Chapter Fifty-Five

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Chapter Fifty-Five – A new beginning

Sefani grew more like her beautiful mother with each passing day. Her gentleness and her happy laughter filled the air of their hillside home with infectious love. While Shaila and Tihke missed their son terribly, Sefani and her sweet nature helped to ease the pain they felt in their hearts. Because of her evil lineage, through Pashtek’s meddling, compounded by the relationship of her loving parents, she had latent powers that would soon see the light of day. Whether they were benign or malignant, I could not tell, dear reader. But I knew I would have to watch her progress carefully as she grew up.

~~~

Max returned two months after he and Melos departed. Shaila panicked when she saw him returning alone, but Max soon calmed her fears when he told them about the Nephile community and how young Melos was being schooled by them, and was steadily developing into a fine student. Anxious to see their son, Shaila and Tihke returned with Max to Marsaxlokk, leaving Talia, Goran, and Sefani behind in the peaceful surroundings of the hills above Victoria.

Over the next few years, Sefani grew into a beautiful sweet natured happy young woman, admired by the young Nephile males who often accompanied Max on his journey back to his friends. Word spread among the Nephile community about her and an invitation was made for her and her parents to visit Marsaxlokk. Talia and Goran missed their friends Tihke and Shaila, and it was time for Sefani to be with young people of her own age, so they decided to head south.

She was sad to leave the beautiful hills she had spent so many happy hours exploring, accompanied by the birds and animals she had played with, and nursed whenever they were sick. Sefani had a power within her for healing, which she put to good use on many occasions. Her gift first came to her parents’ attention when Goran cut his hand while sharpening a knife. Sefani demonstrated her power when she took her father’s hand gently in hers and closed her eyes in deep concentration. Talia and Goran stared in utter disbelief as the wound healed before their eyes, leaving no scar.

There was another side to her that rarely surfaced – violent uncontrollable anger. Talia had witnessed it when Sefani was much younger. A small bird caught by a feral cat was lying at death’s door. In her fury towards the cat, Sefani tore it apart with her bare hands. That was the only incident and was soon forgotten over the years. As they headed south, Talia remembered the incident once more and was frightened for her daughter’s safety among the Nephile, should her anger arise.

~~~

Their arrival in Marsaxlokk coincided with a festival honouring Hor, the great Nephile general and friend of Max and his brothers, who had perished with the thousands killed by Shu’s berserker army in Ur so long ago. The wide expanse of the old dried-up harbour below Marsaxlokk had been turned into a field for athletics and games for the festival, now that the crops had been harvested.

Goran encouraged his daughter to enter one of the races. She took her place among the dark haired young Nephile women on the starting line. A blast from a stag horn signalled the start of the race. Sefani’s flying golden tresses, olive skinned complexion, and tall athletic figure, made her stand out in the crowd of competitors as she effortlessly made her way through them before crossing the line in first place. As she stood there, head and shoulders above the admiring crowd of young Nephile males who had come to congratulate her, she heard a familiar voice. “Congratulations Sefani that was a fine win.” Sefani smiled as she spun round to see a tall handsome berserker youth staring back at her.

“Melos!” she cried, with tears of happiness flowing down her cheeks, as they hugged each other. He was no longer the foul tempered little boy who had cruelly tormented her in their childhood. His time here in Marsaxlokk, under the watchful eye of his mentor, Ausar, transformed him into a fine gentle young man. He proudly presented his ‘sister’ Sefani to Ausar, as they crossed the field where their reunited parents and Max sat in the shade of an awning, with Ausar’s wife Nekhbet and her daughter Het-Heru. In her excitement at seeing her beloved uncle, Sefani nearly knocked Max over when she set eyes on him, as she jumped into his arms. Sefani kissed everyone, she was so happy. Nothing could ever spoil the way she felt that day.

“Hello father; greetings mother.” A handsome young Nephile warrior in his early twenties joined the group. Het-Heru introduced Sefani to her brother, Geb. When Geb and Sefani met for the first time, and he saw her sweet smiling face and those hypnotically beautiful hazel-green eyes, his heart melted like some lovesick teenager. Over the next few months, the pair became inseparable as their love for one another grew. Geb’s mother took it upon herself to teach Sefani all there was to know about their society and history. Melos and Het-Heru often accompanied Sefani and Geb. Sometimes the four young lovers went with Max, hunting together whenever he grew restless. Even Max had found love there in the shape of Neit, widowed during the great battle, and her two adult children, her daughter Bast and son Nehket. Sefani was so completely happy, surrounded by so much love.

~~~

Goran spent hours in the great library reading about the Nephile and their endless search for safe havens away from the Drana, and now the berserkers. Ausar had led the remnants of the earthbound Nephile people here after the great battle, to one of the places his ancestors had first settled eons before humanity first appeared. In his research over the months, Goran found many references to this place. Time and time again, he came across one name that stuck in his mind—Atlan.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the first Nephile had come and cut themselves off from the wild, early human hybrids, living in peace, studying and arming in preparation for the inevitable Drana invasion. They named the place Atlan after a great Nephile warrior on their home world Cydon, who had fought many battles in defence of his people, five thousand years before they came here seeking sanctuary. In the time of the first flood on Earth, Atlan had been reduced to a few islands by the inundation, but because of the second flood, and the geological upheaval, it now stood proudly once more above the waves.

When Geb asked Talia for Sefani’s hand, in accordance with the Nephile tradition, both she and Goran were overjoyed. Sefani hugged her parents. Sefani and Geb strolled into the garden while their parents toasted the happy event. The young lovers were locked in their gentle embrace, when Melos and Het-Heru burst in to announce they were to be wed. So, a combined wedding was planned for the end of the month. however, there was one added complication: Neit and Max had decided to wed also.

The whole community got together in preparation for the wonderful triple event. Geb’s parents offered the use of the beautiful gardens of their home. Neit’s two children took over the massive task of feeding the hundreds who would attend.

The day of the triple wedding finally arrived. Max, Geb, and Melos stood by the dais, like all bridegrooms, nervously waiting for their brides to appear. Goran, Talia, Shaila, and Tihke sat opposite Ausar and Nekhbet. The crowd murmured happily to themselves, ready to witness the weddings. Then the three brides entered holding hands.

As they made their way through the crowd towards their eagerly awaiting lovers, a great blast from a hunting horn in a watchtower, sounded across Atlan. A young Nephile warrior burst into the garden with terrible news that would change everything, and not for the better dear reader. Meral and her cannibal berserkers had landed on the northern shores and were marching south!

