as he is confident that Alanee is beyond earshot, Remis turns to the Domo.

“You are sure the usual inspections have been done?”

The village Domo nods.  “Every month, sir, according to law.  We have a very good inspectorate.”

“And they found nothing wrong?”

“Nothing.  Her house is clean and well-kept, despite her widowhood.  The censors described the usual features.  She is an exemplary worker – extremely intelligent and a manager in waiting.  I just don’t understand.”

The walk:  how she will always remember this walk!  The silent street, everyone at their work – the guard at her shoulder; the desire to run – run anywhere, get away!  She might hide among the poor people of the plain, find work as an illiterate, change her hair, her clothes….but the guard remains close behind her, and he is armed.

It is late afternoon.  Alanee has packed those few things she possesses which must travel with her.  Then she has waited.  No armed squad has come to drag her away, the guard is expressionless, and beside essential communication, deaf to her questions.  Now the sun is low over the hills and soon the workers will return.  She stands at her kitchen door – that favourite place – for what all her instincts insist will be the last time, one last cup of tsakal warm in her hand.

“Try not to be too frightened.”  The voice surprises her.  She turns to find that High Councillor Cassix has entered.  “The view is exquisite.”  He says gently.  “You must be sorry to leave it.”

“I am to be taken away, then?”  Alanee is no longer afraid of him.  Acceptance has come.

“Yes.”

“Where?”  She has her back to him, drinking in that last vision of the Hakaan.

“That I cannot say.”

All at once she feels like crying again.

“We are waiting for a Aerotran to transport you; it should be here soon.  We would use ours, had we not another person to interview in a village south of here.  We shall be detained until tomorrow, I fear.”

As if by his command, a rushing sound in the eastern sky foretells the second Aerotran’s coming.  Alanee, who has no way of knowing how transgressors are removed from their communities, has expected maybe a horse-wagon of the type the stonemasons use, or an older, more primitive flying machine; not this.  The aircraft which stoops earthwards shares the black and gold livery of the High Council – it is small, no more than an air-taxi, but its approach is rapid.

“Time to go.” Cassix says.  “I will escort you.”

He supports her arm much as the guard has done, leaving that individual to follow at a respectful distance as he guides Alanee from the home that has been hers for all of her adult life.  At her street door she pauses, resisting him – overcome by the enormity of the moment.  The Aerotran waits, its squat black nose pointed to the dust of the street, engine subdued to an unobtrusive hum.  To Alanee’s right all the women of the village stand in ragged silence, detained upon their homeward walk from the Terminal by the landing of this beast.  A double line of eyes all watching, all accusing; all she thought were friends, who treat her as a stranger now that she is dangerous to know.  Merra is there, Carla, and Namma, already wearing the Managers Assistant tag that Alanee has lost.  Shellan too, though she shows Alanee no sign of recognition.

“Come,” Cassix prompts; “This is best done quickly.”

Alanee nods, takes a firm grip upon her small bag of effects, and steps forward.  “I should lock my door.”

“No.”

-o-

Hasuga is waiting for Ellar in the Great Hall.  She greets him from a distance, brushing wet white snowflakes from her gold and burgundy robe – her uniform as one who attends the Inner Sanctum.  It amazes her how tall he has grown, so quickly – how one adjustment to his growth has wrought such changes.  His shoulders are wider; there is more determination and muscle in his face; yet his voice, though deeper, is still a child’s voice:  his words those of the little boy he has left behind.  And in that haunted expression the same frailty that is the true window to the churning leviathan of his mighty, intimidating mind.

“Ellar!  Ellar-mer, come on!  We are going to play a war game!  Mummy waits for us.  Hurry up!”  Hasuga almost skips ahead, leading her to the elevators.  No stairs here, in the Palace itself.

“We are going to attack a fortress!  Come on!”

The elevator rushes them skywards.  Already, Ellar is feeling the limitation of her immunity chip – the implant in her brain which is all her Sanctum membership will allow as a control.  She is becoming enthused - yes!  A fortress!  That would be so much fun!  A battle at the walls – siege engines, storming the gates!  Kill them all!

No!

No, not kill.  “Which fortress will it be, Hasuga?”  Ellar concentrates hard to keep her thoughts in train.

“Why, Braillec City, with its great high walls!”  Hasuga’s look infers that she is stupid even to ask.  “The Proteians are going to attack them!”

Ellar makes an effort of will.  She sees the Proteians – though it will still be night in their part of the world: they will be rising from their beds, taking to arms, raising the war-cry.  She thinks of the people of Braillec (how many in that city, three – four thousand?) who are going to be slaughtered for no better reason than they have high, mediaeval walls.

