Okay, so I didn’t win… But I have posted the story onto the website. Go here to read it from the fan page – http://www.darkcrystal.com/create/?page=2&type=text
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Or just scroll down.
Aughra had a bad feeling about this; her son stood at her side but she felt that something was wrong. She opened her mouth to speak but Raunip beat her to it.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” he hissed, as he crouched, giving his thin twig-like appearance a more twisted look.
Aughra fixed him with her remaining good eye and growled at him to be quiet.
“They are not of this world,” he continued and his already ugly face warped into a hideous mask. Then his eyes took on a sheen, an opaque shine that made Aughra’s gut twist.
“You looked into the crystal?” she asked.
Her son averted his gaze and she looked over to the Gelflings and Podlings gathered on the other balcony. Gyr met her eye and his were worried. Kel looked defiant in her white robes that matched her hair.
“My son, what have you done?”
Raunip said nothing, and before Aughra could ask more the urSkeks walked into the crystal chamber. They moved at a slow deliberate pace, yet, despite their huge size they moved with grace until they surrounded the great crystal. It hovered above the floor shedding a soft light that had grown with the presence of the urSkeks. Aughra remembered that when they first came to Thra every creature had bowed to them, scared and awestruck. Now they were used to the bright tall forms, but she still found the sight compelling.
Placing a hand to her head she was back atop the high hill watching them arrive and being blinded in the process. As she had cowered on the floor she felt their cold hands and had seen nothing but the bright light that had taken her sight. It was as if all three suns of Thra had converged and shone straight into her head, and she had cried with the beauty and the pain. Then the hand had cooled her and slowly she had seen. Now she looked down on the urSkeks with her one eye and wished them a safe journey. She had watched the skies and knew that the second great conjunction would mean they would go home.
After today she would not be able to watch the shifting faces, nor worry what their presence meant. Still she was grateful; if they had not come she would never have built the Observatory and her home, but still something niggled. Something clawed at her gut and she had a feeling that it had something to do with her son. Her son who looked at her with crystal-glazed eyes. He had looked into the crystal. He knew his origins.
Aughra understood that her son was more powerful than she had thought. The glances Kel was giving him were enough to show her that something was wrong. Turning her eye from the urSkeks she looked down and saw her son staring at Gyr. He was humming. Her one eye widened in shock. He was singing the urSkeks’ song, their home world song.
Looking down she saw one urSkek turn slightly, listening. This being was darker than the others, his inner light dulled. She leaned forward, trying to see the urSkek, but it turned its back on the watchers and looked into the crystal. They all looked.
Aughra glanced up and watched as the final alignment of the planets was completed. A shaft of light descended into the crystal room and hit the crystal, splitting and entering every urSkek. The duller urSkek wobbled. Aughra fixed her gaze on him. She had no idea what was befalling the creatures below her but she could only imagine it would be bad. These creatures were the most advanced she had ever seen, but even they must be effected by petty squabbling, she had yet to meet a living thing that didn’t. Still, she found herself holding her breath, hoping that they would converge and leave, just as the stars had foretold. Except the darker urSkek turned slightly toward Gyr who was swaying and humming again. The silly Gelfling would ruin everything, him and her son. The light from the crystal faltered and broke apart.
Aughra stepped back as the light became so bright she threw her hands above her eye to protect her face. Raunip cried out in pain and to protect her eye Aughra removed it, slipping the precious organ into the pouch at her waist. Using her hearing she located her son and pulled him with her to the arch leading to the balcony. Placing her own squat body above his she protected him as the world shook in horror.
Aughra placed one horn that curled tight against her head close to her only child. Using her own strength she held them in place. Around her the crystal room became a place of screams and light. On the other balcony Gyr grabbed Kel and pulled her to the archway. She in turn opened her beautiful lace-patterned wings should they have to take to the air. Pulling her close Gyr motioned above them.
Looking up Kel saw that the crystal roof was cracking and dust was falling. Closing her wings she huddled in the doorway, protecting her wings as best she could. Gyr positioned himself as Aughra did with her son, shielding the Gelfling crouched before him.
The Podlings were a little slower to react. By the time Hakmeena had pushed her son toward the arch the quake had taken hold. She half closed her small eyes and made her rounded body move as fast as it could, but she was too far away. Earlier they had taken the prized place close to the edge of the balcony.
“We will be able to see better here,” she had said.
Her son, Kotha, had looked down at the drop. “You’re sure it’s safe?”
