Swog
 
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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
THE BURNING PLAIN
 
 
Happiness can come upon you unexpectedly. You may be doing something ordinary when a sense of extraordinary pleasure slips over you. Your life, dull until that moment, is suddenly transformed. You understand, at last, your purpose, your meaning, your function. As Tilibud strode onward, humming and whistling and now and then calling to the compass spider not to race ahead, Swog fell gradually further behind, inhaling the scent of the swaying grass, revelling in the sunshine upon his face, feeling, for the first time in all the times that he could remember, completely and utterly contented, totally at ease.
            There was no reason why he should feel this way. Even greater dangers awaited them, he was sure. There were unknown lands still to traverse. Unknown monsters lurked in the shadows and by-ways through which they must pass. Creatures of unequalled vileness counted the moments before their arrival, eager to become acquainted. And beyond all of that, and worse by far, was Gristle: foul of breath and foul of deed. Gristle, before whom they must not cower but from whom they must steal a most invaluable prize.
            Yet, all the same, Swog felt happy.
            It can only have been an intuition, in the midst of his happiness, that made him pause.
            What could he smell?
            There was the scent of the grass upon which they trampled, the radiant aroma of seed head and flower.
            There was the smell of ginger and cinnamon and, mingled with these, barely discernable, the exotic scent of eeffoc.
            Swog drew into himself, with a single inhalation, an entire landscape, blessed with life, nourished by the sun, nurtured by the earth, cradled by the wind.
            The sky above them had assumed a grey quality – like a motionless pool awaiting a ripple.
            The air hung still and close, almost furtive in the presence of the two travellers.
            At last Swog tore himself loose from the immobility of his perceptions and hurried after the receding figure of Prince Tilibud. Finding his lord and master unperturbed, he walked silently beside him for a while.
            Eventually, he could contain himself no longer. He said, ‘Prince, have you ever before seen an evening such as this?’
            Tilibud halted. He looked about him. He raised his eyes to a single star hovering in the perfect sky. More than ever since their journey had begun, he was in a travelling mood. He was tired of interruptions and detours. Now his strides devoured miles. Nothing could stop him.
            He said, ‘It is a strange evening indeed. A beautiful evening. I have never seen its like.’ Then, turning to follow the compass spider, he strode on through the grass.
            Swog followed reluctantly. The sense of peace that had consumed him only shortly before had vanished entirely. In its place he felt an increasing unease.
            ‘Prince?’ he called out. ‘Does anyone live here?’
            ‘Where do you mean?’
            ‘Here, upon the plain?’
            ‘I believe so,’ the prince replied. ‘Several families farm the area, or so I am told. They live in small buildings thrown like dice across the landscape. And some nomads live here too. I have seen the traces of their campfires.’
            ‘Are they dangerous?’ Swog pursued.
            ‘The farmers? No.’
            ‘Are the nomads dangerous, my lord?’
            ‘Oh no, not the nomads. They are not dangerous at all. The nomads are a small and timid people who are afraid of the light.’
            ‘Does that mean that they prowl at night?’
            ‘Oh no,’ the prince asserted. ‘They are afraid of the dark, too.’
            ‘Then when do the nomads travel around, Prince?’
            ‘Only early in the morning, it seems – and in late evening, also.’
            At these words Swog’s tongue grew weak. He imagined a small, thin people – their limbs like the limbs of spiders – circling them at dusk and dawn, their eyes glowing, their round, pointed faces cruelly amused. A moment later these worrying thoughts ceased to trouble him. He said, around the obstacle of his tongue: ‘Prince?’
            ‘Yes?’
            ‘What is that smell, Prince?’
            ‘To which do you refer?’
            ‘The smell like cinnamon.’
            ‘Cinnamon,’ Tilibud said, ‘is hardly likely to be found upon this plain.’
            ‘Prince?’ said Swog again.
            ‘Yes?’
            ‘Why is the horizon all lit up when the sky above is growing dark?’
