CRABS IN THE NIGHT
Dressed in a silk bathrobe, Sammy shuffled back to the communal room, having spent the afternoon having her back and feet massaged. She wasn’t normally one for pampering but the servants insisted and Mehrak had been up for it, so she’d agreed. The masseuse had lit a fire in the hearth and had rubbed in oil that smelled of black fruit pastilles. The foot rub part was painful, but the back rub had been divine, and the combination of warmth and berry aroma had put her to sleep in moments.
She found Mehrak at the banquet table in the communal room.
“You look shattered,” he said. “You should get an early night and some sleep.” He didn’t look much better himself.
“I’ve already been asleep, but it’s made me feel worse, like I need to go back to bed again.”
Mehrak let out a long, shaky yawn. “Same. I don’t normally sleep during the day. I figured that’s why I feel so groggy.”
“We’re going down to the camp to see Louis later though, aren’t we?”
“Sure,” Mehrak said. He looked across at a device on the far wall. It had a couple of counter-balanced weights, like ball bearings, spinning back and forth on a vertical axis. A long pendulum-style needle hung underneath and below that was a scale. On the left of the scale was a circle, and on the right, a crescent. The needle was closer to the crescent than the circle.
“We’ve been asleep almost all day,” he said. “It’s already evening.”
“Can we still go and see Louis?”
“Of course,” Mehrak said. He groaned. “I just wish I wasn’t so tired. I can’t believe we’ve wasted most of the day. We haven’t seen anything of the palace yet. What do they put in that massage oil? I feel like I’ve been drugged.”
Back in her bedroom, Sammy towelled off the oil and put on some trousers and a fleece. She met Mehrak back in the communal room and they set off towards the palace lobby.
With the thick smell of berries gone, Sammy was beginning to feel more awake. At the large doors that led back out into the Keep, two palace guards closed off their exit.
“A thousand pardons,” one of the men said, “but may we enquire where you’re going?”
“Out,” Mehrak said, puffing out his chest.
The man looked to his friend; both were clearly embarrassed. “I’m afraid that isn’t going to be possible,” he said. “We’ve been given strict instructions not to let you leave.”
Mehrak paled. “The Regent won’t let us leave?”
“Not His Majesty,” the guard replied. “Principal Hootan.”
Mehrak turned to Sammy. “I told you we shouldn’t have picked him up. I knew there was something funny about him. Now he’s keeping us prisoner.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Sammy said.
“Mehrak!” It was Hami. He stepped down from the staircase leading to the Regent’s office and calmly walked across the lobby. When he reached them, he dismissed the guards with a nod.
“I hope you didn’t mind these gentlemen stopping you,” he said. “I asked to be informed when you were leaving so I could accompany you both to see Louis. That is, if neither of you mind. Obviously, you’re free to go whenever you like.”
“I told you,” Sammy said to Mehrak. “We don’t mind. Do we?”
Mehrak said nothing and turned away towards the door.
The three of them left the palace in silence. They walked down the mound and zigzagged their way through the lamp posts at the bottom.
Tiny beetles and multi-coloured moths circled the lamps, periodically bumping into the lights, ricocheting off and looping back round to crash again.
The Keep was quiet. The men who’d been raising water from the well had gone and the marketplace was empty when they got there. The stalls had been packed up and Sammy could see all the way into the dark far corner where Esther’s stall had been. Like everyone else, she’d gone. Unease fluttered in her stomach. When she’d said the name ‘Esther’, the woman’s reaction couldn’t have been more severe. It was not the sort of reaction you could fake.
Hami placed a hand on her back and moved her onwards, away from the market.
The Keep’s residential area was darker than it had been that morning. Porch lights had been extinguished and streetlights had been dimmed. At the edge of the city, the atmosphere was darker still, reaching its blackest by the large square windows that framed the gateway to the outside world and the Moat.
Hami led the way up the steps to the lift.
Next to the lift’s crank, two men were throwing coloured pebbles in a game that closely resembled marbles. They got up as Hami drew close and prepared to operate the mechanism.
