I have recently been visiting a lot of churches and photographing the best of their stained glass windows. These glorious multi-coloured images usually tell Bible stories or represent Biblical themes, but many are memorial windows, to benefactors, lost lifboatmen or fishermen, or the dead of two world wars. My editor at Suffolk/Norfolk Life Magazine has agreed to run an occasional series of features on stained glass church windows and there is an amazing wealth and variety of material. Some of them are pictured below.
The Crucifixion at Aldeburgh St Peter and St Paul
"Peace, be still"
Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, St Stephens Norwich
Four Archangels: Gabriel, Fiel, Rafael and Michael, St Mary's, Bury St Edmunds.
The memorial window to lost driftermen, St Edmund, Kessingland
All three books of my FIFTH PLANET series, originally published by Samhain, are now available again from Amazon and create Space. I have re-published SWORD DESTINY and the first chapter is offered as a free read
On the Third Planet the Great War with Maghalla has begun. The ancient Hindu Kingdom of Karakhor is under siege and facing its darkest hour. On the Fifth Planet the insane arms race between the continents of Alpha and Ghedda has come to its catastrophic conclusion. Earth is now the only inhabitable planet in the solar system.
For Kananda, First Prince of Karakhor, and his sister the Princess Maryam, their homecomings are a mixture of pain and grief. For their lovers, Zela, Space Commander of Alpha, and Raven, the last Sword Lord of Ghedda, this final refuge is where they at last come face to face. Here, on the blood-soaked battlefield is where Zela demands her vengeance, and where Kananda must challenge Sardar the Merciless, the dread King of Maghalla.
A brief review of THE FIFTH PLANET
The story so far.
THE SWORD LORD: In the time between the last two earth ice ages Dooma was the Fifth Planet in the solar system. On two massive land continents, divided by the fearsome Sea of Storms there developed two rival powers, the Enlightened Civilization of Alpha and the barbaric Gheddan Empire. As they embarked on a catastrophic arms race with both sides building up huge arsenals of nuclear and lazer weapons they also created the means of destroying the entire planet. This prompted expeditions from both sides to visit Earth, the Third Planet and the only other inhabitable planet in the solar system, in search of possible allies or a refuge.
They came at the dawn of earth’s history when the first embryo civilizations had begun to form. They discovered the ancient Hindu city of Karakhor, which was then being threatened by the advancing hordes of Maghalla. A marriage had been arranged between Sardar of Maghalla and Maryam, the first princess of Golden Karakhor. It was a marriage that Maryam refused when she saw the bestial face of her intended husband. Such an insult could only be answered with war and Sardar the Merciless swore a bloody revenge.
As Sardar gatheres his forces the space ships from Dooma arrive. The first contact with the Alphans is made by a hunting party led by Kananda, the First Prince of Karakhor. Kananda and Zela, the Commander of the Alphan ship, find themselves unexpected allies in a savage battle with a sabre-tooth tiger that has been flushed by the hunt. Kananda finds himself immediately in love with this golden-haired goddess from the skies.
The Sword lord Raven, the commander of the Gheddan expedition, boldly lands his ship on the open plain at the very gates of Karakhor. A demonstration of their awesome battle lazer powers and the fact that they are blue-skinned leads the confused Hindus to believe that these men from the heavens are their gods. Maryam is smitten by Raven and sees him as a potential saviour for her people in the face of the coming assault from Maghalla.
Both Kananda and Maryam are unaware that the alien visitors with whom they have fallen in love are mortal enemies. Raven is the murderer of Zela’s brother Laton and Zela has sworn vengeance against the Sword Lord.
Kasseem, the High Priest of Karahor is tormented by the soft green eyes of Laurya, the second female member of Zela’s crew. It is only when he discovers his latent astral powers that he realizes that she is also Liane, his astral-travelling lover with whom he has shared many previous lives.
One of the younger princes of Karakhor tries to kill Raven by sending three assassins to attack him in the back alleys of the city. Raven cuts them down and then extracts more vengeance by executing the House Lord he believes is responsible in the great audience hall of the king’s palace.
Kananda and the Alphans return to Karakhor. Forewarned of the Gheddan presence they swim the encircling river and approach the royal palace through the back alleys. Kananda learns that Thorn, Raven’s second in command, has raped and killed his half sister, the princess Namita. He challenges Thorn to a sword duel, forestalling Zela’s intention to challenge Raven. A sword challenge is something no Gheddan can refuse. Their honor also demands that no one else can interfere.
Raven has to let the sword challenge take place. Kananda kills Thorn. The Alphans appear behind him and in the battle of lazer hand weapons that follows Raven is forced to retreat from the city.
In the confusion Maryam joins the fleeing Gheddans and boards their space ship. Raven has no time to throw her off and not knowing where the Alphan space ship might be lurking hurls his craft out of Earth orbit to return to Ghedda.
Kanada believes that his sister has been taken against her will and is determined to follow and rescue her. One of Zela’s crew has been killed in the lazer crossfire and there is a spare seat on her ship.
SWORD EMPIRE: On his return to Ghedda Raven is immediately plunged into the political intrigues of the Council of Twelve in the City of swords. His mentor Karn is a latent astral traveler who has learned the truth. The Alphans are not lying from weakness and a full scale war between their empires will destroy the planet. This sets Karn against the ruling council as he votes against the coming war. Raven is forced into a duel to protect his mentor.
Zela returns to Alpha and is immediately assigned another mission: to penetrate the Gheddan Empire and send warning when its final lazer battle station is launched into orbit. Her guide is Jayna, an experienced spy who needs a new protector to complete her cover. The two women will pose as dancers with Kananda as their guardian. Kananda accompanies them, hoping that somehow he will find Maryam.
Their skimmer craft is flown into the mouth of the Black swamp River and they make the dangerous journey inland until the river narrows in trackless forest. There they leave the craft and trek to the source of the Great Steel River that will take them down into the City of Swords.
Raven has to leave the city and travel north to where his home stronghold is under siege by two rival sword lords. Maryam goes with him and the harsh rules of this barbaric new world force her to quickly grow up. The sword games she had once played with her brothers become a grim new reality and she finds that she too has some skill with the blade.
On Earth the young lords Gujar and Kasim hunt through the drink dens of Karakhor, searching for whoever hired the three assassains who tried to kill Raven. The man responsible covered his tracks by making them wear the colors of House Gandhar and so caused Raven to execute Gujar’s father. Gujar learns that it was one of Karakhor’s princes, but his desire for vengeance is frustrated because he cannot identify which one.