Gyr had answered him in his strange musical tone. “It is.” He had then smiled and his graceful face had reassured the Podlings and they had settled for the convergence. Gyr was well known to both of them as he was a song-collector. He would wander among all of the seven tribes of the Gelfling and the Podling village collecting their songs and music. Hakmeena hadn’t been certain at first, but he had shown himself to be harmless. Except, as she pushed Kotha toward the safety of the arch, she couldn’t help but wonder at the humming. Gyr had been humming something and that urSkek had been worried by it.
Kotha felt his mother’s shove and he moved toward the arch where Gyr and Kel stood. Gyr reached out a hand and then his features changed in shock, but he was looking behind Kotha, at his mother. Kotha turned as if he had been caught in the mud of the swamp of Sog. The end of the balcony that he had been standing on moments before had begun to crack and as the ground shook it fell, taking Hakmeena with it.
Kotha screamed and lunged for the edge, part of him aware that Gyr had taken hold of his waist and was holding him on what remained of the balcony. He watched as his mother fell, her arms reaching up and her eyes wide with fear. She hit the light of the crystal and disappeared as if she had never existed.
Gyr tugged at Kotha until he had the small Podling in the arch. Kel looked at him and her eyes were fearful but also unsurprised. Kel and Raunip had told him earlier of their fears over the urSkeks and now, as the world shook, he wished he had listened. He also knew that the urSkek had turned toward him. Was his song the reason? Closing his eyes in guilt Gyr hung onto Kel and Kotha as the palace creaked and groaned in torment.
Below, in the light, the urSkeks writhed in pain as they became more and less than what had been. As one their tall forms shrank and appeared to split until two creatures stood where one urSkek had been. Within their own torment their souls became two and they fell to their knees unable to move.
The crystal let out a shriek as the conjunction passed and the light faded. The crystal room was a wreck. Around the stone lay parts of the balcony and ceiling. Amongst this lay the new creatures, unconscious of their state.
On the balcony above Aughra let go of the arch as the shaking stopped. Taking her eye out she returned it to its home, brushing back her dusty blond hair, that was more straw-like than soft, and covered in ceiling dust.
“Are you alright?” she croaked at her son, who sat cowed, unable to move. Pressing her lips together her face made a form close to that of a gargoyle. She moved along the balcony looking across to where the Gelfings had stood. She saw the song-maker and the female, even the Podling prince, but of his mother there was no sign. Shuffling to the edge she looked down. Below her the crystal was silent. Ignoring the rest of the scene she turned her eye to the stone. It ought to glow with a light from within, yet it floated dully. The great crystal appeared dead. No, Aughra shook her head, not dead but sleeping, as if the crystal had used all its energy to do this.
Then she looked at the floor. There, lying among the rubble, were beings she had never seen before. Where every urSkek had stood there now lay two. One was a rounded creature with powerful legs and a long tail, with four arms and a kindly face. Squinting, she could just make out the swirls along their noses. They had white hair falling from their long necks, coarse and not the same as Kel’s soft mane so usual in the Vapra clan. These were slow moving creatures, Aughra thought. The others were as different as night was to day.
These were all corners and sharp edges. They had beaks, reminiscent of creatures found in the swamp and were as tall as the others were long. They had only the one pair of arms but their fingers were long and grasping. Their legs were short and powerful, but these creatures were built for speed. Their feet were clawed and their fingers seemed more like spines, still Aughra could see they were almost delicate in construction. Although she feared neither she understood instinctively that the creatures were two sides of the same coin, only time would tell which would be the better.
Aughra felt, rather than saw her son join her.
Aughra did not answer. She knew no more than him. Instead she heard his intake of breath as he looked down.
“They split,” he cried and his shout echoed around the room.
Aughra settled into a crouch to watch.
Below them a tail twitched.
“What happened?” Gyr asked Raunip.
He just pointed. The Gelflings and the Podling went to the edge and looked down into the crystal room.
“My mother…” Kotha said. Kel hugged him from behind and he leaned into the contact, wishing for more of his own kind.
Slowly Gyr began a song for Hakmeena, his voice rising and falling and telling of her life and death. Aughra turned her head slightly to hear his rich voice but her eye remained on the unconscious creatures, although there was more movement now. More tails were moving, but they were only from the four-armed creatures.
Gyr’s voice faded as the first of them moved below. It looked up with sorrowful eyes and blinked. Kotha looked at them, but he was filled with fear and grief. “We need to leave.”
Neither Gelfling moved, nor did Kotha who hovered behind them unsure what to do.
