The Golden Tears
by Neil Armstrong
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Jacob lay in bed. In his mother’s words the week-long suspension would ‘give him time to reflect’. He was doing that in a way, desperately trying to piece together the events of the last few days. But it felt like an impossible jigsaw, an occasional flash of something that seemed to fit but then it was gone.
And there was something else that was nagging away at him. The power which had drained away after felling Parker. Could he get it back? And for longer?
He lay low for the first day and got himself back to what felt like his normal strength. Then he busied himself with the list of jobs his mother had left him. But on the third day, he watched her disappear down the road to work and then set out for the Deeps.
Jacob retraced his steps to the basin of the crater but could see no obvious way down. He couldn’t remember how he had got out, and his previous entrance had been at the end of a free fall plunge. He thought back to how the ground had seemed to open up. Like the eye.
There was a sudden rushing sound as the stones around him started to dance and spin. To his horror he felt his feet start to sink through the ground. He flailed his arms and tried to pull himself out. But the gravel whirlpool span ever faster, sucking him down, up to his waist, then his chest. He opened his mouth to cry out, but dozens of tiny stones flew into his mouth, drawing blood. I’m going to die here, he thought.
Suddenly Jacob’s feet hit a solid surface. He was in the tunnel again. He breathed a deep sigh of relief and then set off at a run. When he reached the chamber the eye was open. He walked slowly towards it.
Crunch. He looked down. Small white bones littered the floor. Rats maybe? And some larger ones. He thought of the dying sheep and hesitated. Then he heard the voice.
‘It can be yours. The power you felt. I can give you more.’
Jacob remembered that surge of energy, feeling as if he was flying and Parker collapsing to the ground. His skin tingled with anticipation.
‘Give it to me,’ Jacob pleaded.
‘I need fresh bodies.’
Jacob looked down at the animal bones, swallowed and then nodded.
‘No, not those puny creatures. If I am to be free and take my revenge on Ida’s kin, I need human blood.’
‘No time for that now.’ The voice was urgent. ‘Come to me and I can grant you the power again.’
Jacob dropped to his knees, as if in prayer, and drank greedily when the liquid flowed into his cupped hands.
Jacob burst out of the ground and into the daylight. He felt like he could take on the whole world. Then he heard the voice echoing in his head, telling him to hurry. Was he supposed to kill for this creature? The power coursing in his veins reminded him of the payoff from this deal.
Then another voice cut in. ‘Oh dear, oh dear. The lucky little rat doesn’t show much brains when it comes to picking hiding places, does he?’
Jacob spun around. Daniel Parker was striding towards him, his swollen face glowing with hatred. He was swinging a length of heavy chain.
‘Gonna cave your head in this time. Your own mother won’t recognise you... at your funeral.’ His face contorted into a grin that was missing several teeth. And then he charged.
It all happened in a matter of seconds. But to Jacob it felt like hours. He saw every lumbering footfall and the rattling crash of the stone chips that seemed to arc lazily from Parker’s shoes. The chain was whirling above his attacker’s head like a rotor blade, but Jacob could see the individual links that vibrated in the air as it hummed towards him.
He stepped to one side, grabbed the chain and reeled Parker in like a monstrous yo-yo. He spun him up in the air and let him crash to the ground, one leg underneath him. There was a sickening crack like a pistol shot as a bone snapped.
Parker screamed as white-hot pain ran through his body. Jacob’s blood was up and he raised the chain, ready to bring it down.
‘No. I want him fresh.’ The voice in his head. Eager.
Jacob dropped the chain and stepped back.
Parker’s eyes bulged as the stones beneath him began to move. He struggled, cursed, cried and then pleaded. But Jacob stood, his face a blank canvas, as he watched Parker, bloody fingers clawing helplessly at the air, disappear from view. And then the shock hit him. Trembling and crying, he dropped to his knees and rocked himself back and forth on the stony ground.
The Battle of Corbridge
Extract from intercepted despatch from Sir Marmaduke Langdale, commander of the Northern Horse to the Marquis of Newcastle, Commander-in-chief of the Royalist counties in northern England, March 1644.
Your dispatch of 1 March requested me to enter into further discourse about the events following the victory sustained for his Majesty at the battle at Corbridge over the Scottish Covenanter cavalry.
Your particular interest was in the conduct of the Northern Horse in pursuit of the routed enemy. I was concerned to hear talk of those men having done great harm to his Majesty’s cause by vile ignorance of their proper duty.
Having engaged the enemy with twenty-five troops of horse, I was left at the end of the day in full command of the field. The engagement was hard-fought and many of the enemy withdrew under cover of night.
