The Aterland Chronicles

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Chapter 21: OGIN’S DEEP

Rose, Ash and Elder were the last of the group to reach the summit of the hill, known to the Ferrish as ‘Flat Top.’ The peak rose from the flatlands as if some immense giant had upturned their empty cup, setting it down by the side of Ogin’s Deep until nature had claimed it, cloaking it with earth and moss. The vast expanse of brackish water, known as Ogin’s Deep, had long been the focus of much Ferrish superstition. The Mud’s believed it to be a place of great evil, the realm of water wraiths, Knuckers and Fae, all of them intent on dragging unsuspecting mortals deep into its bottomless depths.

Vega’s wagon and the majority of the Twocasts were well ahead and had begun making their way down into the valley. They had been travelling all night. Initially, Rose thought that Elder was coping well with the journey, considering her age, but now that they were within a few miles of their destination, it was becoming apparent that the old woman was beginning to struggle.

“Here,” she said, offering her hand.

Elder hesitated, staring at Rose’s outstretched hand as if it were a poisoned chalice.

“Elder please, there is no shame in borrowing strength from younger limbs. We need to move faster, and we will not leave you behind.”

Relenting with a sigh, Elder took her hand. Rose cast a glance towards Ash, who instantly caught her meaning and lent his support. With their help, Elder took the last few steps to the summit.

Linden, Auriel, Lee, and Ro-eh-na were waiting, a few feet ahead of them. Ro-eh-na, still in the form of a large white leopard, had doggedly stayed within a few feet of Rose during the entire journey. A silent, white shadow, the big cat tracked Rose’s every move, and it had begun to irk her somewhat.

Surveying the summit, Rose could see how the hill had got its name. The top truly was flat, and this allowed them to see for miles in every direction. Stretched out to the North was the vast expanse of dark water known as Ogin’s Deep. The moonlight glinted off its black surface, scattering shards of light over towards its northeast edge and silhouetting the snow-tipped trees, marking the southeastern boundary of the Winter Forest. The North wind whipped through the air, scalding her cheeks and driving specks of frozen rain into her skin like icy needles.

“We should just make it before dawn,” she said, almost to herself, “are you alright to go on now Elder, or do you need to rest a while?”

She glanced down at the old woman’s feet; bare, cut, bruised, and blue with cold.

“You need not trouble yourself with me,” Elder spoke sharply. Then, shaking her head wearily, she softened her tone. “No, thank you, Rose. We need to get everyone beneath the cover of the trees before sunrise. I’ll rest when my people are safe.”

“I fear that time has passed, Dawn is breaking as we speak.” Linden’s gaze rested above their heads and out towards the distant horizon.

The sky glowed golden, awash with light and shimmering hues of crimson and orange.

Elder swung around, teetering momentarily, as she steadied herself, hands tightly gripping her staff.

“That is no sunrise,” her voice was small and tight.

Elder had spoken the words so quietly that Rose could barely distinguish them from the wind whistling eerily around them.

“Unless our sun decided it needed a change and so would rise in the south this day,” Something flickered behind Elder’s limpid violet eyes.

Rose recognised that look. It was the expression that had lit her own eyes when El-on-ah had taken Arjan from her. It was grief. Rose followed Elder’s doleful gaze, squinting towards the horizon. Immediately she grasped the reason behind Elder’s melancholia.

“It’s the Afreet, isn’t it?” she said, “They’re burning the Ebony Forest, they must believe we are still there.”

“Aye, it seems that we owe you another debt, my dear. If you had not been so insistent that we left immediately after the festival...” Her voice trailed off as she stole a pensive glance towards the glowing horizon. “Let us hope that they do not search the ashes too vigilantly.”

Rose bit down hard on her lip as she regarded the flaming southern skyline. What must it be like to live a thousand years in one place? To grow to love and lead the people, to witness the birth and death of generation after generation. How can anyone cope with that volume of loss, over and over again, and now, to lose the only home you have ever known and yet still have hope... These people have an incredible leader, and it’s not me.