Below, all the shorter creatures had gained their feet. As one they turned to look at Aughra and she nodded. They nodded back and she could see the urSkeks in them; the benevolent creatures of knowledge. One raised its head and gave a long low haunting cry, similar to the notes that Gyr could conjure from his flute. The others joined until a chord that made her soul sing rang around the chamber. In response the crystal sparked a dull flame, but as the sound faded so did the light, until the stone slept again.
“We are urRu,” said the one who had stood first. And then he turned to leave.
“What happened?” cried Raunip.
“The great division,” another said and they left.
As they did Aughra counted them, eighteen, the same as the urSkeks. They moved with a slow deliberation until none remained in the chamber. Aughra rose, not certain she wanted to be around when the others awoke. Below her a tail twitched.
Raunip voiced Aughra’s concerns, “We need to leave.” He said it loud enough that the others on the balcony heard. Gyr looked across and nodded, touching Kel’s arms and dragging her away from the sight. Together they began to lead the grieving Podling away from the edge.
Kotha turned. “Yes we must leave… I…” For a moment his steps faltered but the two Gelflings took his arms more securely.
“Come now, Kotha, your people need you,” Kel said, her voice a soft melodic whisper.
Aughra hadn’t moved. She continued to stare down into the crystal chamber.
“Aughra,” Raunip said, but when she made no motion to suggest she had heard him he spoke louder. “Mother!”
She turned her eye to her son and then looked back. “They stir.” She then looked once more into the room. If the urRu had awoken gracefully then these creatures awoke in fits and starts. Twitches became jerks and soon every creature appeared to be moving, almost fitting, as if incapable of controlling their actions. The urRu had shuffled on their unused feet, but these creatures required balance. When one did rise he was as uncoordinated as a new-born landstrider, all legs and jerky movements.
“What?” The voice that boomed from below held power and aggression at it’s core. The largest of the creatures stood unsteadily. “What is this?” he demanded.
One near him appeared to bow. “We have become…”
“I can see that,” the first said, raising a clawed hand and taking a swipe at the one who had spoken.
On the balcony Aughra moved back.
“You,” the first said, pointing at her with an elongated finger. “Where are the others?”
“Others?” she said, not stopping, but slowing.
“The rest of us?”
The first snorted his derision. “We are Skeksis,” he proclaimed and pushed out his barrel chest. He was easily the biggest of them, but another stood off to one side who appeared to hold more power. The others did not go anywhere near this one. Aughra was sure it was part of the urSkek that had been darkened, but she wasn’t certain.
By now all the Skeksis had stood and a few were looking at the crystal. One in particular was gazing at the stone as if it could see the secrets. The first drew itself up to its full height. “I am Skeksis and I proclaim myself Emperor!”
The one that had simpered around him earlier smiled and said, “Oh yes, good.” But his eyes said that he would only be happy with the leadership himself.
“I am skekUng and our leader,” he said, using one clawed hand to slap his own chest.
“Oh yes, but why are we here?” the simpering Skeksis said.
All eyes turned on the creature and they all started to speak at the same time. Above them Aughra watched. She had seen this before in creatures, this squabbling would not lead to anything good. Looking at Raunip she motioned him to leave. They walked to the arch. On the other balcony the others had made it through.
“They can’t leave,” a voice boomed from below. “What if it is their fault?”
Aughra continued to motion her son toward the way out. “It is not,” she said, but she was not certain she told the truth.
“No,” cried another Skeksis. “It was he who turned!”
“It was the song,” cried another.
“The song the Gelfling sung.”
“Gelfling?” cried skekUng. “What gelfling?”
“The ones who watched.”
Aughra froze. She knew that she needed to leave but she was also aware that if she had looked more at what was going on around her rather than only at the stars she may have been able to stop it. She was of Thra but she felt the guilt that expanded in her chest, she had abandoned her land. Pride at her observatory and the knowledge that she carried had made her blind to things she could have prevented.
Leaning close to her son she whispered harshly into his ear. “What did you do?”
“They are not…”
“To be trusted, but if they had been left alone they would be gone. Instead we have this.” She sighed and looked at her altered and scared son. “No matter, we must cope with the now.”
Turning she walked back along the balcony.
The Skeksis saw her approach. “Where are the Gelflings?”
“They aren’t here,” she said, clamping her lips together making her chin jut out.
Below her the Skeksis looked around as if searching. So far they hadn’t moved around much, they were still cumbersome in their new bodies.
