The Portals Of Hell – Snippet 05
Chapter 3: A Revelation
The GranMalo towered over them all, more than eight meters tall, and so close that Davin could smell the rotten remains of its past butchery, hear the wind of its nostrils, feel the darkness of this creature in his soul.
For a moment, everyone was transfixed — then one of the defenders made a terrible mistake. He turned and ran.
In a flash, the great lizard dipped its head, the huge jaws opening and closing over the man. There wasn’t even a scream; just the sickening crunch as powerful jaws snapped the body in two. The lower half fell, spurting blood and entrails in all directions.
Which seemed to energize the paralyzed defenders. Suddenly arrows flew, spears were thrust at the body, everyone finding something to wield. The head swung to and fro for an instant, as a diner examining all the delicacies before it.
For an instant more, Davin stood transfixed. Then the elongated snout, which had continued to swing left and right, fastened its four platter-sized eyes on Aliceia and Riala. Riala, beautiful Riala, even nearer than he, staring upward as innocently as a deer cornered by a ravenous cougar, mouth open in amazement and fear as it whispered its bloodlust. She was about to die. She who had shared his life since he took his first awkward steps, who had been his best and truest friend.
Davin swung up his bow in terror, as the great head stopped, centered on the women. He nearly broke his last arrow in setting it, and suddenly his task was clear. He could see the Eye, feel the Eye, and he could feel the arrow beneath his fingertips and the perfect arc it must travel, and he drew his bow and loosed it, and the other, yes, the other arrow went too, not with the perfect beauty of his but with a shuddering spring, like a dying animal’s last clawing. And his shot went deep, through its eye, into the brain, and he felt inside himself that it was dying. And at the last moment, as the GranMalo looked at him with its remaining eyes, for the first time a feeling of fear and wonder seemed to emanate from its core. It looked at him as nothing else ever had, the three good eyes widening in some sort of ghastly recognition. And then it died, falling backward with the sound of thunder, barely missing several of the General’s men in its precipitous drop. At almost the same moment, the Hellport, now shrunken to less than the height of a man, closed with a shriek.
For a moment, there was a complete silence, as if time had halted, and the world ceased to spin. Then a chorus of gasps was followed by a resounding cheer from every living soul.
“Bayn!” the cry went up. “His arrow — I saw. Bayn killed the great beast!” It was one of the General’s men, who had met their guest. He threw his arms around Bayn, and those that had not known Bayn quickly gathered around, pounding his back and shoulders and cheering.
Bayn quickly halted the hubbub by mounting his horse. “Enough, my friends. We have wounded to see to, many hurt badly . . .”
His voice was interrupted by the sound of many hoof beats, as riders rounded the far bend and raced toward them. The General and the rest of the men were returning.
“We must immediately get the wounded to help,” Bayn said, almost to himself. As the General alighted from Lanze and joined him, he spoke quickly. “As you can see, the Hellport you fought reappeared here — or perhaps it was another. But we have many hurt as well as a number of dead. I recommend we go to the Meeting house, as it must be close.”
The General nodded. He surveyed the string of wagons, the piles of malitos, the bodies strewn along the road, and the monstrous body flung back into the trees. “Deos, a GranMalo. How in our Lord’s name did you survive it?”
“Certainly by His grace alone, General Blackthorn. Now let us hurry to load the wounded and travel with all haste. If there are enough healers at the Iglesa, perhaps the survivors may all remain alive.”
The General turned and began to shout orders. Buoyed both by his return, the miraculous death of the GranMalo, and the closing of the Hellport, those remaining able-bodied men sprang into action.
Ignored, Davin replaced his bow in the saddle sleeve and mounted Charger, determined to stay close to Peto as the wagons began to move out. Ignored, that is, by all but Bayn, who stared at him intensely until Davin rode away . . .
“Demos gracies a Deos e Maria, demos gracies.”
Thanks be to God and to his Daughter, thanks.
Words murmured among the crowd in its different tongues, Plains Sudo, Old Sudo, even Nortes, in a frenzy of thankfulness and tears. Rejoicing at the survival of some lives, mourning the loss of others. There were tears of thanksgiving or grief, and in some cases a combination of both. Such had been the case with the Blackthorn wagons — five of the Aldronne’s ranche hands were dead, and several more wounded.
Arrival at Iglesa had brought confusion and chaos. The priests immediately dispatched a frantic message to Cliff entreating help from all available healers. Worshippers arriving from the city were marshaled to convert the sanctuary to a hospital as wounded were unloaded from wagons and set on pallets to be tended. Grief-stricken relatives were consoled as the dead were collected and laid out for blessing and final rites. Davin had assisted in carrying in both wounded and dead and in tending the wounded before healers were available.
By first eleven, nearly a dozen healers were at work, including Gifted priests from some of the Iglesas in Cliff and a healer with a Talent from the University. All the wounded who had survived transit to the church were kept alive, even the most seriously hurt. But seventeen people, including five children, were dead. The bodies were laid in neat rows near the altar, clothing and blankets laid over them to subdue the horror of their deaths. Most of the mothers who had lost children were at their sides, praying and shedding copious tears.
The healer Davin had been assisting, a priest from the city, turned and smiled at him. “My gratitude for your capable help, young man. Please take the time to rest a moment, as this was the last of those that required help.” He stood up and began to walk toward the front of the Iglesa, no doubt to confer with his fellow healers. For a moment, Davin stared down at the patient, a young ranche hand from a spread near Aldronne. His right leg had been nearly severed, but the healer had saved it. He would probably always walk with a limp, but he would walk. Others, several others in fact, would never walk again, having lost one or both legs.