In Alpha Laurya is reunited with another astral adept, Antar/Allan who is also the Commander of the Alphan Space Corps. Together they search Ghedda on the astral plane, watching the construction of the Gheddan battle stations and searching in vain for the astral form of the Sword lord Karn.
Raven returns to the City of Swords to find that Karn is dead. The ageing Sword Lord was a sick man and his death has been attributed to natural causes, but in the circumstances Raven suspects otherwise. However, he is immediately given another mission: to take a flight of six ships back to Earth and secure Karakhor for Ghedda. The war with Alpha is imminent and Alpha must be totally destroyed with no refuge anywhere in the solar system.
Zela and Jayna have also discovered that the war is about to be launched. They escape from the City of Swords in a stolen sky-car but are pursued by a three ship Gheddan patrol. By feigning surrender and then twisting into a surprise dog fight Zela’s supreme flying skills bring down all three of the enemy craft, but she cannot avoid taking a killing hit. Their sky-car crashes into the great Gar Desert.
The hosts of Maghalla filled the plain, swarming down from the hills and out from the forests like a vast plague of locusts, staining the grass black with a heaving mass of bodies, all bristling and bright steel flashing from all the arms and weapons of war. The smoke of their thousands of camp fires stained the dawn sky a sultry, dark-veined red. The stench and sound of their horses, elephants and men carried clearly to the very walls of golden Karakhor.
For weeks the vast conglomeration of Sardar’s armies had been on the march, slowly creeping down from the north, killing and devouring all that lay in their path, while the mobile forces of Karakhor had contested every inch of the way.
Kasim, the undisputed Master of the Bow, had taken a force of hand-picked archers and attacked the enemy at every river crossing, every narrow ravine, and every possible bottleneck where an ambush could be launched. They had killed hundreds with volleys of swift arrows before melting away to reform at their next chosen battle line.
Gujar, the young Lord of Gandhar, with a swift force of speeding chariots had harassed the enemy repeatedly on the open plains, cutting off sections of the far-flung horde with merciless hit-and-run attacks, slaughtering with javelins and swords. Like lightning bolts they came storming out of the sun, struck, killed, and were gone in a brilliant, blinding whirl of hooves and wheels, and blood and dust.
The Princes Ranjit and Salim of the House of Bulsar had circled to the rear of the enemy host with a group of their father’s horsemen to savage Sardar’s supply columns and slow his advance. They had left fire and terror in their wake, burning food stocks and destroying the supply camps. They had also succeeded in scattering and driving off large sections of the cattle herds that had been destined as meat for the monstrous horde.
Hamir, the head huntsman had infiltrated into the intervening forests with a handful of his best trackers, all of them skilled in wood lore and masters of stealth and cunning. They had poisoned the rivers and drinking places, and set a multitude of traps and snares that had broken enemy ankles, legs and spines, or pierced their feet with sharpened, poison-tipped spikes of bamboo. They had filled large straw baskets with trapped cobras and hurled them spitting into the circles of enemy firelight. Once they had captured a live leopard, starved it for a week, and then loosed it into a narrow valley where the Black Monkey Clan had made one of their overnight camps.
Kaseem had flown the astral heavens, night after night, reporting back to the uncertain and puzzled Jahan the latest advances of the enemy positions. Always he was alert for his astral enemies, but Sardar and Nazik were either both exhausted by the massive and complex task they were undertaking in the physical world, or else they were complacent and feared no threat or observation from the higher plane. Kaseem even wondered whether they might perhaps be afraid of him. In the physical world they were surrounded and protected by hundreds of mailed guards and champions. In the astral they were only two against one, and that one was Kharga, swordsman of Ghedda, now fully restored in his spiritual form with all his ancient skills and memories. It might even be that they believed him to be still in the company of Laurya/Liane, in which case they would fear that they were more than evenly matched. Whatever the reason, he did not fully trust their absence, and maintained his guard.
The awesome advance of the forces of Sardar and Maghalla had been frustrated and harried with every mile, but it could not be stopped. Every delay was only a brief postponement and never a reversal. Sardar had lost several thousand of his men, a thousand head of cattle, and scores of his food carts and wagons, and yet when his forces pitched their camps within sight of Karakhor, it looked as though every King and fighting man between the East and Western oceans had all aligned themselves beneath his unfurled banners.
Jahan, Warmaster of Karakhor, stood upon the ramparts of the white walls and watched them gather. He wore golden mail and the great ruby-hilted sword was belted at his side. His hair was tied back at the nape of his neck and he was bare-headed. His golden helmet, decorated with a snarling tiger on each cheek guard and with a high plume of purple horsehair, rested on the wall before him. Immediately below him lay the river which circled the city, and beyond the ranks of his own forces, the foot-soldiers, chariots and elephants. They were a formidable army in their own right, but they were outnumbered by the huge sprawl of Sardar’s ranks on the far side of the open plain.
Jahan turned, squinting his eyes against the sun-dazzle from the golden roofs and white walls of the palaces and temples within the city walls. That blinding glare was behind them, and gleaming in the eyes of Sardar’s warriors. Until noon that small advantage was theirs. His best archers lined the walls, bows in hand, with piles of sharpened arrows at their feet.
Kara-Rashna stood behind him, leaning against Kaseem. The two old men, King and priest, almost seemed to be holding each other up, they were both now so frail. On either side of them stood the Princes Sanjay and Devan, grim-faced but rock-solid. The younger Princes and House Lords were ranged in a half circle, all of them silent and subdued. Kasim and Gujar stood side by side, now battle-hardened young men who had proved themselves again and again. Kasim had been offered the command of the archers on the walls, but had chosen to drive his father’s house flag and chariot into battle. The brothers Ranjit and Salim had returned during the cover of darkness with the last of their surviving horsemen and were still stained with dust and blood. Ramesh and Nirad were both pale-faced boys who were still hardly trained. Both had begged to take part in one of the raiding parties and both had been refused. Rajar too was pale-faced, although most of his pallor was hidden by the black beard he had recently grown for that purpose. Rajar had not yet sought to place himself in danger.
“It begins,” Jahan said, and his voice was a somber growl. “Noble King and Noble Princes, we must take up our chariots and take our places.”
He reached for his helmet and led the way. The others followed. Sanjay and Devan stayed closed by Kara-Rashna, but the defiant King waved them aside. He dragged his left leg slightly, but descended unaided to his waiting chariot, where his sun-burst banner fluttered bravely in the breeze.