Behind Aughra, moving through the corridors, Gyr and Kel listened to the exchange. “They won’t follow us,” Kel said.
“No,” Gyr agreed.
The Podling between them looked from one to the other. “Will those… things hurt them?”
Gyr shrugged and Kel looked away.
Kotha walked along, but in his mind he saw his mother. They were in the village and he was small. His mother had found him sitting alone in the fields and not helping.
“Kotha? What are you doing?” she had asked.
“Why?” Hakmeena said.
“Well,” the young Podling said drawing circles in the dirt. “You lead us so one day I will.”
“Maybe,” she answered with a smile.
“So why do I have to do anything?” Kotha said with a triumphant grin.
Hakmeena sat next to her son and watched the other Podlings toil in the field below them. “So they should pay us in their labour for us to lead them?”
“Exactly,” young Kotha said, proud that his mother saw the point.
“What if they don’t, or what about Nala?”
“Nala?” Kotha said. He knew her. She was the old Podling who knew everything about the vines. She was important for the village.
“She is sick. Now I was going to work so that there was no missing piece,” Hakmeena said, “But if you think we need to make them work for us, then I’ll just get her out of her sick bed and…”
“No,” Kotha said. “I will work.”
“Why?” his mother asked.
“She is important…”
“Exactly, we all have our roles and we must work together to keep everything right. It is like your circles,” she pointed to Kotha’s doodles. “We must keep working together so the cycle can replenish. Others see us as simple but we just work at our own pace.” She looked up and they both watched as Gyr had walked out of the wood. “Even the Gelfling play their part in the cycle that Thra needs to continue.”
Kotha remembered those words as they struggled through the corridor. If this was the cycle they had to live then they had to all make it. “We can’t leave her,” he said.
“Nor Raunip,” Kel added.
Kotha was about to reply when a skeletal arm and long-fingered hand stopped him. “Where are you going, Podling?” said an almost completely naked Skeksis.
Kotha froze and paled, his small round eyes becoming large in his head as his panic hit. “I…”
“We were leaving,” Gyr said from behind Kotha.
“Gelfling,” the Skeksis said and moved his way. Gyr was suddenly sure this was not a gentle creature but a predator. That movement of its head had been more analysing than curious. A crawl of cold moved up his back. “Are you leaving too?” the Skeksis continued.
“No, I insist that you come to meet us.” The Skeksis held onto the last word, drawing it out and giving Gyr a bad feeling. Next to him Kel moved slightly away. Gyr realised that she thought there might be a fight. She was giving him room to move.
“Let the Podling go and we will come with you.”
The Skeksis bared its teeth around its beak and moved its arm, watching the Podling run toward the great doors. Swinging its head back to them the Skeksis looked down at the Gelflings and gestured for them to go ahead.
Gyr and Kel entered the Crystal Chamber to find the Skeksis all talking at once. Gyr could tell that it would be only moments before violence would erupt. Filling his lungs with air he hummed a few chords of the song he had sung to the UrSkeks earlier.
Silence greeted him. Every Skeksis turned and looked at them.
“That may not have been a great idea,” Kel said quietly.
“You,” boomed the largest Skeksis. “You distracted one of us and now we are changed!”
The others rounded on the Gelflings and Gyr pulled the short sword from its sheath. Other Gelflings didn’t carry weapons, but Gyr had been wandering alone for so long that it was natural for him to feel its weight at his side. He felt off balance without it.
The Skeksis reacted to the sight of the sword with a series of screams and cries. One Skeksis tried to get to Gyr but fell, hitting another that retaliated. Suddenly the debris on the floor became weapons. Reaching down the Skeksis armed themselves, some with bricks whilst others held nothing, instead making clawed fists. Gyr and Kel were forgotten whilst violence erupted around them. From the intact balcony they saw Aughra wave them toward the door. Lowering the sword Gyr began to back away from the fight in front of him. He could see bruises forming on some of the Skeksis and he knew it was only a matter of time before blood was spilt.
No sooner had the thought registered than a Skeksis staggered toward them clutching his chest. Beak open, his breath rasped in and out as blood dripped through his fingers. His eyes rolled and the animal fell to the ground at their feet. Gyr could see its chest rising and falling quickly and the blood spreading.
“We need to leave,” Kel said.
Gyr didn’t answer. Instead they both turned and ran.