~~~

Next time – Chapter Fifty-Six

 

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Chapter Fifty-Four

Cart-Ruts-Malta

Chapter Fifty-Four – Marsaxlokk

Max’ journey was full of hazards. He had to backtrack many times on his exploration of the tunnel system. Several times, he had nearly died from falls near rivers of lava, and other unseen traps. As he marked the safe route along the way, he discovered ruined ancient stone circles and old roads from another time, buried beneath the ocean floor. It was one of the latter which finally led him back to the surface.

~~~

Nearly three weeks after they returned to the depths below the island, and on the last night before they reached the safety of the landmass, Max and his young companions made camp inside the last of the stone Neolithic temples hidden beneath the seabed. Its ancient circle of megaliths, topped with horizontal stones, witnessed many strange sacrificial ceremonies over the seven thousand years since they were first dragged to their final positions, and placed upright to form the religious circle.

At one end of the stone circle, in a niche protected by a stone lintel from the rocks above, was a small alter decorated with carved depictions of running goats and ancient mountain sheep along its bottom. Just above the line of carvings, a small jagged piece of carved stone jutted out. When Max pulled it away, revealing the recess it protected, he found an obsidian knife that had been used to bring good fortune and abundant crops through sacrifices to the long forgotten people’s gods.

“I wonder who the people were. Were they farmers or cannibals, like my mother’s tribe?” Talia asked, as they looked at the knife. Its razor sharp edge reflected the light from the glow worms on the cave walls and ceiling above, as she turned it over in her hands.

“Whoever they were, they ate well – look!” Goran pointed to a tangled pile of bones caught in a deep water worn gully in another cave below the circle. Skulls of pygmy elephants, dwarf hippopotami, and deer lay in the tangle of sheep and goat bones, piled up by water from flash floods.

“I don’t think they ate these animals,” Max suggested, as they searched through the pile. “More than likely, these creatures were probably trapped when they fell from above and drowned. I read somewhere a long time ago, about a land bridge between Europe and Africa, thousands of years before the megalith builders arrived, and before the first great flood of biblical times, when the world was inundated. I think these bones belong to that time, long before men erected these stone circles.”

~~~

The next day they left the circle behind and followed Max along the long forgotten stone road. Its surface was scarred by deep ruts, as if many loads had been dragged along it on sledges or carts over the countless centuries of occupation. The stone road gradually ascended from the depths as they drew nearer to the southern landmass. “Not far now,” Max announced cheerfully, as the road climbed at a steeper angle. Goran and Talia were helping Shaila over a boulder that partially blocked the ancient thoroughfare when they heard Tihke running towards them, shouting and waving his arms, frantically trying to get their attention. Moments later, they felt a powerful blast of air coming from Tihke’s direction.

“Run, run for your lives! The sea’s broken through, we’ll all drown!” Tihke yelled, as he scrambled over the rock, dragging Shaila with him. The pressure of the trapped air being forced along the tunnel by the wall of seawater, knocked them down many times as they frantically ran along the remaining few meters of the tunnel. Max scrambled up and out of the hole, then turned to grab Talia’s wrist as Goran lifted her up. Tihke and Goran threw Shaila up to Max before frantically scrambling out themselves, moments before a geyser of seawater erupted out of the hole, drenching them in its foaming fury.They lay exhausted, watching the water slowly retreat, as the sea found a new level. The way back to Sicily was cut off forever.

Tihke reflected on what had just happened. He had hung back, fascinated by the hundreds of stone tools lying along the way, left as offerings, or discarded as useless by their owners so long ago. As Tihke slowly followed the others, his eyes caught the dull reflection of the eerie light on a flint arrowhead in the low ceiling of the tunnel. Curiosity overcame him when, just like his father Seti who still loved collecting shiny things, he set himself the task of retrieving it as a memento of their travels. The arrowhead was firmly embedded in the ancient sedimentary layers of seabed that made up the rocky surrounding walls and ceiling of the tunnel.

Tihke tried to jump up to grab the arrowhead without success, slicing his fingers on its sharp edges in the process. So he decided to build a small pile of rocks to help him retrieve it. As he was dragging the last piece of rock over to the pile, he felt water steadily dripping on his head and shoulders from where the arrowhead stubbornly remained. When he had tried to grab it, somehow he had loosened the whole area and it began to collapse, narrowly missing him as hundreds of tons of rock, and millions of tonnes of seawater, rapidly filled the space, forced down by the tremendous pressure from above. Now, as they all sat in the fresh air, gasping for breath, watching the seawater in the hole recede, Tihke quietly tucked the arrowhead into his loincloth, not daring to tell them they had all nearly died because of his stupid curiosity.

~~~

Their hurried exit from the dangerous subterranean system beneath the Mediterranean Ocean had brought them out into the ruins of what had once been the town of Zebbug on the northern coast of Gozo, the northernmost island of the former Maltese group. More ancient eroded stone circles were dotted across the landscape. And in some places, where the rock lay exposed, cart tracks like the ones back in the tunnel criss-crossed the exposed rocky ground.

The new southern landmass consisted of the three islands of Gozo, Comino, and Malta itself, expanding to include the Pelagian islands of Linosa and Lampedusa to the south west. To the north west it stretched to Pantalleria, and finally to the east across the old Medina bank, forming the area supposed by some to have been the mythical island of Atlantis in ancient times. For the next few months, the three men made a home for the group, while they waited for the birth of the two babies growing inside the protection of their mothers’ wombs.

Talia was the first to go into labour, assisted by Shaila and Goran, delivering a beautiful baby girl who she named Sefani. Sefani had her father’s olive complexion and her head was crowned with fine blond hair. She had intense hazel-green eyes like her mother. A few weeks after Sefani arrived, baby Melos lay crying in his mother’s arms, as Tihke proudly looked at his son for the first time. Melos was dark-haired like his grandfather Seti, with deep brown eyes, a berserker’s dark complexion, and cursed with a berserker’s temper.

Max was not left out of the happy events; both sets of parents asked him to be godfather, teacher, and protector of their children. For the next three years, the little group lived in peace in the hills of central Gozo, above its ancient former capital Victoria. It was the perfect setting for two young children to grow up in safety.

Sefani’s sweet nature and her blond good looks, won the hearts of everyone except for Melos. He was an angry little boy, always taxing his parents with his fits of uncontrollable temper and childish cruelty towards Sefani, but was loved just the same. The only adult he ever took notice of was Max. The pair had struck up a friendship when Max took young Melos on hunting and fishing expeditions around Gozo. They spent hours together staring across the swampland between the former islands of Gozo and Comino, towards Malta and beyond, wondering what lay over the hills in the distance. The whole area had been below the sea at one time, forming a channel separating the three islands.

Melos loathed his father Tihke for some reason. Not even Max could find out why. So when Max informed the others that he wanted to take Melos with him to explore the land to the south, their mixed feelings over his proposal were naturally influenced by Shaila’s concerns for the safety of her son. She knew Melos would be in good hands and Max’s steadying influence over him hopefully would dull his young temper. Perhaps it would be the making of him. When Shaila stood with the others on the edge of the marsh, waving a tearful goodbye, Tihke held her gently in his arms to comfort her as she sobbed her farewell. Little Sefani clung lovingly to Shaila’s leg trying to make up for her aunt’s loss, but at the same time she was glad that Melos was going away. He had made her cry many times in the past when they played their children’s games together. Now that he was leaving, she had two mothers and two fathers all to herself. She would miss the hugs and kisses from her darling uncle Max. Sefani stood beside Shaila sticking her tongue out in defiance at the retreating figure of her tormentor seated on uncle Max’s broad shoulders, as they made their way across the treacherous marshland towards Comino on the first leg of their adventure together, wishing she was going instead.