“May the Gods go with you,” Kaseem called after them. All through the night he had led the prayers and sacrifices, but now it all seemed pointless and his words rang hollow. Outwardly he was still High Priest and Brahmin, but inwardly all his senses raged against the looming horrors of the war. His faith in the Gods and in all the calm philosophies had ebbed and drained. He pulled his white robe around the dry husk of his numbed and useless body, and wished that he was Kharga again, and that he could go with them.
Slowly he turned to take the place Jahan had vacated at the wall, and looked down despairing at the coming battle. His ancient eyes failed him and the bitter tears squeezed through.
The bridge that Raven had destroyed had been rebuilt, and the cavalcade of battle chariots drove swiftly across the river to take up their positions in the vanguard of the Karakhoran lines. Jahan and Kara-Rashna formed the center, side by side. On either side of them Devan and Sanjay reined their chariots into place. Rajar placed his chariot beside his most powerful uncle, staking his claim to be a Prince of senior rank. Devan glanced at him doubtfully, and then gave an approving smile. Rajar smiled bravely in return. He had trained hard with his sword, and he knew that now it would be impossible to run away from the daily battles that faced them all. So he had decided that somehow he must swallow his fear, and fight as ferociously as he was able in order to survive.
Gujar, Kasim, Ramesh, Nirad, and the Bulsar Princes lined their chariots up in a second row, and looked for the banners of the younger princes in the opposing ranks. They all had strict orders from Jahan and their fathers to leave the older champions of Sardar’s forces to their own seasoned fighters.
Kara-Rashna peered forward through dim and blinking eyes. His heart was also beating painfully in his chest, as though at any moment it might betray him with the final stab of death. He searched the far, fluttering battle banners for the bright Golden Bear of the King of Khanju, and finally saw it flying proudly, close to the Black Leopard of Sardar of Maghalla. Kara-Rashna needed one hand to hold on to the brawny shoulder of his charioteer, but with the other he drew his sword.
On the far side of the plain Sardar of Maghalla straightened his squat bulk, squared his shoulders under his coat of steel mail, and raised a javelin in a glittering spear thrust to the sky. At the given signal trumpets blasted and the massed war drums began their beat. Horns blared and conch shells sounded, the great mass of men roared in one voice and smashed their sword hilts against their shields.
Jahan raised his sword and from the walls of Karakhor came a return blast of more trumpets and war drums. The two waves of sound met in one mighty thunderclap in the center of the still empty field, and then the ranks of Maghalla began to advance, and the massed chariots of the Maghallans charged.
Jahan let them come and cover half of the open field before he roared his own command, slashed his sword down in signal, and whipped up the reins of his horses. The sky overhead was suddenly black with the mighty thundercloud of arrows fired from the walls, sailing over their heads as Jahan led the counter-charge with the chariots of Karakhor thundering beside him. On the flanks of both armies the war elephants screamed and trumpeted as they began their own lumbering advance, urged on by their drivers with kicks and screaming cries. The warriors and foot-soldiers on either side hurled their own curses and challenges and ran in the wake of the chariots and tuskers.
The merciless rain of arrows hit the leading ranks of Maghalla seconds before the main clash of battle struck. The descending shafts bounced off the mailed coats and steel helmets of the leading princes and chieftains, but skewered the less protected flesh of the rank and file who fell screaming to be trampled by the mob behind. The front ranks of chariots swerved at the last moment to avoid headlong collisions, and then all was confusion as the two forces met. The champions of either side had each tried to swing alongside a worthy opponent, but most of them had been foiled almost immediately by the instant, swirling melee of the battle. Ranjit of the House of Bulsar had crashed his chariot with Tuluq, the son of Sardar. Both chariots overturned and the proud standards of the Blue Raven and the Coiled Cobra were trampled together in the dust. Ranjit was first on his feet, sword in hand, seeking his marked enemy, but already Tuluq had been hauled back to safety behind a dozen Maghallan warriors. Ranjit might have died then under those Maghallan swords, but the Black Raven of Bulsar crashed through the field as Salim forced his own chariot to his brother’s rescue. Ranjit swung up behind his brother and the two fought together for the rest of that hot and bloody day.
Sanjay had halted his chariot on a small knoll of raised ground and his personal guards had formed a ring of steel around him. His dead fingers could not grip the reins and so he had lashed them to his withered wrist. Now, with his sound left hand and arm, he began hurling the great bundle of javelins at his feet with deadly accuracy. Heavier than an arrow, the razor-bladed javelins could smash through chain mail, and Sangay’s eye sought out the Maghallan chiefs and captains who dared to come within his range. Kasim, more mobile in his fast flying chariot, was doing equally dreadful work with his bow.
Amid the fearful noise and bloody slaughter Kara-Rashna was still searching for Kumar-Rao, the King of Khanju, with the chariots of Jahan and Devan stoutly blocking him in and protecting him on either side. Foot soldiers flew aside before them or were crushed or trampled beneath their pounding hooves and flying wheels. Prince and Warmaster deflected the hails of arrows aimed at their King with their shields, and with their swords cut down any challenger who tried to stop their path. The earth shook beneath the heaving tumult, and the blood flowed all around them in gory streams.
Suddenly the proud banner of the Golden Bear rose before them, sharp and clear to Jahan and Devan, but swimming as though in a darkened mist to the smarting eyes of Kara-Rashna. On its left side flew the Black Mailed Fist of the Prince Zarin, and on its right the Red Fist of Bharat. Khanju’s monarch also had his protectors.
The two old Kings halted their chariots to face each. Their champions also reined in their horses and reluctantly held back. The warriors of both sides withdrew around them, yielding to the signs of single combat. A circle formed, an oasis of sudden deathly hush and stillness in the raging battle all around.
Kumar-Rao wore a mail coat of gold over his blue tunic, but he wore no helmet, favoring instead his white turban with a Golden Bear clasp above his forehead. His beard was equally white and his eyes were sad and rheumy. In his right hand he gripped a sword, but held it as though it were too heavy for him, pulling at his aching arm, even though the point rested on the floorboards of his chariot. His jowls drooped, and it seemed he had no words to say.
Kara-Rashna was not sure whether it was tears or dust that stung the back of his own eyelids. Slowly he removed his own helmet, revealing hair as white as Kumar-Rao’s beard. When he spoke his voice faltered.
“Kumar-Rao, King of Khanju, oldest friend of Karakhor, once we were brothers, united in Peace. Many times have I come to Khanju as your honored guest. Many times I have welcomed you in Karakhor. When you were young I came to celebrate your wedding, and you came to celebrate mine. Noble King of Khanju, oft-honored guest, beloved friend -- why are you here now, among the ranks of my enemies?”