Sammy stepped onto the lift platform and leant over the railing. The air outside was cool but fresh. She inhaled deeply while she watched the waves of rolling fog below. The drowsiness she’d experienced at the palace blew away as the air sent electricity along her synapses. She was excited, maybe even a little scared, but she felt alive. She wanted to leave the Keep, to be back in the Fungi Forest, continuing their adventure in Golden Egg Cottage. But part of her sensed something out there, waiting, a danger she could feel, but not see.
She was letting her imagination run away with her. There was nothing out there. It was the prospect of heading down into the giant rhino-patrolled wasteland that was unnerving her. She needed to relax.
Mehrak and Hami stepped onto the lift behind her. Hami gave the nod for the operators to work the lift and they went down. Mehrak stared down into the fog, his thumbs beating out a nervous rhythm on the metal. Periodically, he’d shift along the railing to get a better view of below. Not that there was anything to see, but that didn’t stop him from trying.
“Been missing Louis?” Hami asked.
Mehrak didn’t answer.
“Look,” Hami said. “I asked the guards to inform me if you were leaving because I wanted to make sure you’d both be safe.”
The remainder of the descent was a silent one, until the campfire lights shimmered into view and Mehrak became animated. “Look!” he said, pointing at a golden blur way below.
“Eggie!” Sammy called.
Proving, without a doubt, Louis’s exceptional hearing, the golden shape lurched forward and began circling around as if it were attached to a puppy chasing its tail.
Mehrak facepalmed. “I bet he’s shaken all the pots and pans from the cupboards. One of the many drawbacks of having your house on the back of an animal.”
When the lift touched down, Mehrak threw open the gate and sprinted away. Sammy followed. They ran past campfires, jumped guy ropes, and zipped in and out of the Marzban, making a beeline for Louis. Unlike the Keep, base camp was still busy. Marzban were training, tending to karkadann, and sharpening the pointy ends of their lances.
“Louis!” Mehrak called when he got in sight. Louis lowered his head and Mehrak threw his arms around the big beast’s muzzle – or as far around as he could get them. Sammy came to a stop, remembering she didn’t know Louis well enough to do the same. She stood there, awkward a moment, and then gave him a pat on the neck.
“Leiss and Borzin are on duty tonight,” Hami said when he caught up. “They’ve invited us to join them for a drink.”
Leiss and Borzin stood to greet them as they approached the campfire. There were five other Marzban in their company and they introduced themselves as Eva, Kelzar, Danush, Parang and Ali.
Mehrak and Sammy took a camp chair each. Louis lowered himself to the floor nearby while Hami excused himself.
A battered billycan bubbled over the campfire, and from the smell Sammy immediately identified the contents as chocolate. Eva got up and ladled some of the steaming brown contents into small tin cups and passed them round the circle. She smiled at Sammy.
“These boys always ask me to serve up,” she said, nodding towards the men sitting around the campfire. She was petite and feminine but athletic, and moved with the sort of confidence Steven Seagal had when he entered a bar full of criminals that he was about to beat up. “I think they like me to mother them.”
Kelzar laughed. “No, it’s because she makes it the best,” he said. “Mother us? Mothers are soft and warm; Eva’s tough as karkadann hide, with balls bigger than Leiss’s.”
“Leave it out,” Leiss said. “Eva’s warm.”
“And you’d know, would you?” Parang said. He was a scrawny, weasel-faced man with a thin, wispy beard. “The only lady in your life is Mummy, isn’t it?” He laughed.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Leiss stammered as a few of the others joined in laughing.
“It’s okay,” Eva said to him. “I can handle these chumps.” She smiled. “Thanks, though.”
Leiss blushed but smiled back.
Hami slipped back into the group and took a place next to Sammy. His eyes were watering and he was gripping his waist. He dabbed at his mouth with a black-stained cloth.
Sammy took a cup from Eva and sipped at the rich, chocolaty drink inside. It was wonderful. “This doesn’t taste like the
chocolate I get at home,” she said. “This is much darker. Where I come from, it’s sweet and milky.”
As she savoured the smooth, warm liquid, a thought occurred to her. She leant over towards Mehrak. “Doesn’t chocolate come from trees?” she whispered.