“They would be foolish not to investigate thoroughly,” Rose placed her hand over Elders bony fingers, squeezing them gently, “and I don’t believe Lord Ka is stupid. He will expect them to bring back proof of our demise. So we have only hours before they discover that we escaped their attack. We need to move more quickly now if we are to keep your people safe.”

The large white leopard padded silently over towards her, burying its muzzle in Rose’s palm. Glancing down into Ro-eh-na’s large feline eyes Rose heard the Blood’s thoughts as clearly as if she had spoken them. It always unnerved her how some metamorphs were able to communicate so effortlessly through thought.

“Elder,” Rose’s eyes flicked up to meet the old woman’s, “Ro-eh-na, asks that you would grant her the honour of carrying you to the Winter Forest.”

Elder’s jaw momentarily tightened, but her brief expression of stubborn willfulness was quickly replaced with one of stoic acceptance.

“Aye,” she said with a sigh, “so long as Ro-eh-na accepts that we will remain at the rear of the convoy. I will have none of my people come after me. They should see that I do not value myself over them.”

“My dear Elder,” Rose was rapidly warming to this prickly old woman. “If they have not yet learned that, then they never will. Come, we must be on our way.”

Without notice, and ignoring her protests Commander Linden lifted Elder effortlessly into his arms and placed her gently on the leopard’s back.

The seven of them made their way rapidly down the hillside towards Vega’s Wagon. Ahead of them, the procession of Twocasts was fast disappearing behind a curtain of heavy snow and frozen rain, as they trudged along the dirt road towards Winter Forest.

They reached the edge of the Forest a few hours later, just as dawn was breaking and the blizzard had begun to ease. Towards the east, the distant Ice Mountains changed with every passing minute. Magnificent, glistening shards of morning sunlight rose from behind them, like a flaming crown, each fiery ray splashing garlands of crimson and gold along the jagged horizon. Under its dazzling light, even Ogin’s Deep appeared welcoming, it’s cold blackness warmed by glimmers of amber, gleaming like flecks of quartz in polished black marble.

The road into the forest once blanketed in freshly fallen snow, now lay strewn with the evidence of their passing. The heavily laden cart and hundreds of tired feet had left a trail that could have been followed by a blind man. As the last of the procession disappeared under cover of the trees, Rose stood at the edge of the thicket and gazed back at the muddy trail, which extended out from Flat Top like a giant black finger signposting their location.

“Hmm,” said Ash, cupping his chin in his hand, “don’t you think maybe that’s a little too subtle... There is a tiny chance that the Afreet could miss it. Why don’t we just erect a giant sign that says Rose and the resistance this way?”

A loud screech from above startled them all; their eyes darted upwards. In unison, they followed the swooping flight of a snow owl as it barked its alarm call out into the frosty morning air.

“We could,” said Elder smiling, “but I may have a somewhat more acceptable solution...”

Raising her staff in the air, she pointed the green crystal hilt out towards the road.

nix ictu iter tegere,” She cast the incantation with the easy self-assurance of a Magister.

Rose watched as the large uncut crystal glowed, pulsating briefly before emitting a thin stream of emerald light that snaked out towards the road, zigzagging across the fields on either side of the trail, darting over their tracks and whipping the snow up into the air. It hung there fleetingly for a second, like a moth-eaten curtain, before falling onto the road and blanketing it with a thick layer of white.

She may not be an Ascendant in the real sense of the word, thought Rose, but she cast that spell like an expert.

Ash grinned at Lee whose mouth gaped open like a hungry hatchling. Raising an eyebrow, Lee turned a questioning eye towards Elder.

“It’s not just ascendants who can learn to control the elements,” She smiled wryly.

Yes, but who had been there to teach her? The more Rose discovered about Elder, the more of a mystery the woman became.

They made camp on the north-west side of the forest where the brittle, frosted trees spread out in a line that followed the slope of the land, descending almost to the edge of Ogin’s Deep. With their gnarled branches silhouetted against the morning sunlight, they looked like a line of old men who, in preparing to take a dip in the icy black water, had been twisted and frozen in their tracks by a sudden ice storm.