Kumar-Rao flinched with every word, as though each one stung his heart. But he was a King, and answered with an almost steady voice.
“Prince Zarin, my beloved son, is now a Prince of Maghalla. He stands with his new father, and my duty binds me with my son.”
“Withdraw from the field,” Kara-Rashna begged him. “Take your unstained banner home, and so will I. Let younger men settle this battle. We are grandfathers and have no place here.”
“I cannot.” Kumar-Rao lifted his bearded chin with struggling pride. “I am here, and I must stay. You cannot ask me to turn like a jackal and slink away with my tail between my legs.”
“Not like a Jackal, you were never that. Go like a lion, old friend, proud and regal. Hold your head and standard high. I yield my honor to beg it of you.”
“A lion does not leave the field of battle. I cannot go.”
At last a tear trickled slowly down Kara-Rashna’s cheek. He raised his sword, slowly as though it were heavy lead instead of burnished steel. “Then one of us must die,” he said sadly. “Old friend, I salute you.”
“May the Gods be with you,” Kumar-Rao acknowledged.
Both monarchs touched the shoulders of their charioteers. The drivers whipped up their horses and the two chariots surged forward, skidding alongside each other with a scraping crash. Both old kings almost fell, recovered themselves feebly, and then began to hew ineffectively at each other with their swords.
It was a half-hearted contest, as though each willed the other to make the killing blow. Jahan and Devan glared at Zarin and Bharat, and those two stalwarts glared balefully back, but there was a code of conduct to be obeyed. Battles between champions were to be decided by the champions alone. They were subject to the will of the Gods.
Finally Kumar-Rao made one last despairing swing, as though at last he had decided to try and end it. His blade missed and cut deep into the side of Kara-Rashna’s chariot. For a moment there it was wedged. Kara-Rashna swung his own blade at his opponent’s head, but either he was still aiming to miss or his arm was now too weak and unsteady to take advantage of the opportunity. He succeeded only in knocking Kumar-Rao’s turban from his head, and then the still wildly swinging blade chopped into the bare shoulder of Kumar-Rao-s charioteer. The unfortunate man howled with pain, swung away from the blow, and inadvertently hauled hard on his reins. Both of Kumar-Rao’s horses reared high in sudden panic, the chariot was tilted backwards, and Kumar Rao tumbled out to land sprawling on the grass. Somehow he had retained his grip upon his sword and pulled it clear as he fell.
There was silence, except for the panting and scuffling of the horses as the wounded driver tried to control them. Kumar-Rao pulled himself to his knees, and then crawled painfully away from his grinding chariot wheels. After a few yards he stopped and looked up pitifully at Kara-Rashna.
Slowly Kara-Rashna dismounted from his own chariot, using a spear from the rack beside him as a crutch to steady himself. Sword in hand he limped toward his fallen opponent, and then stopped and leaned on his makeshift staff. He was breathing heavily and had to gasp his final pleas.
“Kumar-Rao, friend and brother, again I beg you -- leave the field.”
“You know I cannot.”
Kumar-Rao used his sword to push himself upright. In doing so he pressed the point deep into the earth and then had to struggle to free it. Kara-Rashna waited, still in hope, until Khanju’s panting monarch was again erect with his sword upraised. Then Kumar-Rao charged blindly forward. He made no more attempt to swing his sword, simply holding it aloft like a banner standard. He deliberately impaled himself on Kara-Rashna’s out-held, unmoving blade. The links of golden chain mail parted and the blue tunic and the soft flesh below the heart yielded just as easily. The blade plunged deep and Kara-Rashna stared in horror into Kumar-Rao’s dying eyes.
Kara-Rashna pulled back his sword, staggering as he did so, and then like something foul and distasteful he threw it aside. He knelt beside his fallen opponent and cradled Kumar-Rao’s head against his chest. The tears welled in his eyes and he could not see whether Kumar-Rao was still alive or dead.
“Why, old friend?” He asked bitterly. “Why did we have to come to this?”
“I had no heart for it,” Kumar-Rao croaked weakly. “But perhaps now Khanju’s honor is saved. I give Zarin and Bharat my leave to withdraw.” He coughed up blood and his last gasp was almost inaudible. “Let them take Khanju’s warriors home.”
Bharat had urged his chariot forward. He was a large man, black-bearded and black-hearted. The wide grin on his face was one of triumph and satisfaction. He had overheard the last words of his elder brother, but they meant nothing to him.
“Prince Zarin is ruler of Khanju now,” he flung out a mailed hand to grandly indicate his younger, grim-faced companion. “Khanju has a new monarch and will be stronger under his leadership. Khanju will not leave the field. Not until Karakhor has fallen. Then the spoils of war are ours when we share the victory with Maghalla.”
“And you are the King-maker,” Jahan snarled contemptuously.
The old Warmaster turned his gaze toward Zarin, although he knew that any appeal to any filial sense of love or duty in that direction would be an empty formality. However, Bharat was in no mood to permit any further discourse.
“King-maker and King-slayer,” he roared, mainly for the benefit of the watching warriors of Khanju. “Kumar-Rao will be avenged.” He snatched a javelin from his rack and hurled it at Kara-Rashna, and in the same moment charged his chariot forward.
Devan heaved his horses round, thrusting out his arm and shield to deflect the speeding javelin. The weapon tore through the hard, stretched leather, almost wrenching Devan’s arm from its socket, but Kara-Rashna was unharmed. In the same second Jahan leaped his horses forward, speeding between his King and the on-coming Bharat. Their chariots crashed and buckled, and their swords clashed in a fast and furious ring of steel.
For a moment the rules of single combat again prevailed, but the horses on both sides were rearing and plunging out of control. Bharat’s team suddenly bolted, dragging his chariot behind them, and then the tide of battle closed in behind him as Zarin too backed away, shouting for his warriors to kill them all.
Jahan found himself besieged by the men of Khanju, like some savage old lion of the forest trapped by jackals. His great sword whirled and cleaved around him, cutting back the pressing ranks of his enemies. He cleared a breathing space and then looked again for Zarin or Bharat. Both had fled, but then he heard a warning shout from one of his own captains.
He turned to see that Devan had jumped down from his own chariot. Now he was standing over the slumped bodies of the two old kings in the center of another savage fight, defending them both with his sword. Jahan turned his chariot and charged his horses into the fray, sweeping past the spot where Devan stood, and smashing the biggest knot of his opponents aside.