Above Aughra watched and then looked on with shock as the creatures fought below. She thought her son had gone until he appeared at her side. He too watched, but his face was full of disgust instead of curiosity. The fallen Skeksis drew in one last breath and blood poured out of its beak and then it stilled. Aughra blinked and in that time the creature vanished, leaving nothing more than a bloodstain on the floor.
“It just vanished,” Raunip said.
“Yes,” Aughra agreed but her eye looked beyond the doorway to where the urRu had gone. They were the same creature, so did the death of one mean the death of the other? It was a question she had no answer to.
Another scream rose from below as another Skeksis staggered from the fight to vanish before its body hit the floor.
“When they die they disappear,” Raunip said.
Aughra ignored him as her eye caught sight of a Skeksis. It wasn’t the biggest, but it had found a piece of metal bar and was wielding it like an ungainly sword. And he was getting close to the crystal.
Below skekSo used the metal girder to hold the other Skeksis at bay. He wanted power, he knew it was his right. So when he saw skekUng he made a move toward him. To vanquish him would mean all would bow to skekSo. Swinging the makeshift sword above his head he brought it down with all the strength he had.
Above, Aughra gasped and moved back from the edge. Raunip watched with dread.
SkekSo swung the metal but skekUng saw the long metal weapon coming toward him and he ducked. Using his strength and speed he rolled out of the arc of the sword. The crystal rang as the metal hit it. Everything stopped and they all screamed, but now it was from pain as the crystal sang its hurt and the perfect surface cracked.
On the upper surface a crack appeared and ran toward the heart of the stone. There was silence as the shard broke away and flew from its crystal parent. Aughra watched, her hands clamped over her ears. The shard shot straight upwards through the opening in the roof. Then there was silence.
Below the Skeksis stood around, uncertain what had happened. One walked to the crystal and placed a hand on it. “Interesting,” it wheezed.
The one with the sword gave an awful scream of rage and instinctively the others bowed away from the metal implement, even skekUng. Pulling himself to his full height he hit the floor with his weapon. “I am skekSo and I am emperor.” No one said anything.
Aughra looked at the scene and, grabbing her son’s hand, turned and ran.
Aughra ran through the corridors trying to remember the layout of the castle. It was based on triangles and spheres but in her fear she had taken a wrong turn. Instead of reaching the front of the castle she dragged Raunip further inside. He went willingly. They were both in shock.
When they finally stopped Aughra found herself in a dark tunnel surrounded by rock walls and damp air. She lifted her nose and sniffed the stink. They hadn’t been followed. Looking down at her panting son and their joined hands she dropped the contact.
“I’m sorry,” Raunip started.
Aughra turned her back and looked the way they had come. “Makes no difference. What’s done is done.”
Raunip watched her. “I looked into the crystal.”
“It showed me…”
“Your birth,” Aughra finished.
Aughra was silent for a moment and then turned to face her son. “You are my son, made in my own image.”
“But I am not of Thra,” Raunip said.
Aughra smiled. “You are. I found a stone, a rock from space. And that rock had life, it had a heartbeat. So I shaped you. My son. If I had not found you, on Thra, you would not have been.”
“So I am of Thra by accident, because I fell from the sky. I belong here no more than those things.” He gestured down the dark tunnel toward the direction they had come.
“They came formed. You are my son.”
Raunip looked at the creature he knew as his mother and had to look away. She didn’t lie, she never lied. He had to accept it, but he could feel the idea, the loneliness inside him, sitting like a rotten core.
“Be careful, son, those thoughts will change you.”
“The crystal has, is changing me,” Raunip said and for a moment he sounded like the youngster she had made.
“And this is my fault.”
“We can’t know that. It may have been written.”
“Did you see it in the stars?” Raunip asked aggressively, swinging back to his mother.
“No,” she said, “but the stars don’t say all.”
Raunip sighed and sank to the floor. “What does it mean?”
Aughra just looked at him.
“The crystal breaking?”
“I’m not sure… But we need to find the shard.”
“How?” Raunip asked.
“If I do this will you promise me one thing?”
Aughra said nothing but gave a slight nod of her head.
“Don’t forget me. Remember me and remember I stood at your side as the crystal broke. I will go out there and find the shard, even if it takes my life, but I need you to promise me you will remember.”
“I promise, you are my son.” But even as she said it Aughra knew that she was lying. Her son would be there only while she could see him. It was a fault and one she had always warred against. She would have to write it down to remember it, but she forgot and images would slip through her fingers like sand. The more she tried to hold on the less likely she was to remember. But she would try.
Raunip watched her for a moment. “Okay, so how do we get out?”