The elevator doors slide open, revealing the first and largest of the palace’s games theatres.  This is an oval, echoing space like a shallow amphitheatre some sixty metres long, with steps around the sides to form seats for spectators.  Already there are a few interested individuals gathering upon these, for news that Hasuga is about to embark upon one of his epic games spreads fast, and to be invited as a player would mean preferment at court.  Forethought has reminded many to bring cushions, because the steps are hard, and rugs, because the theatre is cold.  Around the high grey stone walls hang flags representing the forty-seven nations of the land, and below them the pennants of their principalities, all in bright brocade colours, stirring gently in the circulating air.  A vaulted ceiling of the same stone arches above, criss-crossed by stout oak beams and ropes that will support any scenery that Hasuga should demand.  It is to these Ellar’s attention is drawn.

Mother stands alone to one side of the play area, calling orders to a court servant perilously straddled over one of the beams.  He is ‘spotting’ a series of ropes, lowering them until their ends hang no more than ten centimetres above the floor. Towards the far end of the theatre there is a pass between the seating steps, and here rest the ‘props’ for Hasuga’s war game.  Tall painted screens called ‘flats’ which represent (with uncanny accuracy, considering he has never been there) the mountain backcloth against which the fortified city of Braillec stands, smaller cut-outs of town houses and streets, styrene bricks which, when threaded together with wooden rods, will soon become a high defensive wall.  All this, or the majority of it, has been achieved in the couple of hours since Hasuga first instructed it; such is the dexterity his demands can induce.

It is that will which impedes Ellar’s powers of thought now.  Mother, who has seen them enter, comes to greet Hasuga, but he accords her no more than passing attention now he sees his game coming together.  So, while he hurries to expedite the erection of his scenery, she and Ellar can unite their thoughts.

First appearances would suggest Mother is a warm, ample woman with apple cheeks and eyes that over-brim with the love of her calling which is, for the duration of her lifetime, to be mother to Hasuga.  Her mind is completely his: it bears no space for doubt, though she carries the same immunity chip in her brain that Ellar has in hers.  So Ellar knows her opposition, if such it may be called, to this game will not be shared.  Ellar also knows there is another side to Mother – passionate, jealous, and obsessive.

“Greetings Ellar-mer.  Is it not all quite splendid?”

“Absolutely magnificent!   You will play, of course?”

“Oh yes!  My sweet boy wants me to be a general!  I am to be the great leader of the Proteians.  Such valiant warriors!”

“See now, your parents come from Braillec, do they not?”

Mother does not answer, only smiles.

“Do they live there still?”  Ellar is so overtaken by the intrusion of Hasuga's demands she may barely ask the question.  Is this in itself a blasphemy?  It is a line she has trodden so many times she no longer knows.  Again, Mother gives no answer, but Ellar does not miss that tiny twitching at the corner of her eye.  Mother is aware of course (though by the law she should not be) that this childish play within the palace walls will be played out for real nine thousand kilometres west of here, in the homeland that was once hers.  Thousands will die – her parents will very probably be among the dead.

“Hasuga, Sire.”  Ellar calls out.  “Who is to be the general of your army?”

“Mummy, of course!”  Hasuga calls back.  “I am her commander, Ellar-mer.”

“And I?  What would you like me to be?”

“Oh, you must defend the city!”

“So am I a general too?”

The painted screens are raised by the ropes Mother has spotted, propped and weighted into place.  Palace servants, drabs with the special burgundy and gold insignia on their epaulettes rush about, erecting walls, producing wooden weapons, swords, shields, while Hasuga supervises the building of steps to function as a siege engine.  Within a frenetic hour this hive of accomplishment is achieved.  By now the terraces are filled with expectant courtiers but Hasuga will not pick his armies yet:  no, first he must strut around his creation, inspecting for anything inconsistent with his dream.  He picks here, points there: servants jump to his command – this gate should have a window, these stones a whiter hue.  Then, when he is satisfied, only those servants needed to clear the ‘dead’ are permitted to remain.  He stands upon the wooden balustrade and selects his armies.

“Mummy, this one is your lieutenant.  Use him well.”

“Ellar-mer, take these.”

Ellar watches Mother adjust to her role as general with a certain grim amusement.  Accustomed as the woman must be to Hasuga’s ‘games’ – and they are many – wars produce her least convincing performances.  Her ample bosom ill befits a tight breastplate, and she looks ridiculous in a helmet.  Those chubby fingers clasped about a wooden sword, competing with each other for space upon the handle, grip it as though she is about to slice a loaf of bread.  She paces, obviously intending to be purposeful, but more resembles a matron indulging in a seaside paddle.  Nevertheless her mind is utterly overtaken, so that in her head she is the epitome of a great soldier.

Ellar’s side is clearly intended to lose:  all the fittest and youngest courtiers, eager to prove their prowess are aligned with Mother; they are given more weapons, and are greater in number.  Those picked to defend the city feel piqued, sensing they are least in their young Sire’s favour.  At the end of the process Ellar is left with no more than a dozen dejected and aging troops, cynical retainers for the most part, whilst Mother has better than twenty.