~~~

Max tucked a rough warm blanket around the tiny sleeping form of Melos and stirred the embers of the fire into life, exhausted by the journey from Comino and Melos’ incessant chatter and questions. The northernmost tip of Malta is a long ridge running east-west. From where they camped for the night, just below the southern side of the old ridge road, Max could make out the shape of the valley, which had once been Mellieha bay, on the eastern coast below, where he sat eating the remains of the rabbit they had caught, illuminated by the moonlight.

Over the seven thousand years of its continuous occupation, Malta had been invaded many times. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Greeks, Normans; they all came. The early Christian, St Paul, was said to have come there on a visit sometime in the first century AD. During the middle ages, Muslim invaders arrived from the northern shores of Africa, spreading their influence. Soldiers from the crusades in the guise of knights of the Order of St John were finally allowed to settle there, following a decree by the pope, allowing them a home, providing protection for the Maltese, and offering their services as hospitalers according to the edicts of their newly formed religious order. Over the years many other people, like the Spanish and Italians, came from Europe making Malta their home at one time or another, occupying this ancient land, leaving behind traces of their time spent there in the many different examples of architecture, and the exotic mix of Malta’s warm people.

All this was sadly now gone since the second great flood, when the Nephile used their deadliest weapon to rid the world of the Drana invasion, almost nine hundred years ago, and the world had once again been turned on its head, creating the new landmasses, where before, there had been shallow seas and a small cluster of islands.

Max sat in the moonlight, looking south across the ancient rolling hills towards a faint glow in the sky. He began to question his decision to bring young Melos along. Perhaps they weren’t alone after all. Perhaps there were more berserkers. The next morning, after they had both eaten, Melos began excitedly asking Max more questions as they walked south. He was fascinated by the migratory birds flying overhead in great numbers, heading north from their winter feeding grounds in the ancient African continent. At one time they were shot for sport by Malta’s inhabitants, but now they flew without fear on their way north to their nesting sites to bring young into the world, increasing their numbers and repeating the endless cycle of migratory renewal. As early evening approached, Melos and Max stopped on the eastern coast, near to where the town of Bugibba had once stood on the windswept shores of St Paul’s bay. “Uncle Max, can we go for a swim?” Melos pleaded.

Max welcomed the interruption to collecting wood for their camp-fire, and together they paddled and played for an hour, until hunger finally overtook them. Max had taught Melos how to fish, and their bellies were now full from the boy’s triumphant success, as they sat by the fire in the shelter of the rocky foreshore. Melos chatted incessantly about nothing in particular until he finally fell asleep in Max’s arms. He watched his young charge’s chest rise and fall as he slept, before turning in himself.

The next day they walked further south through ancient fields, past ruined farming villages, making their way across the hills to the high plain where the ancient silent city of Mdina and the cathedral dome at Mosta, still guarded the western and eastern approaches of the central part of Malta. By the time they had passed Qormi, they could see the outline of Malta’s former capital, Valletta, between the wide valleys of the old Sliema river and Grand harbour, now dry land after the upheaval. Each night, after Melos was safely tucked up for the night, Max kept a watchful eye in the direction of the glow from the south that steadily increased in intensity as they drew nearer.

The day finally arrived when they stood on the sparsely covered hill overlooking ruined Birzebbuga and the fertile valley that had once been the old port of Marsaxlokk, now several hundred meters above sea level. Max and Melos stayed on the hill for the rest of the day in the intense heat, hiding from the sun beneath the sparse shade of a few bushes.

“Uncle, I see people,” Melos shouted.

Max silenced him with his hand around Melos’ mouth. “We don’t know who they are, Melos; they may be bad,” he whispered. “Let’s play a game. Count how many you can see and I’ll count how many weapons they have,” he continued, trying to distract Melos. The little boy began counting out loud. “Shush,” Max said, holding his finger to Melos’ mouth, “count silently!” Melos pouted, then nodded happily when Max smiled. He began using his chubby fingers to record how many people he could see. Across the fields, on the eastern side of the dried up harbour below the old desalination plant and the ruins of an ancient coastal watchtower erected in the time of the Knights of St John, they could make out hundreds of people going about their peaceful business. They weren’t berserkers; they were Nephile.

When the Nephiles saw Max carrying little Melos on his shoulders, steadily advancing towards them, they ran from the berserker warrior’s path. Armed guards appeared and nervously surrounded them. “Who are you and why are you here?” demanded one of the guards. A crowd gathered behind the protection of the guards, anxious to hear for themselves.

“My name is Max, brother of Akhen and Khan,” Max said. “I’ve travelled here from Kirenia and Gilgama.” The news that one of the six berserker brothers had appeared in their midst brought the Nephile community out in their hundreds to greet the famous warrior. That night, after a banquet in his honour and Melos had been put to bed, Max was told about Marsaxlokk and the Nephile refugees who lived there. In return he told them about Sefani and her parents, Talia and Goran. In particular about Shaila and Tihke, and the reason why he had brought young Melos with him to give his parents and poor Sefani a break. The Nephile leaders understood his decision and promised him that when his friends eventually arrived they would be made welcome.

~~~

Max would be destined to stay there for the rest of his life dear reader. I became more unsettled by young Melos. I sensed something in him that would cause trouble for anyone who crossed him in the future.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Fifty-Five

Chapter Fifty-Three

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Chapter Fifty-Three – Subterranean Journey

The sound of hunting horns announcing their escape drifted up to where they stood at the edge of the outer crater. Far below, they could see an armed party of berserkers led by Meral, following their footprints in the loose scoria. Talia turned and led the way down the gentle slope to the floor of the old crater. Using outcrops of old lava to disguise their path, they carefully picked their way across the folded black rock towards the inner crater rim. The ground beneath their feet trembled constantly from mini-quakes that signalled the violence deep inside the volcano.

Talia led them around to the opposite side of the active crater and over to the south western edge of the outer rim. “We can hide in those old lava tunnels up there. All we have to do is climb up and enter through that crack,” she said, as they nervously looked about them. The rim of the old outer crater was almost sheer at this point. Max began climbing, followed by Shaila and Tihke. Goran and Talia stood guard at the bottom until it was their turn to climb. As they climbed, they unconsciously helped each other as if they were two halves of a whole, neither of them realizing they were siblings.

While they rested from the climb in the safety of the old lava tunnel, Max peered out looking for any sign of their pursuers. Talia tended to the cuts on Shaila’s neck from the vicious collar, once she had removed it. Tihke and Goran looked into the darkness of the tunnel, wondering where it led. Two hours after they climbed inside the tunnel, Max stiffened as his senses told him danger was at hand. He cautiously peered out looking for Meral’s hunting party. A shiver ran up Goran’s spine. Talia, Shaila, and Tihke sat nervously with their swords drawn.

A war club smashed into the wall of the tunnel above Goran’s head. From out of the darkness behind them, the berserker females charged, screaming their war cries. Goran fired his arrows blindly into the oncoming berserkers, while Max and Tihke fought for their lives with the fanatical females who had dodged Goran’s deadly arrows. “Stop! Put down your weapons and surrender or I’ll kill these two bitches.” All eyes shifted to where Meral held Talia and Shaila with her dagger at her daughter’s throat. Meral’s warriors quickly disarmed them and they were led back down the lava tunnel until they emerged into the open air inside the outer crater. “You saved me a lot of trouble by climbing up here,” Meral said angrily, as she threw Talia to the ground. “As for you, daughter, for your treachery you can join your friends. Take them to the crater and throw them into the lava as a sacrifice to our god!” Meral seethed. Some of her finest warriors lay dead and dying inside the tunnel. They needed to be avenged.

On the narrow crumbling ledge of the inner crater rim, the five sacrificial victims and their executioners stood enveloped by sulphurous clouds of steam released from deep below. The inner walls of the crater dropped almost vertically down to the dull red glow of the molten lava, hundreds of meters below. At a signal from Meral, the female berserkers pushed them over the edge. She reserved the right to dispatch Talia for herself, smiling when she heard the screams of her daughter mingle with the cries of the others as they fell down the steep sides of the crater.

Somehow they didn’t die. They all lay cut and bruised by the fall, hardly able to breath from the poisonous atmosphere around them. Their rapid descent had ended when they landed in a deep layer of sulphur enriched scoria on a less steep part of the crater wall. Goran and Talia found Max, Shaila, and Tihke among the skeletal remains of other sacrificial victims, and together they began searching for some way to escape from the crater. Choking from the thick sulphurous fumes, Max cried out, “Look, over there! I think it might be our way out!” Leading the way, he scrambled across the dangerously loose scoria towards another lava tunnel. Once they were inside, they soon discovered the air was less pungent. A strong airflow came from somewhere below in the dark depths of the tunnel.

“We can’t go back,” Talia said, wiping tears from her eyes caused by the sulphurous fumes. “Even if we managed to climb back up, my mother and her berserkers, will hunt us down.”

“Then we have no choice,” Tihke said, putting into words what they already knew. “We follow this tunnel until we find the source of fresh air. Hopefully it will be many kilometres away from here and your mother.”