The morning sun warmed the frosted branches causing the frozen snow to melt and steam, spawning a hazy fog that wafted up in delicate wisps, shimmering in the sunlight like spun silver. The children who had slept, blissfully unaware of the trials of the journey, were now awake, and their giggles and easy laughter filled the air, mingling with the rhythmic sound of the men chopping wood and the clatter of the women folk unpacking equipment and preparing breakfast.

Rose was aware of this hive of activity though she listened with an air of detachment. Having slipped away from the campsite, she sat silently on the trunk of a fallen tree and looked out over Ogin’s Deep.

Rose desperately needed to sleep and yet her mind would not settle and soon filled with anxious thoughts of Ka and the Djinn, and of the battle ahead. Her feet ached so much that the urge to plunge them into the freezing water, just to numb their pain, was almost irresistible. As if sensing her thoughts, a sea hawk’s cry pierced the air as it plunged like an arrow into the water, barely making a splash. A series of ripples spread out across the otherwise flat expanse of water. Every act has its ripples. She recalled Arjan’s fatal expression as he left her, a final portrait of all of his pain, anguish, and sorrow. Yet no regret. Why no regret? It had always puzzled her.

The hawk emerged from the waters depths, its enormous wings straining to drag its sodden, feathered body into the air, a giant writhing silver fish clasped in its talons. The struggle was a short one. Once clear of the pull of the water the bird soared effortlessly into the sky. It flew out towards the eastern mountains, it’s wings tipped with golden light. Rose tracked the path of its flight, lifting her hand to shade her eyes from the glare of the sun, now balanced precariously on the summit of the mountain like a giant golden egg.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” Ash wrenched his eyes from her melancholy face and followed her gaze.

Rose hadn’t heard him approach. She felt briefly irritated by his intrusion, but she could not stay angry at Ash for long, few people could, not even Lee.

“I had hoped for a little time alone,” Her tone barely hinted at her exasperation. “Ro-eh-na has not left my side for a second since we left. I needed some time to think.”

“Why yes Ash, you are right, the sunrise is truly breath-taking…” Ash said sarcastically. He waved a hand towards the glowing horizon before moving it over his heart and continuing breathlessly. “I am so glad that you are here with me to share this moment; you are indeed a truly exceptional…”

Rose could not avert the smile that sprung to her lips as she turned to look at him. Ash’s expression was pretty much as she expected. His lopsided grin and gently mocking green eyes glinted with mischief and warmth. He could always be relied on to cheer her up no matter how bad things got.

“I’m sorry,” she said, feeling ashamed. Why do I always take everything out on him?

Her eyes stung as she looked back at the panoramic view of the Ice Mountains, glowing golden in the sunlight.

“You’re right Ash, it is beautiful, breathtaking in fact, but we can’t stay here, we need to leave. Every moment we spend with these people puts them at risk. They’ll be safer without us. I don’t want to be responsible for any more deaths.”

Unconsciously she fingered Arjan’s apis pin.

Ash frowned, his green eyes narrowing as his smile dissolved. Rose saw the compassion and uncertainty on his face, and she knew what he was going to say even before he spoke the words. It was a lie she had told herself over and over again.

“Rose, you are not responsible for any deaths,” tentatively, he reached out and took her arm. “Arjan chose his fate, it was a noble and brave choice, and you should not take that away from him. What Elder said earlier is right. If you had not pushed us, we would all have died today. Today you have saved lives Rose, hundreds of lives. If you have to dwell on anything, dwell on that.”

“Fine, maybe you and Elder are right,” she groaned, unable to shake the image of Arjan from her mind. “But that does not alter the fact that every second we spend here we endanger those very same lives. I don’t think that we can afford to wait, even for nightfall. We should go now. I’ve been thinking, and I have a plan. We can travel by daylight if we follow the edge of Ogin’s Deep it’s in a natural basin, and that will provide cover for us, see…”

She traced her outstretched finger in the air following along the ridge overhanging the shoreline.