Kara-Rashna still held the lifeless form of Khanju’s King, held him as in a lover’s embrace, or as a drowning man might cling to his last slipping grip upon the shore. He was only vaguely aware of Devan fighting above him, and of the mighty battle raging all around. There was a red mist before his eyes and a fierce, stabbing pain in his broken heart. He felt as though he had been pierced by a spear or sword, but when his hand clasped at his chest there was no cold steel and no warm blood. There was no wound. The pain was all inside his chest, and it was slowly quenched by an all consuming darkness.
On Ghedda Kananda and his companions had survived two nights and two days in the desert. They had waited long minutes for their crashed patrol ship to explode, but nothing more had happened. Finally, when the frantic beating of their hearts had slowed and their shattered senses had regained some equilibrium, they dared to raise their faces from the sand. They could see glows of light where the remains of the three enemy ships still burned fiercely, but their own craft lay still and black against the dark slope of the dune.
“We need water,” Zela said grimly, her mind already racing ahead to the problems of survival. She stood up and Kananda moved to join her, but she pushed him back. “Wait here, I know where to look.”
She ran quickly to the wreckage and climbed back into the broken cabin. There were overhead racks for maps and documents and side pockets inside the doors where the crews usually stuffed any personal belongings. In the latter she found two half-filled water bottles and a few cakes and oddments of snack food. These she swiftly gathered up and then made another hasty exit.
They had already lingered as long as they dared and immediately began the long trek north, knowing that it was imperative to cover as much ground as possible under the blanket of darkness. Once the sun rose they would be more easily seen, and they would roast in the merciless heat. Zela led, half supporting Jayna who was now in considerable pain. There was massive bruising around the left side of Jayna’s rib cage, and she had been either more badly hurt than she had wanted to admit, or else she had suffered more damage from being thrown about in the crash. Jayna’s lips were pursed tight and bloodless and her face poured sweat, and Zela suspected that she now had at least one cracked rib.
Kananda brought up the rear, and with his bare hands carefully smoothed out their footprints from the sand behind them. The palls of smoke from the three Kaz-ar fliers gradually faded from the black horizons, but they all knew that eventually there must be more pursuit and that from the air the crash sites would be easily found. Zela guessed that they were now no more than an hour’s flight from Kaz-ar, and they would not get far in that time. Their only hope was to leave no clue as to the direction they had taken.
Mercifully, high clouds were filtering out much of the starlight, and only one of Dooma’s three moons was aloft, a stark, black-swirled grey satellite low on the eastern horizon which threw long dark shadows from the high dunes. Zela was using the stars to navigate, and fortunately her knowledge of the star patterns and the constellations was good enough for even partial glimpses of them to give her their direction. Kananda too knew most of the constellations, they were the same stars that he had so often seen from Earth, but here he had no way of relating them to the unfamiliar terrain. With only half the picture he could only trust to Zela’s skills and instincts.
Eventually they heard the first sounds of the second wave of pursuit from Kaz-ar, the faint, distant drone of more fliers circling the crash site behind them. They kept going until one of the drones became louder, and then dropped flat and lay motionless in the sand. Far to their left they saw a distant beam of white light weaving a zigzag pathway across the dunes. Above it hovered the searching flier, like some great black, hostile insect combing the sky. The flier and its searchlight beam passed several hundred yards behind them and flew on its way.
“They are circling out from the crash site,” Zela explained, her voice calm and matter of fact. “But the Great Gar is a huge desert and they have missed us on the first sweep. The further away we get the more they have to search and the better our chances. We must keep moving.”
Jayna nodded and tried to push herself upright. Her face contorted in pain and she collapsed again. Zela and Kananda helped her to stand and they continued as before. The soft sand pulled at their feet as though trying to suck them under the desert surface and their progress was slow. A strengthening wind was now beginning to blow, and although it flung fine sand to sting their bodies and faces, it was also helping to clear their tracks. Kananda decided that it was now safe to leave that task wholly to the wind and concentrated on helping Zela to support the near-fainting Jayna.
Twice more they heard the searching Gheddan ships and cowered down in the sand, but each time the ships passed at a distance and only once did they see the far glimmer of a searching light. They were tiring, and when the dawn began to bleed its pale light across the eastern rim of their harsh and barren world they were all beginning to stagger.
They paused for a brief rest and Zela allowed them each a mouthful from one of the water bottles. Then they began walking again. The sun became Zela’s only navigational aid as the stars and the low moon disappeared, but she was still confident that they were heading due north. It was not the direct route back to the swamp and the skimmer, but it was their shortest route out of the desert, and she knew that if they did not find tree-shelter and more water as soon as possible, then they would surely die.
The dunes at last gave way to a more hard and stony landscape, all brown and yellow with a few rust-red hills. It was a blistering world of heat and glare and dust devils, growing more cruel and deadly with every step as the sun rose higher. Zela pushed them on until they found a pile of rocks that afforded a few square feet of shade, and there they dug themselves into the hard sand and lay up for the rest of the day. Their bodies craved the rest, but the heat hammered them in savage waves and they lay exhausted. Their mouths were parched dry and Zela was sparing with the water. Even so, by noon one of their precious water bottles was empty.
Shortly after noon another Gheddan rotary flier appeared and flew almost directly overhead. All three of them lay still as death in their holes among the rocks, scarcely daring to breathe. The sound of the circling blades battered the stillness with waves of scorching heat and flying dust, but the craft did not land. Eventually it flew on to look for more patches of possible shade, and Kananda relaxed his vice-like grip on the hilt of his sword with a slow exhalation of relief.
“They know we have escaped the crash because they have found no bodies,” Zela croaked through cracking lips. “They also know that if we were still in the dunes we would by now be dead. So they are now sweeping the edge of the foothills beyond the dunes. After this they may give up.”
Jayna looked doubtful, but Kananda merely nodded. He had neither the energy nor the knowledge to argue with her line of reasoning.
For the rest of that awful day they lay up in their pitifully small shelter, and it seemed as though the killing white ball of the sun would never set. At last it began to redden and sink toward the western horizon. As the shadows lengthened Zela roused them and allowed them to share the few scraps of food and drink half of their remaining water. A little of their strength returned, the cooler air of evening revived them slightly, and again they marched toward the north.
The barren lands continued bleak and lifeless and a uniform grey in the clear starlight. The cloud that had partially covered their escape the night before had vanished, and the brilliance of the stars against the velvet blackness of space gave them some consolation. The moon of the previous night was higher now, and a second moon trailed it half hidden behind the horizon. They no longer had the soft sand sucking at their boots, but there were stones and small rocks underfoot that tripped their feet and constantly threatened to twist a knee or ankle.