Having troubled the retreating enemy to the best of our wills, all but one of my troops returned. I fear that your Lordship’s trust has been disturbed by the rumours concerning the loss of Captain Harris’s troop.
To the best of my knowledge, Captain Harris found a large contingent of enemy camped in undulating and stony ground west of the battlefield. Seeing a significant quantity of smoke he believed that the enemy had given away caution and had set fires for warmth and protection. They encircled the area and attacked.
Only one survivor, Captain Harris himself, returned to me. He claimed that he had not found the enemy but that his troop had been assailed by some ungodly force which had lain hidden and caused some disturbance of the very rocks of the earth.
He also reported that some were driven to such terror that they fell upon each other. He was tried by a court-martial the next day for delinquency in the carrying out of his duty. I fear that in his desperation he invented the wild tale told to the court martial and that he repeated this before his hanging.
I have done my utmost to stop these tales and have let it be known that any man found repeating Harris’ claims shall be made to run the gauntlet before his own troop.
The Fever Breaks
Jacob sat bolt upright in bed. His skin felt like hot metal. He freed himself from the tangle of sodden sheets and fell on all fours to the carpet, breathing hard.
An image of a breastplated soldier stumbling through a tunnel swam before him. He imagined the man’s stuttering steps echoing underground and the screams of his dying comrades. But all he heard, like a mismatched soundtrack, was the whispering voice of the eye. It said one word over and over: Ida.
‘Oh, Jacob thank goodness you’re awake, we’ve been so worried.’ His mother had burst in through the bedroom door. ‘You’re still burning up. Let’s get you comfy somewhere while I change that bed.’
Jacob perched numbly on a chair while his mother bustled around, a hive of maternal concern. He only caught odd snatches of what she was saying, ‘Came home and found you on the floor... Dr. Bennett’s been out twice... Danny’s been here... Two days you’ve been like it... And that Lizzie is so kind she sat with you when I went shopping, said you were talking about all sorts.... Saw her just now, near the Deeps.’
His mother was still there, but now her voice was like the drone of a distant insect. Then he heard another voice. Fresh bodies. He felt a tingling in his limbs and his head suddenly cleared. He felt the power come back. But what did that mean? Had it fed on Parker? Was this his reward for delivering a living victim? Human blood. Then his mother’s words came back to him. Two days. Talking. Lizzie. The Deeps. Lizzie.
‘Jacob, what is it?’
He opened his mouth. Then stopped. Thinking quickly, he ran to the bathroom and closed the door. He knelt down and jammed his fingers into this throat. He let out a string of dry retches that echoed around the room.
‘Oh Jac. Stay there. I’ll call the surgery, they said to let them know if there was any change.’
He heard his mother’s footsteps crashing down the stairs. There wasn’t much time. He sprinted back to his room, grabbed a pile of clothes from the floor and then leapt out of the open window. He landed with an easy catlike grace and darted out of sight behind the hedgerow that bordered the driveway. He dressed quickly and then sprinted down the road.
Jacob’s feet hammered on the tarmac but he barely heard them above the pounding of his heart. He reached the tree at the top of the slope and ground to a halt with a gasp as he saw a familiar bag swinging from a low branch. He launched himself down.
When Jacob reached the bottom he heard the voice.
‘Come to me.’ A low malevolent tone. But it was faint as though he were eavesdropping.
He glanced down and saw something white. A trainer, half-buried in the stony ground.
‘Yes, that’s it, my beauty. Almost there.’
Jacob felt a rage welling up deep within him, like a volcano about to erupt. He let out a wild roar and threw himself down, burrowing into the ground in a careless frenzy.
Ida’s Victory: Kingdom of Bernicia, Northern England, A.D. 550
The very ground on which Ida stood seemed to be on fire. Black smoke belched into the sky.
The pursuit had lasted three days and he was exhausted. He dropped to his haunches, hands resting on the pommel of the huge sword that was thrust into the earth in front of him. He could easily have fallen to the ground and slept here. But he had to keep going. How many men had fallen? Thirty, forty? Each of their anguished screams seemed to stab into his head like a spear thrust. Their sacrifice must not be in vain.
‘My lord.’ A young warrior had scrambled up the slope to where Ida stood.
‘We have found it.’
A grim fire burned in Ida’s eyes. ‘Then let us finish it.’
Ida’s men had encircled the crater. The dragon’s body had been pierced by dozens of arrowheads and spears, its wings shredded by a hundred sword strokes. Through the smoke Ida saw more bodies. A cornered beast was often the most dangerous.
Ignoring the shouts of concern from his men, Ida strode down the stony bank towards the dragon. As he approached, its one remaining eye turned balefully towards him.