“No,” Mehrak whispered back. “Cocoa grubs.” He jiggled his cup until a lumpy, white sausage broke the surface of the liquid. It looked like the marshmallow man’s arm. Sammy shuddered and put her cup down on the floor. She wished she hadn’t asked.
“Where is it you come from?” Parang asked, as he squinted at her down his pointy nose.
Sammy stared at her tin cup and tapped at it with her foot. “Sorry?” she asked. She wanted to see if she had chocolate maggots in her drink.
“She comes from a small village, west of the Fungi Forest,” Hami said. “Isn’t that right, Sammy?” His hand had come to rest on top of hers. Sammy nodded and her face flushed.
Mehrak saw Hami’s hand move, gasped and promptly choked on his chocolate.
“What’s the name of your village?” Parang asked, sounding intrigued. “My family is from that side of Perseopia.”
Sammy glanced nervously at Hami. Hami opened his mouth to respond, but got cut short by four long horn blasts sounding out in the fog.
Borzin and Ali – the two youngest Marzban at the campfire – leapt from their seats and looked at each other in excitement. From a different direction, a second horn sounded. Four blasts again. Tin cups were lowered from mouths. Marzban who had been performing drills stopped. And the entire campsite fell silent.
A third horn sounded from another direction. Four blasts.
“They’re here already,” Hami said under his breath. He took his hand from Sammy’s and stood up.
Who was here already? No one else picked up on Hami’s comment. All eyes were on the fog, waiting for something to happen.
Then, from out of the mist, came chattering, like millions of rattlesnakes shaking their tails at once.
“There must be thousands of them!” Danush, one of the older men, said. “There has never been three alarms before.”
Then came the sound of a fourth alarm. Four blasts of a horn. That was the watershed moment. The tension shattered and the campsite went wild. Marzban ran in all directions, in and out of tents, putting on boots and fetching saddles. The portly First Chief General stumbled out of his tent in a fluster.
“Man your karkadann!” he yelled.
“Wheel out the cannons!” came the cry from another officer.
Marzban grabbed lances and swords, untied and mounted their karkadann, then thundered out of camp, spiralling the fog as the blackness enveloped them. Leiss ran to a group of karkadann tied to a post and unhitched one. Borzin went to follow, but Hami grabbed him back.
“Wait here with Sammy and Mehrak,” he said, then ran to the First Chief General.
Borzin remained where he stood, face flushed red.
Marzban wheeled out cannons on trailers from the larger tents. They hitched them to pairs of karkadann, a driver saddled up and took the reins, while a second guard manned the gun on the back. Other karkadann carried smaller cannons lashed to their flanks.
Once prepped, the beasts were driven out into the fog, hammering past like freight trains, roaring and pounding the earth as they left. Vibrations shook the billycan from the fire, sending chocolate and grubs slipping and skidding through the dirt.
High-pitched squealing and chattering cries reached base camp through the fog. The noise was getting louder. Closer.
“That’s impossible!” Kelzar shouted as he ran by. He fumbled with his lance, dropping it then picking it up again. “It sounds like they’re less than ten stadia away.”
“You’d better get a move on then, hadn’t you?” Eva said, shoving Kelzar onwards.
“Crabmen,” Mehrak said.
Sammy was getting that bad feeling in her stomach, like she’d accidentally swallowed a chocolaty maggot.
“Sammy! Mehrak!” Hami called. He slowed up as he reached them. “Get to the lift. I want you both back up in the Keep.”
“What about Louis?” Mehrak asked.
“Borzin!” Hami called to the young guard. “Take these two up to the Keep and guard them all the way to the palace. When they get there, hand them over to the palace guards. Make sure you see them into the building.”
Borzin’s mouth opened but nothing came out.
“Now!” Hami shouted, flecks of black phlegm flying from his mouth.
Borzin moved to grab Sammy and Mehrak.
“What about Louis?” Mehrak said, louder this time. Borzin took hold of his arm.
“He’ll be fine,” Hami said. “The crabmen won’t make it to base camp.”
“I’m not going.” Mehrak pulled away from Borzin. “Louis is scared. He needs me with him.”
Louis lay cowed on the floor, Golden Egg Cottage trembling on his back.