Now Hasuga’s devouring mind surges over her own thoughts, feeding in his battle plan, showing her the details of her army’s defeat.  They will brook no delay - the game has begun.

The depression that Ellar feels concerning her side’s certain fate helps her to curb Hasuga’s implanted thoughts for just a little while.  As he leaves the theatre floor to assume his ‘throne’ (a chair from his suite has been brought for him to sit in while he overlooks his war) she summons up what fragments of mental strength her immunity chip provides.  As soon as she can trust her voice she calls up to him:

“Sire Hasuga, we know we face overwhelming odds but we will fight our hardest and best for our great city.  So I am remembered, may I pick my general’s name?”

Already deep in his part, Hasuga turns with raised wooden sword.  “It shall be so.  Choose, great general!”

“Thank you Sire, I shall.  History shall know me as General Ollamar!”  Later she may acknowledge the enormity of what she has done, probably profoundly regret it, but now her own mind can do no more.  Disguising inner mental collapse as best she can she raises her sword to seek the acclaim of her gallant troops, who respond rather less enthusiastically than she would like.  They are anticipating a bruising experience, for even wooden swords can inflict a wound or two.

“Very well.  You are the valiant General Ollamar, and you shall not sell your life cheaply.”  Hasuga perches himself on his chair, eyes eager, leaning forward for the best view of the fray.  “Mummy, the city is tired and starving.  Begin your attack!”

Mother harangues her small army, doing her best to fulfil the images fed to her by Hasuga’s mind.  But all is not well.  Her speech does not reach its second sentence (“My brave soldiers, I lead you to certain victory this day and great slaughter….”) before her voice gutters and her whole body seems to freeze.  She stands with her gaze fixed upon the floor.  Yet there are no mutterings from within the ranks.  Everyone shares Hasuga’s expectation of victory.

“Not very good, Mummy!”

Upon the other side of her ‘city wall’  Ellar feels Mother’s pain as wave after wave of incitement emanates from Hasuga – but it seems she will not or cannot go on.   She raises quivering fingers to her temples as the demands from her darling ‘little boy’ scream in her head.  Her army waits expectantly.  Everyone looks to her.  She staggers for a moment, kept erect by nothing but Hasuga’s mind; then she crumples to the floor.

“Mummy!”  Hasuga is on his feet and running to his beloved parent’s side.  “Mummy, whatever is wrong?”  He is distraught: his game, the others who surround him quite forgotten.  Only his Mother’s distress concerns him.  He weeps for her, wails piteously with her head supported on his arm, showering kisses on her pale cheeks.

Ellar who, like her ‘army’, is now completely released from enthusiasm for Hasuga’s war game, moves quickly.  She sends a servant to summon a doctor, motions for space to be created around Mother’s inert form.

“Oh, Ellar-mer, is Mummy dead?  Is my Mummy dead?”  Hasuga is inconsolable.  “What have I done?  What have I done?”

Ellar frowns.  “No, I do not think that Mummy has died.  But war games are dangerous, Sire Hasuga.  People do die, you see?”

“Yes;  yes I see.  But I never thought they would be dangerous to my Mummy!”

The Doctor arrives quickly.  There is always medical help close by.

Mother ‘s consciousness is regained.  Hasuga, restrained by Ellar’s gently persistent hands, is not witness to those few moments when, still mentally asleep, she is free of his dominance and able to murmur:  “Make him stop….make him stop!”

Caring servants lift her onto a litter.  As she is borne from the hall with her distraught child dancing anxiously beside her Mother catches Ellar’s eye.  The look she gives her is not pleasant.

In the dull hollow Hasuga’s departure has left in her brain Ellar would like to lie down herself, but there is work to be done.  She instructs the court servants to remove all evidence of their young master’s game; styrene walls, scenery flats, wooden weapons, everything.  She knows she did not misread the glare that Mother gave her, just as she knows that by morning she may not have the power to order anything at all.  She knows she has committed one of the higher of many crimes covered by one charge – blasphemy - and she has done it very publicly.  If she is to survive, she must rely upon Mother’s understanding and her silence.  Mother must in effect play along, for if she ever lets on to Hasuga that she, Ellar, deliberately chose Ollamar as her general’s name, she is lost.  Ollamar, you see, is Mother’s family name:  within the game, Mother knew she was to be asked to slay her own father.   The sheer psychological torture that produced might be hard to forgive, no matter how worthy the cause.

Now read on?

Reviews:

Five-Star Review! 

A book that is difficult to put down. It's great to find an author who can write in more than one genre with the same descriptive talent and ability to encompass the reader.
In this story the world is in a state of change dictated by the mind of a child who is changing too. Many novels have too predictable heroes and heroines and therefore the ending is also predictable. Not in this book! Be prepared for a surprising last chapter.