A rain of debris clattered down. Tristan shielded his head with his arms.
He struggled to his feet and began running across the plain. He could see Temmar dismounting, and his own mount coming to a halt close by.
Expecting to see two lifeless bodies, he was stunned when, as the steam from the new geyser dissipated, the two men stepped forward, apparently unharmed. Tristan wondered how this could be, if the Thelemans had no self-repair technology. His feet still pounding, he wove a path between cauldrons of crystalline water, caves and crevices beneath their surfaces leading off in all directions, suggestive to the imagination of pathways to some mythical infernal kingdom.
As he drew closer, Tristan stopped short. He saw at once that all was not well. Temmar had been struck on the temple by flying debris, and a thin rivulet of blood was trailing over his cheek and down his neck. The drillers, meanwhile, were wandering round in a daze. Their clothes had been blasted to rags. Their faces, hands and bodies were a bright livid pink, and they were trailing wispy veils, shreds of stripped epidermis. The biochip in Tristan’s brain began to feed him a diagnosis.
At Tristan’s arrival, Temmar turned, his pain seemingly forgotten. “Tristan,” he beamed, “look! They’re all right!”
“No they’re not,” Tristan answered, his voice a forbidding growl. “They’re in trouble. Big trouble. They’re in shock, and we have to get them to the abbey or they’ll die.”
Temmar put his hands on the shoulders of the older man, and shepherded him towards Tristan’s mount.
“This is Jerrold Amstel,” said Temmar. The man’s face was a blank, his stare vacant. Tristan merely nodded, and together with Temmar he hoisted him bodily into the saddle. They then rounded up the younger man, whom Temmar identified as Wen Galfreysson, in similar fashion, and perched him on Temmar’s hippocybe.
Tristan swung himself up behind Amstel, his proficiency on a ’cybe advancing in leaps and bounds. “Let’s go!” he commanded, wheeling his beast about and spurring it forward into a gallop, at the same time grasping what remained of Amstel’s tunic to keep him from falling off.
Behind him, Temmar likewise sprang into the saddle, and soon they were speeding across the blasted volcanic plain side by side. The creek loomed, and the hippocybe jumped it effortlessly. Despite a jarring, Tristan managed this time to stay on board.
“What’s the hurry, Tristan?” Temmar shouted. “These guys don’t even seem to be in any pain.”
“They aren’t in pain,” Tristan replied, “because the top layer of their skin has been taken off, and their nerve endings have been cauterised.” He glanced across at Wen, whose startled eyes met his from amid angry raw flesh. There was no time for being diplomatic. “Basically, their bodily systems are shutting down.”
They sped on until they reached the start of the thick brush, which necessitated single file riding. Tristan led Temmar take the lead. Their gallop was reduced to a canter.
Tristan felt Jerrold’s weight fall heavily against his back. A minute later, he saw Wen slump against Temmar.
Temmar glanced back at Tristan. “What’s going on?” he called.
The medical information kept in reserve in Tristan’s biochip continued to download. “Hypovolemic shock!” he shouted.
“What’s that?” Temmar yelled back.
“It literally means the loss of fluid volume. They’re going under.” Tristan had not wanted to ask what the abbey’s emergency medical facilities were like. He had a feeling that he did not want to know.
After what seemed an age, they scrambled down the slope into the valley and pressed on towards the abbey. But they had not gone far when Temmar began to lurch forward in the saddle, and his mount’s pace faltered.
Tristan looked across. The blow to Temmar’s head had obviously been worse than he had realised. He nudged his ’cybe closer to Temmar’s, grabbed him by the arm and shook him. “Temmar, wake up!” he bellowed. “No time to go to sleep, old buddy!”
Temmar looked round, shook his head and urged his mount onwards.
Eventually, the abbey came into view, and the two men spurred their animals on to a final burst of speed. The hippocybes snorted and sweated, clattering up the path and halting before the abbey door. Their urgency had been observed from afar, and a host of eager helpers appeared at the double.
Tristan took a last look at the two engineers as their unconscious bodies were lifted down from the saddles. The redness was gone, replaced by sickly pallor. Their tissues were swelling and cutting off their blood supply.
As they were carried away to the infirmary, Tristan insisted that Temmar be taken too, pointing out the seriousness of his head injury. When they were gone, Tristan made his way to Alcofribas’ quarters to make his report.
The abbey cemetery, Tristan discovered, was in a picturesque dell on the far side of the valley. It had grown quite large over the years, with moss-covered headstones sprouting almost at random, like pale mushrooms in the long grass. Alcofribas, in his role as spiritual mentor for the abbey community, conducted the short service, and then, without further ado, the two coffins were lowered into the rich peaty soil.
Temmar, a herbal compress taped to his skull, stood by Tristan’s side, watching as tearful abbey staff began the task of refilling the graves, and then slowly the two men wended their way back to the abbey together in silent commiseration.
They were sipping koreko leaf tisane, Temmar filling Tristan in on the achievements of the two dead men in a soft, reverent voice, when the bell rang. Tristan put his cup down, walked to the door and flipped the curtain aside.
Arianne was standing there in her black mourning gown. Her face was ashen, her eyes sunken.
“May I come in?”
Tristan showed her in. “Hello Temmar.” She forced a smile.
Temmar took her hand and squeezed it between his own, then discretely slipped away.
“Tisane?” Tristan asked. She nodded. He poured her a cup and gave it to her. She stood, cradling it in trembling hands. Slowly she lifted it to her lips and sipped. The hot brew smelled good, and its warmth was a comfort to her.
There was an uneasy silence. She walked to the window and stared out. She saw Temmar striding away toward the stables, going about his business. People died, and life went on. She supposed that that was right and proper, but there was a part of her that was not convinced. Perhaps in Tristan’s world, where people didn’t die, it was different. She hoped it might be.
She drained the cup and set it down gently on the arm of a chair. She let her thoughts meander aimlessly, trying not to brood on the tragedy, but coming back to it repeatedly. Somehow she had to make sense of the senseless.
She became aware of Tristan standing close behind her. He placed his hands on her shoulders, and she felt the strength flowing from them. She spun around, looking up into his eyes, questing. He was so much taller than she, it hurt her neck to look up at him.
“Hold me,” she said.
He put his arms around her, and she put hers around him. He held her tightly, pressing her head against his chest and stroking her hair.
And then it happened. It had been so long since he had been in such close proximity to a woman, touching her, smelling her, feeling her body against his. He got an erection. He could feel it growing, insinuating itself between them, thrusting upwards.
Arianne felt it too, and it was not what she wanted, not at all what she wanted. Not now. It was an intrusion, and she resented it mightily.
She pushed Tristan away and stepped back. The cup on the chair fell to the floor and smashed.
“You bastard!” she yelled, her gorge rising at the sense of betrayal. “You egocentric bastard! How dare you try and take advantage of me at a time like this? How dare you?”
“Arianne...” Tristan was floundering, searching for words.
She turned at the door, tears welling in her eyes and a lump in her throat. She pointed an accusing finger. “If you think you can just drop out of the sky straight into my bed, you’ve got another think coming, buster!”
She flew out of the cell, brushing past Sally, who had seen her enter, and had been eavesdropping, and she was gone.
Tristan stared at the broken cup for a moment, then set about picking up the pieces.