~~~

For hours they carefully followed the dark tunnel as it descended. The air was beginning to take on a different, fresh odour as the five slowly moved further into the tunnel’s depths. After many hours in the inky blackness, they stopped to rest. Huddled together for warmth, blasted by the cool air, the friends fell into an exhausted sleep.

When Tihke awoke, he saw they were laying in a cave. Shaila lay with her arms around him with her head resting on his stomach. Talia was curled up in Goran’s arms with her face close to his. Max was nowhere to be seen. Tihke’s sleepy mind cleared. He could see. “Wake up,  everyone wake up!” he said, as he gently shook Shaila’s shoulder. As Goran opened his eyes, he became aware of Talia’s cheek next to his. The sound of Goran’s voice demanding to know where Max was, finally brought her out of her slumber. They all searched the cave looking for their friend, but there was no trace of him anywhere. In the strange light created by the phosphorescence from millions of tiny glow-worms, they sat and decided what to do next.

The cave formed a natural junction from three other tunnels leading off in a gentle slope away from where they sat. “We can’t split up,” Talia said. “We have to stay together. Let’s try calling out to Max in each tunnel mouth. Maybe he’s injured and can’t get back.” And so, they began walking towards the nearest of the three tunnels.

When they reached the entrance, Shaila called out into the darkness, “Max, where are you?”

“Right behind you.” When Max had woken, he decided to explore while the rest still slept. The far right tunnel ended in a sheer drop, so he came back to the central tunnel where Shaila had just called out to him, and descended into its depths. But that one divided yet again into two smaller tunnels leading back to the first one. He climbed back up to follow the final tunnel. “This tunnel leads down to another cave like this one, only much bigger,” Max explained. “It’s got fresh water running through it, and it’s teeming with fish – look!” From behind his back, he produced a fine specimen, still wriggling as it choked to death in the air. They all followed the old berserker in the eerie light down to the next cave. Across its centre ran a deep fresh water stream. On the opposite side of the cave was an entrance high up on the cavern wall. For the rest of the day they caught fish, eating some raw. The cavern was composed of nothing but porous rock. Even if they had fuel for a fire, there was no flint or any other kind of hard rock with which to strike a spark.