The young man, scarcely older than Davin, was in a deep coma, induced by the healer. Davin knew that the deep sleep would allow him to recover from the considerable shock of a major healing, so Davin could do nothing more. Standing, he moved toward one of the benches near the rear of the Meeting House.
Davin marveled that they were still alive, and he felt sure that had not Bayn been in their company, both to fight and marshal the defense, they would all have died. When the GranMalo appeared . . . No, he would think on that later. For now, he pondered his survival when so many others had died, trying to remember those that now lay in the last sleep as they had been when they lived. It was the best way he could mourn the dead: five of Aldronne’s ranche hands, seven neighbors and friends, among them Peto, and five children, including the two that Davin had seen on their family wagon.
Just as Davin sought to settle quietly into a pew, a disturbance directly in front of him caught his attention. A pretty girl, face distraught, was standing nose-to-nose with one of the young priests of the Iglesa.
“No! Stay away from me! I want nothing from you, least of all your false consolations and mealy-mouthed blessing!” Turning she fled out of the pew and up the aisle past Davin. Near the rear of the sanctuary, her father tried to intercept her, but she threw off his arms and pushed her way out of the Iglesa as any number of mourners turned to watch her leave the building.
Davin couldn’t say what impelled him to follow, but he did. Near the back of the aisle, he encountered Aduyemo Mataro, whom he knew well. It dawned on Davin that the girl must be Donaia, his daughter and Peto’s betrothed. Catching his eye, Mataro shrugged, face red.
“She is very upset. She won’t talk to anyone. With her mother long dead, there is no woman she can talk to.”
Davin nodded. Donaia had only brothers, he knew. No female with whom to commiserate. “Let me find Meara,” he suggested. “Perhaps she can help.”
Mataro nodded, running his hands through sparse black hair. He was relatively short, not much taller than Davin, and he looked rattled and exhausted, as though he had fought malitos as well — and perhaps the effort to comfort a young woman who had lost her betrothed was equal in its effort. Davin went in search of Meara.
He spied her in the corner of the church, her arms around their neighbor, who had lost her two daughters. No disturbing that scene; Davin turned and looked for Aliceia, who was similarly involved.
What to do? Frustrated, Davin moved to the church door and outside — perhaps there was something he could do or say. Outside the Iglesa door, which faced East by tradition, the wind was icy, and Davin realized his coat was still inside. He almost turned back to the warmth and comfort of the sanctuary, not just due to the cold, but because encounters with young women were almost always embarrassing and awkward for him. Finally, he persisted, turning to search for Donaia. Peto had been his best friend; the least he could do was to offer his sympathy and friendship.
Donaia was not in sight. She would be around the corner, in the lee of the wind. As he started to move, Davin could see the tops of the watchtowers at Fort Grenoble, half a kilometer or so east and slightly north. The Iglesa was a plain, rugged, rectangular building, with thick walls, simple furnishings of pine and black walnut, and only a few stained-glass windows. It was built near the Fort, the two sharing a common stockade fence.
The day was darkening even more, the clouds a creamy color foreboding snow. A heavy fall was imminent, and Davin only hoped that they could return home before it began.
Rounding the corner of the Iglesa, Davin found the young woman near the church wall, standing awkwardly in the afternoon chill, her shawl tight around her shoulders, staring off into the western sky. Her fingers grasped the fringed edges of her wrap, tugging spasmodically at the threads. She had not pulled on her long-coat, but simply draped it over her arm, despite the bone-chilling cold. It was as though her anger alone kept her warm.
Not intending to startle her, Davin moved into her field of vision slowly, parallel to her and to her left, although she still did not appear aware of him. Having spent most of her anger on the unfortunate young priest, she brooded silently, gazing toward the west, where the plain below the escarpment was shrouded in low clouds.
“Hello, Davin,” she said, her voice subdued. He was surprised that she remembered him. He had been gone nearly two years, and in that time, Donaia had changed dramatically from a pretty girl to a beautiful young woman.
Her eyes now reflected only a resigned bitterness. “I am sorry I could not save Peto,” he said quietly. “Blame me, not that young priest. Peto died saving my life.” The words rolled off his tongue like acid — he wondered why even an act of comfort had to be an admission of his own shortcoming.
After a moment, she nodded. “I know. That foolish young priest, who has probably never seen more than a painting of a malito, had only the fault to approach me in my anger. I wasn’t even angry at him. Partly, I was angry at our Lord, which I suppose is the height of conceit. Being angry at God, I mean. But, mainly, I was angry at myself. Angry for my stupid hope, angry at my refusal to acknowledge that the future was set, and that Peto’s fate — and my own — were woven far too snugly for any effort on our part to change it. And angry at myself for thinking about you instead of Peto.”
Her lips tightened. “It was useless and cruel to yell, but I did. Regardless, it is done. I am not going back in there.”
There was nothing Davin could say — indeed, he hardly understood much of what she had just told him, especially about himself. He felt foolish, not knowing what to say next.
Finally, Donaia turned to look at him. “You would have saved him if you could. You, at least, were there. They say you were one of those with Peto who defended the women and children.”
Davin nodded. “Peto fought well, nearly as well as Bayn Grenoble. Bayn himself said that if he had not stumbled . . . As for me, I am not a fighter like my father.”