“Through the centre of Thra,” Aughra said and she walked further into the tunnel. “Keep up.”
Raunip looked back the way they had come and then got to his feet, hurrying along the dirt floor. “Do you think they made it?”
“Gyr, Kel and the Podling?”
Aughra paused and nodded. “They did.”
“How do you know?”
Raising an arm she waved at the ceiling of the tunnel. “The stars.”
Aughra started moving again, fast and Raunip had to run to keep up. As he did he wondered at his mother’s sudden belief that the stars had told her of Gyr’s escape when they had not predicted the crystal cracking. He knew his mother was closely linked with the crystal. For a moment his step faltered. What if she was broken in a similar way to the crystal? Watching his mother’s back Raunip ran on, wondering if she was lying. Her first lie. Inside his heart stuttered. His mother was of Thra as was the crystal. If she were affected what would happen to Thra?
As Raunip and Aughra ran on, above them Gry, Kel and Kotha burst out of the crystal castle and turned toward the plain. Kotha stopped, panting with the effort.
“I can’t go much further,” he said.
The Gelflings were not panting but they stopped and turned back to the Podling. “We can wait…” Gyr started.
“No we can’t. We can’t let them catch us,” Kel said.
“Did you see the other thing?” Kotha said.
“What?” Gyr said.
“One of the first forms, the urRu, vanished. It was gone.”
Gyr looked back to the castle his face screwed into one of confusion.
“Do you think it was because it’s other self died?” Kel asked.
Gyr shook his head. “I don’t know. I think the world has changed and we are going to find a lot of things different.”
Kotha shivered with dread. “We need to get out of here.”
“Kel looked at the small Podling and gave a sad smile. “You won’t keep up.”
Now Kotha smiled. “I have a plan.”
Before either Gelfling moved Kotha lifted his face and let out a haunting cry, raising and lowering his voice. The sound flew across the plain seeming to reach into the very corners of Skarith. Kel was about to stop Kotha when an answering cry sounded. She looked at Gyr but he just grinned.
“It seems that our Podling friend has talents.”
Kel was about to ask what when he pointed behind her. She turned as the wind picked up, blowing her hair into her eyes. Shaking her head she cleared her vision, her small pointed ears rotating to the increasingly loud hoots. There, in the distance, she saw three white specks travelling at incredible speeds.
“Landstriders,” she whispered.
“Yes,” Kotha said. “I have an affinity with animals. I can call them.”
“Just landstriders?” Gyr asked.
“No, all of the animals of Thra.”
Kel walked a few paces from the others trying to see the fast forms more clearly. As they drew near she saw that they had stiff front legs and powerful back ones. Their front legs appeared to be attached to two small wing-like protrusions from their backs.
“Are they safe?” Kel asked, her heart pounding fast.
Kotha gave a small smile. “They are, but hold on once you are on their back.”
Gyr was about to ask how to get onto the back of the landstrider when they came close enough to see. They were huge and yet graceful. As they slowed their rocking pace became sharper as their stride shortened. Finally they stopped in front of Kotha. He reached up a hand and the landstrider lowered its head, brushing his hands with the small whiskers and tentacle growths around its mouth.
“They will help us,” he said. Giving a jump he grasped the front leg of the creature in front of him. In one leap that neither Gyr or Kel would have believed him capable of he swung up and onto the back of the strider. Sitting just behind the wings he looked down at the Gelflings. “Offer them your hand and then when they bow their heads jump up.”
Gyr walked over to another of the creatures, uncertain but not about to be shown up by a Podling. Reaching out his hand he couldn’t help but smile at the strange tickling as the landstrider used its tentacles and hairs to explore his hand. He also noticed a sweet smell. Kotha saw Gyr’s nose twitch.
“It’s the grass they eat from the plains.”
“What?” Gyr asked.
“The sweet smell is from the grass, a bit like fresh hay,” Kotha said.
Kel hung back from the others, worried about the size of the creatures.
“Are you sure they are safe?” she asked.
“I promise,” Kotha said from his elevated position on the back of the strider.
Gyr turned to Kel and grinned, then, mimicking Kotha’s movements, he jumped onto the strider’s back.
“Kel, we have to if we want to escape,” he said, casting a worried glance back to the castle. In the doorway he could see movement. Turning to Kotha he asked. “Can they carry two?”
Kotha watched as a Skeksis became visible in the huge gateway. “Yes.”