When they woke the next day, they gathered up their supply of fish and began climbing up to the entrance on the cave wall. As he followed Talia, Goran became aware of what normally lay hidden beneath her clothing as she climbed directly above him. Once or twice, she made him blush when she caught him looking. She smiled to herself and continued climbing towards the cave.

~~~

For several tiring days, the escapees followed the tunnel as it climbed and descended, twisted and turned, in total darkness, carefully feeling their way, until eventually it emerged into another smaller cave. But this one was different, it was lit by sunlight. The cave they now stood in, looking up to the sky above, was a natural sink-hole, formed when the ground above collapsed. Roots dangled down through the hole from an old tree, whose leaf covered branches shaded the cave entrance. Goran and Max stood shoulder to shoulder linking arms, while Shaila and Tihke lifted Talia up onto the men’s shoulders. She climbed up through the tangle of roots, steadily drawing closer to the hole in the cave roof. “Goran, I can smell the sea! The ground is covered in grass and trees,” she cried happily, from where she rested before climbing out of the hole. She got to her feet and looked around. They had emerged from the depths onto a small island, one of many that had been pushed to the surface when the Earth had been reformed. Later, when the friends had all finally escaped from the depths, they explored their new home surrounded by sea mist.

The island was formed from barren exposed rock with pockets of vegetation and trees, grown from seed, blown there over the centuries. There were birds, but no animals, except for small newts basking in the warmth of the sun on the rocks. Insects thrived across the island. A fresh water spring trickled down from its highest point and vanished inside its depths, below a small waterfall a few meters above a narrow black sand beach on the eastern shore. That night, as the five friends sat around their fire having eaten the remainder of the fish, they wondered how safe they were, and how far away the next habitable landmass might be.

Max, Tihke, and Shaila had quietly left the comforting glow of the fire at Shaila’s insistence, leaving Goran and Talia on their own. “Why do we have to shiver while Talia and Goran stay warm by the fire?” Tihke grumbled.

Max opened his mouth to say something, raising his eyebrows in total disbelief, then closed it shaking his head at Tihke. Shaila frowned. “Are you blind Tihke? Can’t you see that they’re in love?”

Max smiled and chuckled. “Come on you two; let’s go round to the south for the night.” Then seeing the look in Shaila’s eyes as she gently stroked Tihke’s ear, he added, “on second thoughts I’ll go on my own.”

The friends had experienced many changes in their lives in the past months. The new experience of overwhelming warmth, tenderness and safety Shaila felt, when she had woken in Tihke’s arms back in the tunnel, had changed the way she felt towards men. For the first time in her life she was experiencing tender feelings for a man. All their lives she held a sisterly fondness in her heart for Tihke. But after the brutal torture she had endured at the hands of Meral and the berserker women, and despite their predicament, Shaila realized that her infatuation for someone like gentle Torinn was not enough. She needed Tihke. All their lives he had always been the first to jump to her defence to protect her. Shaila always sensed that he loved her. But she knew he would never declare it while Torinn was in her life, content just to be there for her. In Tikhe she had finally found a true soul mate who would love and protect her for the rest of her days.

Max stretched and yawned from the comfort of his bed in the salt encrusted grass of the southern side of the island. Birds sang their dawn chorus as the sun slowly rose over the eastern horizon of the ocean. He sat up and peered across to the south. The sea mist gradually cleared with the rising of the morning sun. Rubbing his eyes he got to his feet and hurriedly climbed to the top of the island. When he reached the summit beside the natural spring, he turned and looked south once more. On the horizon was the unmistakable shape of a low lying landmass with the sun warmly reflecting back off its high cliffs, no more than thirty kilometres away.

The young lovers looked up with sheepish expressions on their faces as Max burst into the camp. After their night of lovemaking, both couples felt embarrassed by his sudden appearance. Max took no notice as he began excitedly telling them about his discovery. After breakfast, they followed him back to the island’s summit and stared south. The debate over how to get there lasted for a brief time. The friends broke up into two teams, searching for something to construct a boat of some kind. That night they all sat around the fire totally dejected. Apart from a few pieces of rotting driftwood, nothing else of any possible use was available to them. “It’s too far to swim. Besides, the tides are against us. And anyway, even if we could build a driftwood raft, it would soon get waterlogged,” Tihke moaned. Shaila gently pulled her lover to her and cradled him.

“Maybe there’s another way, underground,” Talia suggested sleepily, from where she lay with her head on Goran’s lap.

The next morning when they awoke, Max had vanished again to explore the depths below the island. “No need to go after him this time,” Goran said, when the others became alarmed. “He’ll return, either with good news or bad. We’ll wait for him here.”

For six weeks, they waited; each day staring south, wondering who lived there and what they would find. When Max eventually returned with the good news that he had found a path below the sea to the southern land, both young women were in the first stages of pregnancy. For the sake of their unborn children, it was imperative that the group leave immediately, before it was too late.

Next time – Chapter Fifty-Four

Chapter Fifty-Two

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Chapter Fifty-Two – A Narrow Escape

The camp slowly stirred as the warmth of the rising sun of late summer added to the uncomfortable heat in the pit coming from the depths of the volcano. The selection began when the men were brought out of the pit and driven at sword point to the square at the centre of the camp. Meral sat on her throne on the raised veranda of her living quarters with her feet resting on Shaila’s naked back, where she lay face down, secured by the chain and cruel collar. She gave a signal for the men to be dragged before her one at a time. Each berserker male was stripped by the guards and presented for inspection. If  they were worthy to become breeding stock, they were led away to the iron pen on the far side of the square, opposite Meral’s quarters. If not, they were put back in the pit to be fattened up and eaten later by her hungry female berserkers. Goran, Max, and Tihke were chosen as breeding stock and released from their chains inside the iron pen.

That night the female berserkers dined on one of the latest batch of unfortunates who had failed the selection process. Meral chose the meal for that night when she spotted an overweight youth. He was despatched with a blow to the head from a war hammer, crushing his skull, and his carcase was taken to the kitchens and expertly butchered. The best cuts of meat were reserved for Meral. She forced Shaila to eat the morsels she was given. The berserker cannibals cheered as Meral made her swallow each revolting mouthful, punishing her when she tried to refuse by jerking viciously on the chain holding the studded collar around her neck. After the women had eaten their fill, hungry eyes looked towards the iron pen. It was time to satisfy their other needs. The door to the pen was opened and the first few males were dragged out for Meral to select a mate. As she looked them over, she spotted Max standing at the back of the pen. He was dragged out after the others were returned to the relative safety of the pen. When Meral had had her fill of him, he was turned over to the next senior berserker female warrior and so on, down the line of hierarchy. Eventually Max was finally thrown into the pit with the rest to be fattened and devoured, completely exhausted by the constant physical ordeal. Over the next few weeks, each of the males in the pen was treated in a similar fashion. Eventually, it was Goran’s turn.

He was led from the pen and bathed in perfumed water before he was taken to Meral’s quarters. He stood naked in the main room of her home, in chains, surrounded by four female berserkers. Meral entered and walked over to him. She walked slowly around him, casting her evil eyes over his body, prodding him with her finger.

Nodding to one of her berserker guards, she led the way to her bedroom where the guards roughly pushed him down onto her bed and secured him by his arms and legs with the chains. With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the guards. Meral sat for a long time staring at Goran as he lay on his back imprisoned by the chains. “Where do you come from?” she asked, as her eyes travelled the length and breadth of his naked body.

“Gilgama,” Goran replied. “Why?”

Meral’s eyes flashed with anger at the mention of the place that had caused her so much pain and torment. “What is your name?” she hissed into his ear, caressing his body with the razor-sharp blade of her dagger.

“Goran, son of Kalma, son of Khan,” he said. Meral flew into an insane rage when she heard the name of Kalma, her tormentor. She screamed with anger as she slashed Goran’s chest. The guards burst into the room.

“Mother, stop, please stop!” A young berserker warrior stepped between Goran and Meral, knocking the sharp dagger from her hand. She threw her arms around Meral and held her close, wiping away her mother’s tears of anger. Goran was dragged back to the pen and thrown inside. He remained in the pen for the next few days, ignored by Meral as the rest of his fellow captives were taken one by one. He was sitting in the only patch of shade at the back of the pen with his eyes closed, when the strong scent of sweet flowers filled the air. “Goran, please wake up.” He opened his eyes and turned to see the same beautiful young woman who had intervened on his behalf, crouching on the other side of the bars of the pen.

“What do you want, berserker bitch?” he snarled.

“Please don’t be angry. My name is Talia, daughter of Meral, queen of our tribe. I was the one who saved you the other night, remember?”

“Forgive me, princess. If I’d known I was in the presence of royalty, I would have cleaned myself up,” he sarcastically replied.

Talia held his gaze for a few brief moments. “Goran, Meral wants to kill you to revenge the loss of my brother, Merak, when berserkers stole him from her.”

“What are you talking about? Are you telling me I’m next on the menu?” he asked, still angry.

“No! She intends sacrificing you to the god in the volcano. You’ve got to escape! Please, Goran, I’m not like mother. I don’t eat flesh, and I don’t like what she is doing to you or my tribe. She’s mad and I’m afraid of her. I can help by using my position in the tribe to get you away from here. But there is a condition,” she continued. “Please take me with you. When my mother finds out that I’ve helped you to escape, even though I’m her daughter, she’ll kill me whether we succeed or not. Please, let me help you.”

Goran looked deep into Talia’s eyes. Apart from the fact that they were hazel-green and not black, she was the perfect younger version of her mother. Behind her beautiful face and nubile body lay an inner beauty and strength. In the deepest recesses of his mind, somehow or other he knew that he could trust her. Despite the obvious physical attraction between them, his sixth sense convinced him she would lay down her life to protect him.

“Alright,” Goran said. “I’m sorry for what I said. Find out what you can and come back tonight when the camp is asleep. I’m not leaving without my friends. Be careful; see if you can release Shaila from your mother’s clutches and bring her with you. She is the nearest thing I have to a sister.” Talia briefly touched his face and took his hand in hers, kissing its palm, then she smiled as she nodded her agreement before vanishing behind the pen.

That night after the berserker women were asleep she freed Shaila. The two young women stole silently towards the pen and Goran. Next, they went to the pit and watched as Goran lowered himself down to search for Tihke and Max. He found Max but Tihke was missing. Max whispered that he had last seen Tihke being dragged away in the direction of the kitchens. He was on the menu for tomorrow night. They found him naked, trussed up like a turkey on the cold kitchen floor with his hands and feet securely bound together behind his back, surrounded by mountains of unpeeled potatoes and other vegetables. Goran couldn’t resist picking up an apple lying nearby and stuffed it into Tihke’s mouth. They all laughed quietly at the spectacle lying before them. “Just as well they weren’t planning to stuff you as well,” Goran smiled, playfully stroking Tihke’s rear with a stick of celery with a wicked twinkle in his eye.

Once Tihke was released, he angrily clouted the side of Goran’s head. As far as he was concerned there was nothing to laugh about, especially when he had come so close to being the main course for these barbaric females. The very thought of it sent shivers up and down his spine as they crept out of the kitchens and headed for the fence.

Talia had retrieved their weapons and managed to hide them and some food in the thick thorn hedge that marked the upper boundary of the camp. They followed her silently as she steadily climbed the steep sides of the volcano. “Why are we heading up there?” Max asked when they were out of sight of the camp.

“Because it’s the last place they’ll look for us. We’ll be safe inside the crater. We can hide there for days if need be,” she said, as they continued to climb. “There are some old lava tunnels I used to play in when I was a child, inside the outer crater, left over from previous eruptions. They’re warm and dry and have pools of fresh water.”