            ‘It is a natural phenomenon, Swog,’ Tilibud said reassuringly. ‘I have often seen it in the evenings of lands such as this. But Swog, my inquisitive friend, if you ply me with endless questions we shall never get anywhere. Let us forge ahead! Let us galvanise ourselves! Let us travel!’ With these words he briskened his pace. He looked neither left nor right but gazed straight before him. The compass spider, the focus of his attention, danced from seed head to seed head ahead of them, in untiring loyalty to its destination.
            With increased anxiety Swog followed. He felt irritable and tired. The top of his head had received too much sun. Like an egg, parboiled, it radiated heat and prickled with sweat. He felt, too, that his tongue had grown unbearably long and thick. He arranged and rearranged it within his mouth, but the feeling would not recede.
            The handsome figure of Prince Tilibud, striding through the grass ahead of him, only served to increase his discomfort. He was, in contrast to his master, devoid of charm or grace, a dwarf at the heels of a prince among men.
            All about them, the horizon grew brighter, as if it were on fire.
            ‘Prince!’ Swog called out, beginning to run. ‘My lord! Look to the horizon!’
            ‘Yes,’ said Tilibud, failing to glance from the darting shape of the spider. ‘A beautiful sunset. It is indeed. But, Swog, do not trail behind. I would not wish to lose you on an evening such as this.’ On he strode, handsome and strong, the grass whispering at his side in adulation. The compass spider could barely match his pace. It leapt over the surface of the grass like quicksilver, glancing nervously behind as it raced.
            ‘Where sky and earth meet, my lord,’ Swog observed, ‘they take the guise of an enormous fire…’
            ‘Remarkable,’ said the prince.
            ‘Not just a single enormous fire,’ Swog went on, ‘but many hundreds of enormous fires!’
            ‘I believe we will reach a town before long,’ said Tilibud. ‘Then you shall have an open fire and a bowl of food and a bed.’ He glanced at Swog. ‘If we hurry we will arrive before nightfall.’ Then he halted, staring at his companion.
            ‘Swog, why are you so pale? Are you ill?’
            Swog shook his head. ‘I am not ill, Prince. I am frightened! Look! The world is on fire! And we are standing at the fire’s heart!’
            Tilibud looked around him carefully. Becoming aware at last of the horizon of flame, the expression on his face soured. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I see what you mean.’
            The flames were clearly visible. Distant, silent in their distance, but rising in a circle all around them, they lit the horizon, staining the sky with dark, voluminous smoke.
            ‘Fire!’ said Swog. ‘Fire everywhere!’
            ‘Yes,’ agreed the prince.
‘And it’s drawing closer!’
            ‘Yes.’
            ‘And there is something even worse,’ Swog cried, gripping the prince’s arm in terror.
            ‘Can there be something worse?’
            ‘Oh, yes, Prince. Look!’
            The prince raised his hand to shield his eyes from the last rays of the sun. ‘I am looking,’ he said, ‘but I am not sure what you expect me to see!’
            ‘Look, my lord! Monsters!’
            ‘Monsters? Nonsense!’
            But after a moment there could be no doubt. As the horizon of fire drew closer its flames illuminated lurching, monstrous shapes. Ungainly giants were dancing a dreadful dance, clutching at the air before them with spiteful, terrible claws.
            ‘Yes....’ said the prince reluctantly. A grim expression appeared upon his face. ‘Swog, there was something I have been meaning to tell you. I tried to raise the subject several times – but there was always something more important to say. If only – if only there had been enough time I would certainly have told you before today… Well, what I must tell you now is this: there are other folk living upon this plain besides the small folk and the farmers. Clutchers live here too. Known to some as the Dreadful Clutchers, they roam the plain in massive herds. I have been meaning to mention them for quite some time, but in all the flap and flurry there has simply never been the opportunity.’
            ‘Thank you for telling me now, Prince,’ Swog mumbled. ‘But my lord, are they dangerous?’ Swog anticipated the worst. The flames were as tall as trees now and smoke billowed upwards to fill an orange sky.
            ‘Yes,’ said Tilibud. ‘The dreadful clutchers are very dangerous. At times they are unimaginably dangerous. On occasion, they are considered the most dangerous of all the species after humanity.’
            ‘Then what are we to do, Prince?’
            ‘We must run, Swog. We must run for our lives!’
 
© 2011 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.
 
 
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