After four hours they rested again, and each wetted their lips and throats with another mouthful of water. Then they moved on again, their bodies aching in every bone and muscle, and with Jayna now needing both Zela and Kananda on either side to support her. Sometimes her feet dragged and she was barely conscious.
Dawn found them struggling almost drunkenly in the low, bare foothills, but still there was no glimpse of green in the unrelenting desert landscape. Zela had hoped to get clear of the desert before the sun rose for another day, and now she began to fear that they would not survive. As the sun rose higher and lashed them again with its burning rays they found another patch of shade beside a sand-scoured hill and collapsed into a sprawling heap.
They dozed fitfully, and their half-waking moments were delirious with hopeless dreams and haunting nightmares. Their bodies were dehydrated and their tongues began to swell. Zela finally shared out the last of their water. She threw the empty bottle away, but Kananda crawled out into the merciless sun to retrieve it. His head was swimming, but he was not yet ready to die. He said nothing, but clung on to the hope that somewhere, somehow, they might be able to find more water and fill the bottle again.
When the sun dropped out of sight again they were still alive. Kananda struggled to his knees and crawled closer to Zela. He pulled at her shoulder and she opened her eyes and stared at him blankly. He couldn’t speak but tugged again at her shoulder, insistently, until at last she roused herself. Together they turned to Jayna who lay as though dead. Kananda slapped her face. Zela croaked her name, and finally Jayna too opened her eyes.
Somehow they got Jayna up between them, and in the cooler night air they began to move on. Kananda started them off blindly in the direction from which they had come, back toward the dunes and a certain death in the sands, but then Zela blinked her eyes and focused on the first stars appearing above. She recognized one of the constellations and with an effort pulled Kananda around to start them walking north again.
To Kananda all that mattered now was to put one foot in front of the other, to keep going forward, and to somehow drag Jayna and Zela along with him. He was light-headed and could feel his tongue growing larger in his mouth. Soon it would choke him and that would be the end, but until then he would not give up. More dead than alive they continued doggedly northward, step by tortured step.
Kananda closed his eyes and closed his mind, concentrating every effort of his will into the one task of moving forward. Jayna became a dead weight, her right arm curled around his shoulder and neck, gradually slipping back. And then slowly there came the realization that she was not just slipping away from him, but actually trying to pull him to a stop. She groaned aloud, and when he turned to look at her face he saw that her bloated lips were moving and she was trying to speak.
He stopped and stared at her. On her other side, Zela too stumbled to a halt. Jayna moved her arm from Zela’s shoulders and pointed unsteadily forward. They were in a hollow between two hills, and a few paces in front of them there grew a living bush, a plant of green, bulbous stems, protected by a fierce array of spiked thorns.
Jayna gave up her attempt to speak. She had their attention and slowly she disentangled herself from Kananda. She swayed on her feet and pulled at the hilt of his sword. Kananda understood. He pulled the blade free of the scabbard and gave it to her. Jayna tottered forward and sliced through one of the fat green stems of the plant. The sharp thorns gashed her hand and drew blood as she held the severed limb, but she was unfeeling to any pain. With two more cuts she sliced off some of the hard, outer rind, and then pushed the soft inner plant flesh into her mouth. She chewed with difficulty, but after a few minutes green juices were running down her chin and her eyes shone with delight. Deftly she cut another thick slice of the plant limb, halved it and gave them half each. With no questions asked Kananda and Zela crammed the soft centers into their mouths and sucked at the bitter juice.
“Not too much,” Jayna managed at last. “Too much will make us sick, but a little will keep us going.”
They sat down beside the strange plant of bloated, silver green stumps and shining thorns, and ate and chewed as much as Jayna deemed wise. The taste was not pleasant, but their mouths were refreshed and their spirits revived. Where their lips had started to crack the juices stung, but that was a small price to pay.
“The Cacti plant stores moisture,” Jayna told them. “But to find it we must be on higher ground, and we must be near to the tree line. I think we are going to live.”
After half an hour of rest they moved on again. They soon began to see more of the strange cacti plants, growing larger and making weird and grotesque silhouettes against the darkness. They moved out of the low, barren hills, and suddenly they were encountering tufts of sparse scrub bushes. When dawn broke they could see the first of the distant clumps of low woodland.
“Trees,” Zela tried to laugh but the sound came out as a hoarse cackle, “Shelter, water. We have won. We have crossed the Great Gar Desert.”
She clung to Kananda and kissed him, and then they included Jayna in their embrace. They had found the treeline, and now had to only turn east under the tree canopy and hope to strike the Great Swamp River. There, if they did not drown in the murky marshes, or fall foul of the giant crocodiles and lizards, they had only to follow the river upstream to find their hidden river and landing craft.
Despite their pains, exhaustion and hunger, hope flared again in all their hearts.
Due to the sad demise of Samhain who were the original publishers of my FIFTH PLANET heroic fantasy trilogy I have now republished SWORD EMPIRE with Create Space.THE SWORD LORD is already republished and with SWORD DESTINY soon to follow all three books will again be available. The first chapter of SWORD EMPIRE is offered as a free read below.
The first Gheddan mission to control the Third Planet has failed. The Sword Lord Raven has been driven out of the ancient Hindu Kingdom of Karakhor and forced to return to Dooma. He takes with him Maryam, princess of Karakhor, who sees him as her lover, and a possible savior in the coming battle against the might of Maghalla.
They are pursued by Kananda, First Prince of Karakhor, drawn by his love for Zela, and his determination to find the sister he believes has been taken by force.
On the Fifth Planet they are all hurled into the terrible arms race between the warring continents of Alpha and Geddha. A planetary cataclysm looms as Kananda and Zela undertake a desperate mission into the heart of the Sword Empire. For Zela it is a race against time to save her world. For Kananda it is a matter of love and honor to find Maryam. And both of them are seeking vengeance against the Sword Lord.
The flight from Earth to Dooma, the fifth planet of the solar system, took eight long weeks. The launch sequence and the breakout from Earth’s orbit were the nearest Kananda had ever come to experiencing pure terror, but after that had come the awesome fascination of seeing the universe in all its starry glory. The ship’s telescopic view screens could probe into the very heart of the distant galaxies, as well as providing stunning close-up images of every moon and planet in the solar system. His initial fears and uncertainty gave way to pure wonder as he watched the Earth rotate like a gorgeous jewel in the heavens, and witnessed the gigantic, leaping solar flares of the sun.