“I’m not going to ask you a second time.” Hami stepped into Mehrak’s personal space.
Mehrak was clearly intimidated, but held Hami’s gaze. “Louis is all the family I have left.”
“If you leave now,” Hami said through gritted teeth, “I’ll have Marzban assigned to him for protection. If you don’t, he’s on his own.”
Mehrak’s lip curled into a snarl. “I’ve already lost one person I care about to crabmen.”
“So make the choice.”
They held each other’s gaze a moment longer, then Mehrak turned to Louis.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
Louis lowered his head.
Mehrak placed his hand on Louis’s nose. “I have to go. It’ll be okay. I’ll be back as soon as it’s over.”
An explosion shook the ground. Karkadann roars, followed by distorted squealing, echoed through the fog. Narok thundered into the campsite riding his large, dark karkadann. The animal exhibited a savage quality that Sammy hadn’t seen before, and blue ink-like liquid drooled from its mouth.
Narok pulled the beast up in front of Hami. “Thank Ahura you’re here,” he said. He was panting and there were flecks of blue splattered over his clothes and face. “We need your help. They’re trying to force their way to the Keep.” Then he noticed Borzin. “Why aren’t you on your karkadann?”
“Principal Hootan asked me to take Mehrak and Sammy to the palace, sir,” he said, sounding like a scolded schoolboy.
“Well, you’d better do as he says, hadn’t you? When you get to city level, have all the lifts raised. Give the instruction not to lower them until the all-clear.”
Borzin stared up at the general. He looked like a child who’d been told Santa would be filling his stocking with dog turds for Christmas.
“Go!” Narok shouted.
Borzin grabbed Sammy and Mehrak by their arms and forcibly moved them through the campsite.
“You’ll be alright, Louis!” Mehrak called over his shoulder. “It’ll be over soon and we’ll be back.”
As they were rushed towards the lift, Sammy turned to see Hami make a superhuman leap into the air, perform a forward
somersault and land on the back of a karkadann. A horizontal motion in the air with his arm untethered the animal from its post and the leash whipped up to his hand. The karkadann reared up, roared, then charged out of camp, followed closely by Narok.
Borzin pushed Sammy and Mehrak onto the lift, slamming the gate behind them and clanging the railing.
The platform began its steady climb and the campsite soon vanished into the cloudy depths of the fog.
Mehrak had his eyes closed and the lift railing gripped with both hands.
The cries of battle remained constant. Even with her hands over her ears, Sammy couldn’t escape the chatter and screaming.
They were trapped, dangling in the air, crawling up the side of the rock painfully slowly, with nowhere to escape to. At any moment the crabmen would come, scaling the rock after them. She couldn’t bear it any longer. She had to get away from the noise.
Then she felt a hand take hers. Calloused and masculine, but gentle: Mehrak’s. The gesture had an instant effect on her. A calm optimism eked into her. He gave her hand a squeeze.
“It’ll be all right,” he said.
She wanted him to throw his arms around her, to pull her into him. She wanted to bury her face in his chest. But the hand-holding was enough. It worked. And despite the excruciating lift ride, they eventually made it up to Honton Keep. Mehrak had done this for her. He could’ve stayed with Louis, but he’d chosen to look after her instead.
Borzin went to get the other lifts raised. Sammy and Mehrak remained where they were, still holding hands, still looking out across the fog, while behind them a quiet Honton Keep slept, unaware of the battle raging below. The noise of war had been dampened by the mattress of fog, somehow distancing them from the reality of it.
Mehrak put his arm around Sammy’s shoulder as a light flashed in the distance. A second later, the cannon boom caught up, followed by inhuman screams.
“I should be defending my kingdom,” Borzin said when he returned. He kicked at a pebble by his feet and wandered halfway down the stairs that led into the Keep.
“Hami and Louis are going to be okay,” Sammy said. “Right?”
Mehrak didn’t appear to have heard her. He continued to stare out across the slowly undulating fog. “Hami will be fine,” he said at last. “He’s a magus. They always look out for themselves.”
“Louis will be too,” Sammy said.
Mehrak didn’t reply. He turned from the railing and walked away down the steps into the Keep.