~~~

Next time – Chapter Fifty-Three

Chapter Fifty-One

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Chapter Fifty-One – Meral’s Story

Meral’s survival was nothing short of miraculous, dear reader. When Kalma rode away with her baby son, leaving her to the mercy of his berserker warriors, she endured days of brutal torture and rape. When they eventually tired of her and left her for dead, she managed to crawl away and hide in the cave where she had given birth to Merak. All summer long she slowly recuperated, healing her many wounds as best she could, vowing to take revenge on all berserkers for what they had done, even though she was now completely alone in a violent world.

Each day her strength returned little by little. From time to time, berserkers passed the caves on their raids against other tribes. Somehow, Meral always managed to evade them whenever they were near. She decided to put as much distance between herself and the berserkers as she could by heading west. Meral made the same dangerous ocean crossing to Kirenia on a raft of driftwood logs at the mercy of wind and tide, cheating death more than once. When she was eventually washed ashore, she was taken in by the same wizened old hag that her son had met. She spent months crossing Kirenia, always travelling at night, heading west looking for a safe haven away from the berserkers. Eventually she arrived at the western edge of Kirenia in the volcanic soiled area that had once been the island of Sicily, at the southern tip of the old Italian peninsula.

Her luck still ran against her when she was captured by female berserkers and taken to their camp on the lower slopes of the active volcano, Mount Etna. The berserker chieftainess challenged her to fight for the right to join the tribe in the arena against her champion Ivana, a powerful warrior who was friend and protector to the old matriarch. Meral had learned how to live by her wits during her journey west, and now she was about to learn another valuable lesson – swordsmanship. The arena was a circular patch of baking hot scoria surrounded by a thorn fence made from roughly intertwined briars, that slashed and tore her skin as she fought the female giant. All the female berserkers cheered their champion, baying for Meral’s blood.

While Ivana was immensely strong and athletic, Meral was younger and more agile, able to duck most of the vicious blows from the berserker’s double-edged sword. Using every ounce of her strength and cunning, Meral eventually emerged victorious after a lucky blow from her sword cut Ivana’s achilles tendon, felling the giant female berserker. Using all of her remaining strength, Meral beheaded Ivana and stood triumphantly holding the grisly trophy. The crowds of berserker women stood in stunned silence looking at their chieftainess where she sat on a platform above the fence. Meral angrily gouged out Ivana’s lifeless eyes and ate them, before she threw the severed head of the former champion at the old woman’s feet. “Thank you,” Meral sneered, staring at the old queen with sheer insanity in her coal black eyes. “I was hungry!”

The old woman’s eyes misted over at the death of her friend and protector as she cradled the eyeless head in her arms. She looked at Meral standing before her, bloodied, with her beautiful face slashed cruelly by a vicious sword cut, in the harsh heat of the summer sunlight. She said something to the warrior nearest to her and tearfully left the arena. The gate to the arena swung open and ten female berserkers entered, armed with swords and shields. Meral stood ready to die, determined to take as many of them with her as she could before her own life ended. “Put down your sword, girl. You have earned your place here today,” the senior warrior told her. They escorted her out of the arena and took her to their chieftainess. Bidding her enter, the berserker females stood guard outside the hut. Meral entered the gloom of the hut and stood in front of the old woman.

“What is your name, child?” the old woman asked, from where she sat in semi darkness on a wooden bench at the back of the hut.

“Meral, my name is Meral,” she said, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom.

The old woman got up from where she sat and came into the narrow shaft of light at the hut’s centre. “You’re not like us; what tribe are you?” she asked.

“I am the last of my tribe,” Meral lied. “My mate was murdered, and my child was taken from me months ago by berserkers on Gilgama. I was tortured, raped and left for dead by the murdering animals. I have spent nearly a year travelling west to find safe refuge, looking for somewhere to raise an army and return to kill the men who did this to me.” She sank to her knees in tears, overcome by all that had happened to her.

The old woman gently lifted her to her feet and looked deep into Meral’s insane eyes. “You shall get your chance for revenge. But first, you have to learn our ways to survive in this savage world. We all came here at various times over the years from the east, after our parents were released from the giant ship Kalki in India, before the great battle in Ur. In my case, I travelled here when I was young, after my parents were both killed in the tribal wars to the north of Kirenia. We formed ourselves into a tribe of female warriors by capturing berserker males, taking them as mates to produce children. After they have fulfilled our needs, we kill them by throwing them into the volcano. We have survived here for over fifty years. Stay with us. When the time is right child, you can take your place on one of our hunts.”

In time Meral proved herself the equal of any of the warriors in her adopted tribe, eventually becoming their queen. During the early years of her reign, she taught her warriors ways to inflict pain beyond even their own barbarous imagination, and introduced them to the taste of flesh, turning them into cannibals.