Feeling the excitement build inside her, Rose’s words came quickly as the germs of an idea solidified into a cohesive plan in her mind.

“See how the salt water, pebbles, and sand have caused the snow to melt along the shoreline,” she continued eagerly, “it means that we won’t even have to worry about leaving tracks.”

“Rose, it’s not that I don’t see the sense in what you are saying,” Ash looked away from her instantly reproachful eyes. Then, after a moment’s hesitation he turned to confront her, determinately taking her face into his hands, forcing her to look at him, their noses almost touching, “but look at you, Rose, you are exhausted. We are all exhausted. At the very least you need to allow everyone time to eat and sleep before asking more of them because if you ask more of them, Rose, then they will readily respond and I honestly believe that would be a mistake. If we are to attempt to cross Ogin’s Deep into Rhodium, then we need to be rested. It is not an easy route.”

Rose tried to make a serious consideration his words, but her mind was in a whirl. Ash had moved so close that she could feel his breath on her skin and all she seemed able to focus on was the colour of his eyes. She had never noticed before how green they were, a thick carpet of emerald moss littered with golden leaves.

“Rose, are you listening to me?” Ash’s tilted, mocking smile returned, “Rose, your eyes are open but are you by any chance... sleeping?”

“No, no I was just thinking…” Rose blinked out of her reverie, “that you’re right. Obviously, I must be pretty exhausted, I can’t even think straight.”

“Then allow me to escort you back,”

She sensed Ash’s relief as he leant back and offered her his bended elbow. Hesitantly she took his arm.

“Lee and Auriel are cooking up a fyre-pot,” he said, grinning, “and when you’ve eaten and rested your thoughts will be much clearer, you’ll see. A few hours rest won’t hurt Rose.”

Maybe, she thought, feeling a pang of hunger as she caught the delicious aroma of hot food as they approached the campsite.

“Eggs and bacon?” Ash said as Rose pronounced, “Waffles!”

Then together, “Fyre-pot!”

“Hey, you two,” Auriel ran to greet them. “Lee and I made a Fyre-pot, and none of the Twocasts have ever tasted anything like it before... They’re going crazy!”

Rose wondered what the fyre-pot must taste like to them. The dish is enchanted so that it tastes of whatever you crave the most. The Twocasts had tasted few delicacies, how could they imagine the taste of ice cream, or chocolate, or venison in red wine. Though if they had ever tasted something delicious, then it is not surprising that they were acting as if it were Beltane all over again.

As Rose reached the campsite, the carnival atmosphere cheered her immediately. The Twocasts gathered around a large campfire at the centre of the clearing. There was the usual cacophony of sound she had come to expect from Twocast gatherings. Two young men sat on logs strumming their lutes and singing while others played jigs on their fiddles as the children danced. Most sat cross-legged on blankets and fleeces laid out on the frozen ground, their hands cupped around large bowls of fyre-pot stew. The steaming, pink mixture deposited a mist of tiny droplets on their faces giving them a rosy, dewy glow. Rose smiled at the ecstasy in their expressions. This is how magic should be used, not to harm, not to kill.

Lee stood behind an enormous copper cauldron, which bubbled over a small, smouldering fire at the front of Vega’s wagon. He waved a large ladle at them as they approached and then spooned the remains of the stew into two small bowls.

“Where have you been?” Lee shook his head with a theatrical sigh. “Everyone is waiting for you inside. Here, you had better take these with you. I cannot believe that you picked this time to disappear.”

Ash grinned mischievously. He took the bowls from Lee and handed one to Rose with a conspiratorial wink.

“Oh… you know how it is, we had important things to discuss,” he said. “Some of us are born to assist in the planning next of the next, vital and very dangerous mission, whereas others it seems, are more suited, to… cooking stew.”

Lee’s expression gave little away, his emotions, as always, kept tightly under his control. Sloley, on the other hand, was much more vocal. Perched, as was usual on Lee’s shoulder, the loris let out a series of clicks and squeaks, epitomising exactly how irritated Lee obviously felt.

If ever I need insight into Lee’s feelings, thought Rose, all I have to do is watch Sloley.