After a week the novelty faded somewhat and the voyage began to dip into frustration and boredom. The crew quarters were cramped and privacy and movement were limited. There was an extensive computerized library on board, but staring at a video screen and absorbing knowledge for hours on end soon began to lose its fascination. Zela was able to show him all of Alphan and Gheddan history, but after the first few weeks Kananda would almost have given his soul for a horse to ride, a river to swim, or even a flower to simply hold and inhale.
Zela completed his education in the Alphan and Gheddan languages, and taught him as much as possible on the differences of the two cultures. Kyle and Laurya added as much as they were able and soon Kananda counted all three as good friends. Only Cadel, the taciturn engineer, seemed a little aloof. But he was the only one with a definite job to do during the long haul between planets, and made almost a religion out of the constant checking and double-checking of the smooth and silent running of the ship.
When the time came to strap themselves into the body-contoured landing seats for the second time Kananda felt the same thrill of fear, but this time it was tempered by a new-found trust in his companions. Kyle now occupied the First Officer’s seat beside Zela that had been Blair’s, and over the Alphan’s silver-suited shoulder Kananda watched as the planet below loomed large in the view screen. Like Earth, Dooma was cloud-covered with a breathable atmosphere, with great land masses of red-brown earth, white ice-caps and green forests, with vast grey green oceans between. Their pre-landing orbit picked its path between three moons, two of them dead grey, crater-mottled by meteor impacts, and the third flashing silver in the sunlight.
“The third moon has a thin atmosphere,” Zela told him as she deftly fingered the keyboard pilot controls under her hand. “But it is enclosed in ice. The iron core is heavily magnetic, which causes most of the violent tides and storms in our oceans.”
Kananda nodded in answer, oblivious of the fact that she could not see him without turning her head. He was mesmerized by the planet below. During the launch from Earth he had kept his eyes firmly closed, but now that he was more familiar with the ship he was determined to miss nothing. He no longer thought of the Tri-Thruster as a Temple of Steel.
A wave of white vapor washed over the view screen as the ship dipped into the atmosphere, and Kananda felt cheated and disappointed. A few minutes passed and suddenly they were below the upper cloud level, racing over a vast expanse of glittering ocean where islands of white cloud hung between the sea and the sky.
A continent reared up on the horizon, appearing to Kananda like some huge, grey-headed green elephant. The green shoulders were lush forest slopes, the grey head a blunt crag of cap rock, and two great white streams pouring downwards were its mighty tusks. Zela banked, and the elephant mountain slipped swiftly away behind them. Ahead of them stretched more rugged forest, followed by a patchwork of green and gold fields, split and silvered by streams and irrigation channels. Then came a great city of sun-kissed, golden-tinted pinnacles of glass and steel that put the red sand-stone turrets of mighty Karakhor to shame. From the images he had been shown during the long flight Kananda knew without doubt that this was the capital city of the Alphan civilization, the City of Singing Spires.
Zela landed the Tri-Thruster at the large space port to the south of the city and within minutes they were descending from the ship to meet a welcoming committee of two. One was a tall man with a neatly clipped golden beard, directly gazing blue eyes, and a military bearing and uniform that reminded Kananda immediately of the old Warmaster Jahan. The physical and facial differences were unimportant, for Kananda instinctively knew that this man and his fierce uncle and teacher were two of a kind. The second man was older, his hair and beard almost white, wearing a loose, tunic-collared, white flowing robe.
The older man smiled warmly and Zela ran into his arms where they hugged with undisguised affection. She kissed his cheek and the old man had to blink a tear from his eye. When they broke apart Zela faced the second man for a moment, holding up her hand with the palm outward in salute. The tall man returned the gesture smartly, and then he too smiled. They embraced briefly and more formally before Zela turned to make the introductions.
“Kananda, this is my father, Laton, Prime Member of the High Assembly of Alpha. And this is Supreme Commander Antar of the Alphan Space Corps.”
Kananda stared for a second longer. He had never seen neatly trimmed facial hair before, in Hindu India older men always wore their whiskers in a fierce, bristling bush. Then he remembered protocol and bowed slightly, the form of respect he would have afforded his father and his uncles, before copying the palm-raised Alphan salute.
“I am Kananda, First Prince of Karakhor,” he announced quietly.
“Commander Zela has spoken of you in her reports,” Antar acknowledged. “But as our inter-space communications may be monitored by the Gheddans I am sure there is much more to tell.”
“Tomorrow,” Laton said firmly. “You can debrief Laurya and the others in the meantime, but I am taking my daughter and her guest straight home.”
“Our time may be short,” Antar said seriously. But then he shrugged. “After eight weeks in space they all need some time to re-adapt. Tomorrow will be fine.”
Laton linked one arm with Zela and the other with Kananda. “Welcome to Alpha,” he said cheerfully as he led them away. “I’m sure you can both use a real bath, a real meal, and the chance to breathe in some real air.”
Laton led them directly to his sky-car which was parked in one corner of the space port. To Kananda the vehicle had the shape of a flattened spear head, but there was just enough room inside for the three of them, and within minutes it had risen vertically and was flying north at the speed of a fast chariot. Kananda’s concentrated period of learning meant that there were no real surprises, but he found it all a thrilling experience.
They circled the city, giving Kananda a closer look at its soaring skyline of spires and towers. The buildings were of honey-colored stone, while its broad dissecting avenues were shaded with vivid green-leafed trees and paved with slabs of white marble. More sky-cars buzzed like orderly bees along the avenues, keeping strictly to three separate flight levels. The higher spires were carved with niches and honey-combed with openings which amplified the soft winds as they sighed and resonated sweetly through the tunnels and hollows, giving the city its name.
Laton talked non-stop, exchanging news with Zela, but never forgetting to point out the passing sites of interest for Kananda. He was obviously delighted to see his daughter, and she was equally pleased to be home. After an hour’s flight to the north Laton put the craft down beside a small white-domed dwelling in an oasis of palm-like trees and neat flower gardens. The oasis was on the edge of a small blue lake, and Kananda knew without asking that this was the lake where Zela’s two brothers had drowned.
The house proved larger than it had first appeared from the air, with a central hall under the dome and a series of rooms leading off on three sides. Laton led them through to a large sleeping room at the rear of the house that overlooked a shaded garden with a fountain trickling into a water feature made up of different colored, striated rocks.
“This was my son Lorin’s room.” Laton said simply. “It is yours now, Kananda, for as long as you wish to stay with us.”
Kananda thanked him and Laton turned to his daughter. “I am an old man and I talk too much. I will go to arrange a meal and we will eat in two hours. In the meantime I will leave you two young people alone. You can show Kananda anything he needs -- take time to bathe and rest, a walk in the garden -- do anything you wish.”