Nodding, Gyr held out a hand to Kel. She stepped forward and grasped it. Within a second she was safe behind him and with one whistle from Kotha the striders were flying across the Skarith. Kel held her breath and leaned away from Gyr, allowing the wind to move her hair. Gyr looked behind them but already the castle was a distant speck. Turning, he called out to Kotha.
“We need to see the queen.”
The wind snatched at his voice and Kotha didn’t hear. Instead they continued to move away from the castle and further from the clans that surrounded it.
He didn’t hear. The only sound that Kotha heard was the wind and the last cries of his mother as he failed to save her.
In the forest all was quiet. Dusk fell and the Woodland clan lit the lamps that surrounded their village in the canopy. Two young Gelflings walked together on one of the bridges between the family groups of huts.
“Something’s wrong,” one said. He was large for a Gelfling with strong arms and had already chosen his life’s plan although there had been no need for a few more years. But he was driven, he had decided to join the guard. When the UrSkeks had dismissed the guard for the second great conjunction they had disbanded with trepidation. Makim had wanted to speak out, but he was just a youngster. Now everything in him was screaming that something had gone wrong.
Next to him Rende looked concerned. He was slight and delicate in appearance contrasting Makim’s strength. He had yet to decide where his path lay but he was certain it wasn’t in the guard. Right then, though, he had the same bad feeling that Makim was worried about.
“Is he back?” Rende asked.
Both stopped and looked out of the bustle of the village. The canopy began to be lit by the lamps, allowing the green of the leaves to shine through, making everything seem other-worldly. Yet there was no shout or gathering. Gyr had not returned.
“He was meant to witness it and then come and sing about it,” Rende said.
Makim said nothing, staying silent.
“What do you think happened?” Rende asked, his hands twisting in nervous energy. “Because that bad feeling is getting worse.”
“I know.” Makim said. He was standing as solidly as Rende was fidgeting. He looked the true warrior, ready for all. In fact, as he was trying to analyse his emotions, he realised that he was ready. His mind and body felt like a coiled spring. Something was wrong.
Looking at Rende he watched his energy as his eyes darted from one area to another, never truly seeing what was happening. From the walkway opposite Mira stopped and waved. Rende threw an extravagant wave at her and Makim narrowed his eyes. He was hoping that Mira would be his mate but the attention she gave Rende made him worried that he had missed his chance.
“Mira,” Makim called and waved her over. Mira nodded and started to walk the way she had come. Each family was based around one treehouse and although you could get to each others it could be an odd route. Makim watched as Mira turned a hairpin and began walking toward them but about twenty feet below.
Rende watched Makim, he always watched Makim. Rende was aware that his friend believed him to be infatuated with Mira but the truth was that he got on with her so well, because there was no attraction. There never would be. He had once been told by an old teacher that love can hurt, and at the time Rende had shaken his head, not really understanding, but now watching Makim’s face become soft with wonderment he understood. In the Woodland clan, same sex relationships were not outlawed but nor were they encouraged. And anyway, to make a relationship you needed two people to be in love, not just the one.
It had taken Mira about an hour to work out that Rende was interested in Makim. They had been harvesting the berries near the river and she had been watching him. Rende had thought she was interested in him as a boyfriend so he had been ignoring her. Instead, he had been employed in his favourite pastime, Makim watching.
“Does he know?” she had asked.
Rende had frozen and looked at her with fear. “What?”
“Does he know that you love him?” She pointed at Makim in the water, his top half uncovered as he used a sharp stick to catch the eels in the stream.
Rende had looked from her to him with real fear growing. If she told him Rende thought that Makim would run. He was essentially a male Gelfling and he had no idea how he would react. For a moment he was silent. Mira just stood and watched him, a small smile on her face. “No,” he finally whispered.
Mira reached across the prickly bush and patted his hand. “I won’t tell.”
“Is it obvious?”
“Yes,” she said, “very.” As she started to withdraw her hand she gave a small cry. The bush had caught hold of her sleeve with its thorns and was dragging her hand in.
“Mira!” Rende cried. The bush was harmless enough but the thorns were mildly poisonous. If her skin became too scratched she would be in trouble. Rende remembered the last Gelfling to become caught in a berry-bush. She had slept for a week and they had almost lost her to dehydration and hunger. Even now she was a waif compared to the laughing Gelfling she had been.
The bush jerked Mira forward slightly and her eyes went widened as the thorns scratched her once more. Rende stood up and Mira followed him with her eyes. He could see panic beginning and he knew that if she struggled the thorns would gain a greater purchase. Turning, he found Makim’s form in with a group of males. They were all fishing and had their backs to him. “Makim!” Rende cried, but the water snatched his words away. For a moment he stood but then he looked down at Mira.