“You do realise,” Lee brows arched, though the movement was so slight, it was barely distinguishable, “If I were to add just one further ingredient to your bowl, I could render you completely silent for the next month at least. The more you talk, the more appealing that seems. So, keep it up why don’t you.”

“You do realise,” Ash, smirked good-humouredly, “that if ever you did manage to render me speechless, then I’d transform into a tiny apis and buzz so loudly inside your ear that you’d be begging for mercy within minutes. So knock yourself out why don’t you…”

“Ye have nay time for socialising,” Vega’s head emerged from behind the wagon’s canopy.

“We’ve been waiting for ya for a while now and some in ’ere are growing impatient.”

“We’ll be right there,” said Rose, shaking her head and glancing from Ash to Lee. They were incorrigible. Listening to them anyone would think that they hated each other. How can a great wizard like Eldwyn put so much trust in the four of us, when in so many ways we are still children?

The wagon was more crowded than Rose had expected. Although it now held a similar number of people as earlier, when they travelled into the Ebony forest, previously, it had not contained Commander Linden. His large frame barely squeezed into a seat made for two. Elder and Lord Alder stood at the back while everyone else remained seated. Tarik, Marshal Shadbush, Hazel and Lord Elm sat on the right and to the left sat Commander Linden and Ro-eh-na,

“Ah, good you are here,” said Elder “take a seat, and we will get started. Alder and I have been discussing our plans, in the light of the Afreet’s recent attack on the Ebony Forest.”

Rose sat down next to Ro-eh-na, the others somehow, managing to squash in next to Commander Linden. Ash lowered himself into his seat. Hesitating, he looked longingly at the bowl of steaming stew in his hand. After glancing around, he lifted the bowl to his mouth and took a hasty gulp of the thick, pink coloured concoction.

Rose pressed her lips together stifling a smile as she watched the look of rapture spread across his face, now embellished by a bright pink ring about his mouth. The pink lipstick should have made him look ridiculous, but instead, it only seemed to emphasise the masculinity of his features and his sharply chiselled jaw line. Rose placed her bowl on the floor under her seat.

“Alder and I think that it would be better if your group left sooner rather than later,” Elder got straight to the point. “Once the Afreet realise that we have left the forest they will come after us. We cannot risk them discovering you, and you will all travel much faster unencumbered by a large group, especially when it contains so many who are old and infirm, and so many children. A large group such as ours will be much easier to spot from the air, whereas the six of you on foot should be better able to avoid detection.”

“I agree,” Rose said, relieved that she did not need to convince them of her plan to depart sooner. “You should travel only at night until you are well into Rhodium. I doubt that they will look for us this far north, but it would be prudent to lay low during daylight hours and stay hidden beneath the tree canopy. We, on the other hand, must get going as soon as we can. I have a way to keep us out of sight while we travel.”

She hesitated as she grasped the unspoken question that flickered in Linden’s eyes.

“We can use the lip of the basin around Ogin’s Deep for cover. It has quite a wide overhang, which should make it possible for us to journey by day,” Rose hesitated, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. Maybe I should have consulted him before presenting it to everyone else? “What do you think Commander?”

“The plan has merit,” Linden nodded thoughtfully, seemingly content with her albeit belated, recognition of his expert military opinion. “However, if they do decide to search to the North, then travelling by daylight will make us very vulnerable. Though I agree it is unlikely the Afreet will look towards Rhodium initially, so the quicker we leave Ferrum, the less chance of them discovering us.”

“My reasoning exactly,” Rose twisted her potens ring around on her finger.

She had expected protests to come flooding from this sea of exhausted faces, but there were none. Rose looked at each of their tired, gaunt faces and realised that Ash had been right, and so she made another unilateral decision.

“However, Ash has convinced me that we could all benefit from a couple of hours sleep, so I suggest that we leave around noon. With this short delay, we should still aim to arrive at the Kelpidale landing before dawn tomorrow. It will be safer to cross Ogin’s Deep before the sun is up. Does anyone object to any of this?”