‘Your reign of terror is over. You have slain my people for the last time.’
‘Ida.’ Its voice was weak, but cajoling. ‘My power could be added to yours. Would a great ruler such as you destroy the wisdom of the ages?’
‘I do not covet the power of an ancient evil such as you.’ He lifted the massive sword and strode up to the creature.
‘No, Ida.’ A desperate tone, tinged with fear.
It closed its eye and mouth and made a strange choking sound. Ida paused. Was the creature about to breathe its last?
He realised just in time what was happening and jumped to one side as a jet of golden flame burst from the dragon. Ida yelled with rage and plunged the blade upwards into the roof of the creature’s mouth. A sickening primeval scream rent the air.
Ida staggered back. He still held his sword and, oblivious to the smoke and fire enveloping him, thrust it down this time into the throat of the murderous creature until he had driven its hilt deep through its neck and into the ground below.
Ida released his grip and staggered back up the slope, barely aware of the ragged cheers bursting from his exhausted men.
When his men returned the next day, the ground appeared to have swallowed the creature up. To them it was dead and buried.
Jacob reached the chamber and then stopped dead at the ghastly sight in front of him.
Elizabeth was walking slowly toward the eye. She seemed to feel nothing as her feet, one unshod, crunched on the bones and then stepped over the twisted frame of what had once been Daniel Parker.
The eye was wide open, glowing brightly. And a large crack had opened in the rock. Big enough for someone to climb into. There were jagged points top and bottom that looked almost like teeth.
‘Come on, I need you.’ A deep, almost seductive tone.
‘Lizzie, no. It’s his mouth. No.’
There was a long, loathsome chuckle. Elizabeth continued her slow, lopsided progress.
‘Oh, Jacob. I don’t intend to eat her. Yet. I have a little task for her to perform. All these ages trying to rebuild my strength and I have eaten far too little. But let me show you what has really held me back.’
There was a terrifying crack and the rock face opened still further. Dust and stones rained down from the ceiling.
Jacob leapt forward and planted himself in front of Elizabeth. She stopped, staring ahead with unfocused eyes.
‘I don’t think she was quite ready to see all of this. Perhaps you will help me now that something of me flows in your veins?’
Jacob stared into the terrible jagged chasm of the dragon’s mouth and saw the sword hilt projecting from the rock.
‘Yes, Jacob. Ida’s cursed blade. Flamebearer they called it. That is what has kept me here. Pull it out, Jacob and join me. You have had only the smallest taste of my powers.’
Jacob felt himself being dragged forward.
Jacob stepped into the mouth, clasped both hands around the hilt and began to pull. ‘Yes. Yes.’ He heard triumph in the voice. His hands felt welded to the sword. His veins pounded with the power of the dragon’s tears. ‘Do it, Jacob.’
‘Jacob? What’s happening? Where am I?’
He snapped his head around and saw Elizabeth, stumbling backwards, hands to her mouth. She tumbled to the floor over the corpse of Parker and let out a dull, confused cry.
There was a sudden surge in Jacob’s arms and he tore the sword loose, stumbling backwards out of the mouth and into the cavern.
‘Free at last. I must thank you, Jacob. I shall be in your debt... for what remains of your life.’ The voice soared and the whole chamber shook.
There was a strange choking sound that Jacob thought at first was a laugh. But then something flashed across his mind. He saw a warrior, advancing with sword drawn. Was this a vision? No, a memory: the dragon was sharing more than his power. Jacob saw the warrior leap to one side. He did the same. The fiery blast rushed by him with the force of a juggernaut.
Jacob yelled. And thrust the sword into the eye with as much strength as he could muster.
An agonised roar burst around the cavern and inside his head. He pushed and pushed until the sword had disappeared and his arms were immersed in the thick bloody jelly which was all that remained of the dragon’s eye.
Another flame erupted all around them and then the world went black.
After the Fire
Jacob felt something like a soft persistent breeze caressing his cheek. Now it touched his forehead and then his body. Something seemed to be lifting him. Am I dead? he thought. Then his feet touched the ground and he staggered as pain tore through his body. But something held him up.
He opened his eyes slowly. And he was staring straight into the deep brown of Elizabeth’s own. Her face was grime-streaked and blood flowed from a cut above her eye. In that instant she looked beautiful. She had pulled him up from where he had been lying, half-buried in the stony ground. He smiled weakly.
They embraced each other. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to do and they took strength from it.
The sky was clearer and a pale sun tried to warm the two children as they struggled up the slope, hand in hand and away from the final resting place of the last dragon.
Copyright © 2013 by Neil Armstrong