She never forgot her beloved son Merak, dreaming that one day they would be reunited. If she had known that he now stood before her in chains, things may have turned out quite differently, dear reader.

~~~

Meral looked at each of the captives, turning to the leader of the raiding party, she said, “Take them to the pit. Tomorrow we’ll begin selection.” Goran, Max, Tihke, and the rest of the captives spent the night huddled in the uncomfortable heat of a steep sided natural pit in the scoria covered lower slopes of the volcano.

Shaila’s fate was sealed when she caught Meral’s lecherous eye. From then on, she would spend her life as Meral’s lover. She was taken to Meral’s quarters where she was bathed and aromatic oils were rubbed into her skin before she was presented to the queen of the bloodthirsty female berserkers. Perfumed and dressed in figure hugging sheer fine white cotton to accentuate her female form for Meral’s lecherous eyes to feast upon. She was fitted with a studded collar that dug viciously into her neck, secured to a long chain like a household pet.

When darkness fell and the guards no longer stood around the edge of the deep pit, Max, Tihke, and Goran sat plotting their next move. “How are we going to get out of this Max,” Tihke whispered. “I don’t fancy winding up as the plaything of one of these muscle bound females, or as their next meal…Do you?” Max sat in silence.

Goran was busy trying to find a way to remove the metal collar and chain, which held each of them. “From now on when we see an opportunity, we take it,” he said.

“Yes, but we go together – right!” Tihke said. “There’s no way I’m staying here. I’d rather die in that volcano than be eaten by these monsters. I tell you one thing. Shaila will be lucky to survive. Once that murderous hag of a queen tires of her, she’s dead just like the rest of us. Whatever we do, Shaila’s part of it, agreed?” Max patted Tihke’s shoulder in silent agreement while Goran nodded as he continued to work on the collar around his neck.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Fifty-Two

Chapter Fifty

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Chapter Fifty – Ghost from the past

Max’s tribe welcomed the young newcomers with open arms after he had introduced them. Work was underway to make the already well defended village into a near impregnable, heavily fortified redoubt. Tihke coordinated foraging teams to retrieve anything that could be turned into a defensive weapon. Shaila and Torinn organized the women into medical teams and runners, to tend wounds and supply arms to the defenders on the ramparts of the fortified earthwork. Manouf and Goran helped construct spike filled pits covered with reed mats, manufactured from the plentiful supply that grew in the marshy lands beyond the defended perimeter. Max and Tihke, together with Max’s two sons, made more bows and arrows using Goran’s fine weapon as an example.

The news of the raiders working their way steadily towards them, unnerved the village. The bloodshed caused by fighting other tribes over territorial boundaries was bad enough, but the chaos after a raid by the female berserker cannibals was quite another thing altogether. The violent females struck fear in the hearts of the strongest berserkers, whenever they raided. No mercy was shown even by berserker standards. It was said that their queen ruled by strength and fear within the tribe. To challenge her meant agonizing torture, before she finally delivered you into the arms of their god, in the mountain of fire. Death was a welcome release for all her victims. Some of her finest warriors had dared to question her and paid for it with their lives. She favoured none among her kind. While she was strong enough to fight off any challengers to her position, she would continue to rule in her cruel way. Her warriors were glad to be away from their home on the hunt for males. At least she was not with them. The women almost felt sorry for their captives, knowing what was in store for them on their return.

Max and Goran sat together outside Max’s humble home, taking a well earned rest after the day’s heavy workload. “Tell me more about yourself, Goran; you’re not of berserker blood are you?” Max asked.

“What do you mean, Max? Of course I’m berserker; my father was Khan’s son!” Goran replied, hurt by the berserker’s friendly observation.

Max looked at Goran for a long time before shaking his head. “You’re not. You’re from some other tribe, probably taken in battle when you were young. You bear no resemblance to my brother Khan. Although,” he added, “you’re strong and angry enough to be his grandson, I grant you that.” Max laughed as Goran’s eyes narrowed to slits thanks to his friendly taunts.

Max’s wife called them in for the evening meal. Sitting around the room afterwards, the friends relaxed. Goran had calmed down and was sitting by the fire listening to the chatter of the household. Max’s two sons were doing their best to attract the attention of Torinn and Shaila, but neither of the young women even glanced their way. Tihke and Manouf joined Goran and Max by the fire, arguing with Shaila over what to expect when the female berserkers finally arrived. Torinn sat quietly with her head resting on Shaila’s thigh, talking to Max’s wife.

Inevitably ,Max’s two sons went outside, frustrated and angry at the refusal of their awkward teenage advances by the two young women. Max’s wife opened the door to call her sons in when it was time for bed, but they had vanished. Max and Goran searched the village, asking the whereabouts of the two headstrong young teenagers. No one had seen them since they slipped over the wall earlier in the evening. Max cursed them for their stupidity. “Leave them. Let them spend the night in the cold; it’ll do them no harm.” With that, he and Goran returned to the warmth of the house and retired for the night. In the hour before dawn, the mystery of Max’s missing sons was revealed. The female berserkers had arrived, hundreds of them.

One of the villagers hammered on Max’s door and told him the news. Goran and his friends joined him on the earth wall of the redoubt. Across the marshy ground, three hundred meters away, they could see the two unfortunate youths spread eagled by crossed saplings, tied with rope to stakes, driven into the ground. A powerful female warrior stood in front of them with sword in hand. “Surrender now,” she called out. “Turn over all your males and we’ll leave you in peace.”

The village responded with a rain of arrows. The berserker leader glanced up at the two boys then cut the rope holding the saplings. Max uttered his war cry as his two precious sons’ lives tragically ended when they were torn apart by the force of the saplings’ release. Their hideous deaths were the signal for the hundreds of female berserkers to attack. The defenders made every remaining arrow count as the frenzied female warriors charged across the marsh and through the pits, which trapped many. By sunrise, the battle was at its height. Goran, Tihke, Shaila, and Manouf fought back to back like demons in the bloody battle for survival. The pits filled with their sharp stakes had taken their toll of the frenzied women, but the female berserkers’ numbers were greater than their own, and soon the battle was over. Torinn and Manouf both died from their wounds along with the great majority of the villagers, and as the captives were being led away, the friends said their silent farewells to the dead.

Max and his men, together with Goran and Tihke, were manacled together for the long journey south-east. Shaila was bound hand and foot to a pole suspended between two of the strongest female berserkers horses. Later that day when the leader of the berserkers signalled the column to stop, they camped beside a river. The leader made her way along the line of captives, stopping from time to time, checking the captive standing in front of her by slapping his legs and arms with the flat of her sword. Eventually she found what she was looking for. The unfortunate man was unchained and beheaded. The women fed from his spit-roasted body that night, sending waves of fear and revulsion through their captives.

Shaila was not so lucky. There was no quick death for her. For the remainder of the journey, she would be a plaything for the grisly cannibalistic female warriors. By the end of the week, she was begging to be killed. The captives dreaded the end of each day, not knowing which one of them would be on the menu that night.

As the weeks dragged on and the column grew closer to the women’s homeland, only the weak were culled from the captives. Shaila was almost at deaths door after enduring weeks of depraved torture at the hands of her tormentors. Goran and Tihke swore they would end her life if they could, if only they could find some way of getting free. By the end of March, steam and ash clouds could be seen rising above the home of their captors on the slopes of Mount Etna. No more captives were killed for food. The female berserkers needed to have enough left to please their queen. Shaila was allowed to recover, spending all her time tied up on the pole between the female warriors’ horses.

The triumphant return of the hunting party was signalled with blasts from hunting horns. The queen emerged from her hut to see what her warriors had brought back. Her face was hideously scarred and partially hidden from view by her long black hair. She was not like her berserker sisters. Her figure was that of a woman in her early forties, yet it retained the firm muscular tone of someone much, much younger.

“Great queen, we return bringing gifts for your pleasure. If it pleases you, will you inspect your new batch of slaves?” The leader of the party bowed as she spoke; no one ever looked directly at their queen unless she commanded it; to do so would bring death. As the ranks of female berserkers parted, she stepped down onto the ground. The leader of the hunting party proudly announced, “Make way for our queen, Meral.”