“Help,” she said, her voice cracking in fear.
All female Gelflings are able to give a cry that males respond to. Rende could also do it. He had found out when he came of age just a few months ago. He had told no one, he didn’t want to lose Makim, but now he had no choice. He couldn’t leave her, she was only just holding on to her panic, and she had not come of age. Glancing around the clearing he could see no other Gelflings, just those fishing. Nodding to Mira he gave a sad smile and lifted his head. A long haunting cry rose. Mira’s already pale face went whiter and she looked shocked.
In the river Makim turned. He glanced behind him and started when he saw Rende making the noise. Without thinking about it he began to move fast through the water. The other Gelflings turned at Makim’s movement, but it was as if they hadn’t heard Rende’s cry. Now it was Rende’s turn to look at Mira with shocked eyes. Only Makim had heard.
“Oh, Rende,” Mira said, her voice full of disappointment and sadness. “He doesn’t know, does he?”
“No and don’t tell him. Please,” pleaded Rende.
Mira shook her head, but she knew that because Makim had been the only one to hear, he was Rende’s love. Not that the man in front of her would ever do anything about it.
Makim splashed toward them, the crystalline blue water spraying up around his moving body. “What’s happened?” he cried. He knew what the cry meant, but he was going to ignore it. Rende was a friend, one that he held above all others, but that was it.
“She got caught by the bush,” Rende explained, ignoring what had just happened as well.
Mira didn’t move, she just watched them.
Makim went around to where Mira stood and then, reaching around her, he placed his hands near her arm. “When I say move, pull your arm back.”
Rende had moved and placed his hands near Makim. He nodded. The two Gelflings had been together so long that there was no need for them to talk.
“Move,” Makim said.
Mira pulled her hand back as Rende placed his arm in the thorns’ way and Makim grabbed the branches trying to keep them away.
Mira held her injured arm to her chest, feeling Makim’s muscles play along her back as he struggled with the bush. With every flex and shift she felt a deep sense of belonging. This was her Gelfling. But then what of Rende?
That had been well over a season ago and since then Mira and Rende had become close. After all he had been willing to take damage that her own carelessness had caused. She had found that although her love and lust for Makim accelerated, her friendship with Rende had grown. He was the sister she had never had. She knew they made an odd trio and she also knew that it made the council hold back from listening to Makim. She understood, no one liked difference.
Nearing the two Gelflings on the walkway she noted Makim’s smile and Rende’s longing as he gazed at his friend. Soon she would have to organise the two, but until she came of age she had some time.
“Makim, how are you?”
“I am good. Mira?”
She smiled and nodded, meeting Rende’s eyes. He met hers and she saw a sadness that a few weeks ago hadn’t been present.
“Is Gyr here?” Makim asked.
“No, he was meant to have been here a while back, but there has been no word.”
Makim growled in the back of his throat.
“We have a bad feeling,” Rende said.
Mira looked out over the village. “Everything seems a little subdued, but no one has said they are worried.”
“They wouldn’t,” Makim said. “Just like Gelflings, to bury their heads in the trees and ignore any problem.”
“It’s not always like that,” Rende said.
Mira gave a small smile and Makim made a rude noise in the back of his throat.
“Okay, maybe it is. But what could have gone wrong?”
The two males looked at each other.
“Why don’t we go see?” Mira asked.
“What do you mean?” Rende asked and Makim noticed he was rubbing his hands together. It was something he did when nervous. Makim looked away. He noticed things like that about Rende. He wished he didn’t, because the only Gelfling that made his blood sing was Mira. He wished for his friend’s sake that it were him. Except he couldn’t think of not having Rende as a friend. When he asked Mira to be his, he would have to break ties with Rende. And he wasn’t sure he could. Makim looked out over the village and wished he could keep both.
“Okay, let’s go out to the Crystal Palace.”
Mira turned to go and as she did a branch above them let go of its leaves and they fell around her like coloured paper. Makim thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Rende on the other hand watched with dismay and Mira echoed his expression.
“Something is really wrong,” Mira said.
“I’ve never known the trees shed their leaves,” Rende said.
All three Gelflings looked up. The tree looked fine and Mira was about to sigh with relief when one lone leaf floated toward them. Makim caught it and as he did it fell to ash at his touch.
“We need to get to the Palace now,” he said.