Ash gulped down the last of his stew and bought his sleeve across his face in an unsuccessful attempt to remove the pink stain from his lips. Clearing his throat, he tentatively raised his hand. Rose sensed his nervousness.

Ash was always willing to act the fool, it was part of his charm, but few people took him seriously because of it. Rose knew him better than that; Ash used his wit like armour. If no one takes you seriously, then no one judges you. Acting the fool is one thing, being judged a fool is another.

“I don’t have an objection,” Ash hesitated, “I have a suggestion.”

“Go on,” Elder gestured for him to continue.

“I think I could save us time if I travelled ahead, on the wing,” said Ash. “I can be in Kelpiedale within a few hours. Then I’d have plenty of time to arrange for some transport across the Ogin’s Deep and gather supplies. With fewer supplies to carry you would be able to travel much lighter, and faster. I can meet you at the landings with everything sorted so we’ll be able to cross as soon as you arrive. I know there would be one less to protect Rose on the journey to Kelpidale but…”

“No, that’s fine,” said Rose, “It’s an excellent idea Ash, and truthfully, I think I have enough protection.”

“Well, that’s fine for you then,” Hazel’s mouth twisted. “You make quite sure that you’re well protected won’t you, with a Mage, an Alchemist, two Metamorphs, a Memorix and the Commander of the Lignum Vitae? Who is going to be looking out for the rest of us? A handful of Memorix, a Civil Councillor, a second-rate soldier and a worthless collection of Twocasts. Hardly a match for the Afreet army are we?”

The noise of the campsite, the clanking of pots, music, and laughter faded away as her words pierced the air like a poisoned dart. The silence expanded, engulfing them like a vacuum, every sound compressed into one tiny spark, which threatened to explode at any second. Then, just as the faintest distant rumble precedes the fiercest storm, Elder’s words, when they came, seemed innocuous.

“You omitted to include me in your appraisal,” she said deliberately, “exactly where do I figure in your little hierarchy?”

Rose could sense the tension, but as she watched Lee’s eyes widen as he glanced nervously between the two women, she struggled to suppress a smile of amusement. Hazel not only appeared to be the only person unaware of the thinness of the ice on which she stood, but she also seemed quite oblivious to the consequences of recklessly skating out into the middle of it.

“It’s not my hierarchy,” Hazel lifted her chin boldly, “it is an accepted chain of command long set down by our ancestors, one that has been in existence for thousands of years and one which I am certain will reinstate when normality is restored to our world.”

Elder leant on her staff, bringing her fragile, wizened face to within inches of Hazel’s perfectly smooth, symmetrical features.

“The world of which you speak no longer exists,” Elder murmured, “there is no longer room for hierarchies or their redundant figureheads. You need to adjust to a new reality, Lady Hazel. Nature teaches us the consequences that befall all those who fail to adapt.”

The two women scowled at each other like circling cats.

“Yes, well, I for one am in no doubt that Rose’s plan is sound,” Alder cleared his throat in an attempt to disrupt the tension. Neither woman flinched. “Look, we are all of us tired and tempers are frayed. We all need some rest. As Rose suggested, she and her group can take a couple of hours sleep before leaving around noon. The rest of us will remain here until just before dusk. Then we head northeast under cover of the tree canopy. We’ll circle Ogin’s Deep and trek into Rhodium via the foothills of the Ice Mountains. Unless,” he went on, looking pointedly at Hazel, “anyone has any legitimate objections to this?” He continued immediately not allowing anyone the opportunity to answer. “Good, because none of us will survive if we do not work together, no matter whom we may be.”

Rose had watched the storm clouds gather, and the winds abate. Like many great twisters, it had left almost everyone untouched. However, Rose had little doubt that Hazel, at least, had caught a glimpse of its potentially devastating power.

Fascinated, Rose could not take her eyes from Hazel as she watched Elder leave the wagon. That perfect porcelain mask revealed little, but for the subtle twitching of one steely green eye and a tight ripple, that ran along the jaw line as perfect white teeth bit hard on her tongue.

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