~~~

Next time – Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Forty-Nine

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Chapter Forty-Nine – A Pleasant Reunion

Goran’s head was pounding from a splitting headache, caused when he smashed it against the gunwale during the violent storm the night before. His eyes slowly began to focus in the dimly lit confines of a small hut. As he looked about him, he saw his friends lying on driftwood-framed straw beds, moaning from their injuries. They were alone inside the thatched roof hut. He could hear the sound of the pounding surf in the distance. Tentatively, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and went to the door.

“You’re awake then! I need a hand to retrieve everything from the wreck of your boat. Be quick now, no time to waste. The tide is on the turn!” Goran stared at a wizened old hag, who was speaking to him in a strange accent. “Well, are you going to help, or are you just going to stand there feeling sorry for yourself?”

Goran and Manouf helped the old woman for the rest of the day. That night, the five friends spent most of their time back at the hut, arguing with the hag, over who owned the retrieved weapons and supplies from the pile of salvaged items in the centre of the hut. “I own anything salvaged from the wrecks on the beach; you own nothing!” the hag cried angrily, as she snatched Goran’s bow out of his hands.

Tihke seized her by her hair. She screamed in agony as he lifted her up until her feet were suspended in mid air. “Listen, old woman,” he said quietly, with a look in his eye that told her he was in no mood to argue. “We’re all very grateful that you found us and brought us here to your home, but we’re not dead. We still own our possessions; not you!”

The old hag spat at Tihke. “Curse you all; may you die alone and forgotten! And may your bones be picked over by the vultures!” Manouf tied her by her unkempt grey hair to a hook suspended from the roof, while Goran and Tihke bound her hands and feet behind her, stuffing a rag in her mouth to silence her.

The next morning after they had eaten, they departed the hut to the sounds of the old hag, still crying and cursing them after Torinn had removed her gag, and Manouf had lifted her down from her precarious perch on the hook. They were in a strange land now, with dangers at every bend of the path that they now took through high mountains. “Where are we going; does anyone know?” Shaila asked, as she stood looking down to the valley below them. In the distance, another range of mountains lay before them, shrouded in a blue haze, across the valley.

“I vote we stay here until dark, and then cross to the mountains beyond,” Manouf said, snacking on one of the retrieved pomegranates.

“Let’s get further down the path while we still have daylight. I don’t fancy feeling my way across unknown territory in the dark,” Tihke added.

“Well Shaila, does that answer your question?” Goran asked.

“It’ll have to for now. But we must decide exactly where it is we want to live, Goran. Torinn and I need somewhere we can call our own, somewhere we can make a home together,” Shaila said, as she gently stroked her lover’s flaxen haired head. As the group grew up together, Torinn and Shaila’s attitude towards each other began to take a strange twist, taking them beyond simple sisterly friendship to the close physical, relationship that now consumed them. During their teenage years, both of the beautiful young women had rebuffed the countless advances of the young males within the tribe. Shaila became a warrior in her own right, standing shoulder to shoulder with Goran, Manouf, and Tihke in the many battles they had fought. Physically, she was as strong as any of her male berserker counterparts, able to fight like a demon in defence of her family, friends, and her home. But emotionally, she was fearful of having any kind of physical relationship with her male counterparts, preferring instead the safety and tenderness she found with petite, gentle Torinn. Manouf, Goran, and Tihke looked on the pair as nothing more than loving sisters, during those early innocent years. Inevitably, trouble and gossip arose within the tribe over the relationship between the two young women as it steadily grew. The three men defended their friends’ right to happiness together, bringing the group closer and forming a tight bond of friendship between all of them for the rest of their lives.

With the encroaching darkness, they made camp at the edge of the valley floor, beside a small stream. The scent of wood smoke in the air drifted towards them from somewhere to the west. Torinn’s keen eyesight found the source when she pointed to a tiny glow about five kilometres away. After they had eaten a hasty meal, they decided to investigate. Manouf led the way as the friends silently crept across unknown territory in the inky blackness of the cloud-covered night sky.

When they were less than three hundred meters from the source of the fire, Tihke’s nose began to twitch from the smell of spit-roasted meat filling the air. Goran signalled the group to stop while he scouted ahead. In the glow of the fire, he could see a lone figure seated with his back to him, turning the spit. “Come and join me, friend,” the stranger said. “Bring your companions with you; you must be hungry.” Goran slowly advanced with the arrow of his drawn bow aimed at the broad back of what was now discerned to be a warrior. “No need for that,” laughed the stranger. “I mean you no harm. Sit, eat. What’re your names? I’m Max.”

~~~

Goran and his friends ate the meal of freshly cooked goat meat while they told Max all they knew about his two brothers, Seti and Besal, and the passing of Khan. Max had struck out by himself, after the brothers departed the Ur battlefield, following the same dangerous path they had just endured across the ocean. After a few years on his own, he found some of the survivors of Shu had migrated here to Kirenia, and he settled down with them to a peaceful existence, taking a wife and fathering two sons. “I still like to get away on my own and hunt,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “It keeps me sharp.”

Max told them about the unrest among the tribes of Kirenia. Many of the tribal leaders were planning an all-out raid on Gilgama, to take the continent for themselves. “Why would they want to do that, Max? Kirenia is a fertile land; surely there’s room enough for all to live here?” Manouf asked.

Max sighed and poked the fire as he threw more wood into the embers. “They want to leave because of the cannibal raids!” To the south west, in the area that had originally been Sicily, a tribe of cannibalistic female berserkers ruled over the land. They constantly raided the surrounding lands, terrorising the tribes as they searched for male slaves to sire female babies to perpetuate their numbers, killing all male infants and any weak females. Only the strongest were good enough to take their place in the ranks of the female berserker warriors. Over the years, their raids expanded further and further across Kirenia. In the last few months they had been sighted raiding Max’s nearest neighbours, eighty kilometres to the south west. “The next time they raid looking for males, they’ll come here,” Max said, with a look of resignation on his face. “Will you and your friends help us defend our village, Goran?”

Goran looked at his friends already nodding faces in the glow of the fire, “of course, Max, of course we will.”

~~~

Next time – Chapter Fifty