Zela kissed him and he withdrew, closing the doors carefully behind him. Zela turned to Kananda and smiled. For the first time in eight weeks they were alone together.
“My father says I can show you anything you need,” she said softly. “And we can do anything you wish.”
Kananda was uncertain how a guest should behave on this planet. He said slowly, “Perhaps your honorable father did not intend that we should take him too literally.”
Zela’s smile broadened, becoming almost wicked. “My father knows that I am a woman now, and that I make my own decisions.”
She came closer and rested her hands on his shoulders. Kananda looked into her teasing eyes and smiled. He enfolded her in his arms and pulled her closer against his chest. Their mouths met and melted in a long, sweet-tasting kiss. Kananda felt his blood pulse and his heart begin to pound, and knew that she was similarly affected. They had been so close and so frustrated for so long, that now was the time for complete abandonment.
“You know what I wish,” he said huskily, when they at last paused to breathe.
“Then do it,” Zela whispered against his cheek.
They kissed again, the kiss becoming open-mouthed and passionate as they tongue-caressed together. Kananda explored her body with his hands, feeling her hands moving gently over his own chest and shoulders. After a moment she leaned back while he held her easily with one arm. He saw only encouragement in her eyes and pulled down the frontal zipper of her silver suit, drawing it slowly from just under her throat to its full length just below her navel. Her gloriously voluptuous golden breasts burst eagerly free, her nipples standing ripe and firm and sensitive. She groaned joyously as Kananda transferred his tongue attentions to those up thrust sentinels. He too wore one of the silver spacesuits, borrowed because it was the most comfortable garment to wear in space, and she quickly began to unzip him in turn.
Moments later they were rolling naked on the large soft bed. Their enforced celibacy meant that both of them were more desperate for sexual relief than they had ever been before. Kananda’s erection was huge and painful, Zela’s loins were quivering and melting with a swiftly unleashed inner heat, and neither of them could wait. They exploded together in a white-hot intensity of emotion and release that left both of them weak, sweating and gasping.
Their second coupling, some ten minutes later was almost as violently volcanic, but the third, after another hour or so, was more loving and gentle. By then they both knew that their passion was not just the natural outcome of a long abstinence, but something deeper, infinitely more binding, and promising permanence. They had not only joined bodies, but somehow on a far more magical and spiritual plane, they had joined souls.
“You are my woman now,” Kananda told her as they kissed for the thousandth time. It was something he had known from the first moment he had looked into her eyes. “From now on I shall want no other. You must be my Queen and we will rule Karakhor together.”
“I am your woman,” Zela agreed softly. But she was aware that there were many harsh realities between them and their final happiness, and she finished more cautiously, “Perhaps one day we will rule Karakhor together.”
The next morning they returned to the City Of Singing Spires, summoned to an urgent meeting of the High Assembly. Laton piloted them again in his sky-car, dropping down on to a mid-level landing port that served the majestic Palace of Assemblies that dominated the center of the city. The vast, many-spired complex hosted a score of separate assemblies dedicated to the different aspects of government, all in horseshoe shaped rooms where tiered ranks of seats sloped down to a central dais. The Supreme High Assembly Hall was the largest of all with elegant gold pillars and a high ceiling that was a marvel of painted stars, planets and galaxies. Its position on the highest level of the complex meant that it had many tall, encircling windows open to the sky, but across many of these the heavy red and gold drapes were drawn. Inside the light seemed to sparkle from the ceiling stars and for a moment Kananda could only gape upwards.
The huge hall was almost empty, only the first semi-circular row of seats was partially occupied. About a score of elderly men sat there in plain gold robes, similar to that worn by Laton. Kyle, Laurya and Cadel sat stiffly at one end of the row, looking self-conscious in their best silver uniforms. Beside them was a young, black-haired woman who looked definitely out of place. She wore a leather tunic and leggings, and Kananda was startled to see that her skin was blue.
Antar stood at the central dais, awaiting their arrival, and nodded for them to take the places that had been left vacant between Zela’s crew and the elders of the assembly. Kananda was aware of the curious but not unfriendly glances that followed him as he took his seat. He wore a blue shirt with white waistcoat and leggings, supplied by Laton, and with his borrowed clothes and smooth brown face he knew that he was a much a stranger here as the blue-skinned woman among all these uniforms and formal robes.
Antar coughed briefly to gain attention, and then spoke directly.
“I believe all of us know of the Prince Kananda, who has accompanied Commander Zela on her return trip from the Third Planet. Because his home world will be prominent in our business today, and because I deem it right that he should understand our situation before we ask for the help of his people, I have asked Prime Member Laton to bring him here today. Does any member of the assembly have any objection to this?”
Most of the faces that turned toward Kananda were still gravely curious, but there was no voice of dissent.
“Then may I welcome you to our High Assembly, Prince Kananda,” Antar gave a formal bow.
Kananda was not sure whether he should rise again and bow in return, but Antar was moving briskly on:
“It is rare for an emergency assembly such as this to be called, so most of you have guessed that I have some disturbing news to impart. For many years now we have countered the threat of full scale Gheddan invasion of Alpha with an array of nuclear and solar-pulse missiles capable of crossing the Great Storm Ocean and destroying all their major cities and war-base centers. The Gheddans have also succeeded in building up a similar array of rocket-launched weapons that could virtually wipe our continent of Alpha from the face of this planet.”
There were a few solemn nods, but most of his listeners remained impassive, and Kananda realized that this background detail was mainly for his own benefit.
“The balance of power was always a dangerous concept,” one of the assembly delegates said softly. “So now you are going to tell us that the balance has shifted.”
Antar nodded briefly. Whatever emotions he felt on the matter were masked behind his grim, lean face. “Yes, Prime Member Allor, the balance has shifted. We have known for several years that the Gheddans have been trying to build a lazer battle station which they can maintain in stationary orbit above the planet’s surface. They believe that with such an orbital battle station they can use lazer pulses to destroy our missiles between launch and impact. Thus we will be defenseless to a first strike attack from their missiles.”
The tall Space Corps Commander paused again, and Kananda heard a muffled choking sound from Laton who sat beside him. Zela’s father was swallowing hard and his face had turned pale. Beyond him the semi-circle of faces of his colleagues were also registering varying levels of distress and anguish.
“They have succeeded,” Laton said at last.
“Twelve hours ago,” Antar confirmed. “Our warning systems detected the rocket launch which placed a major satellite in fixed orbit above the City Of Swords. Our other intelligence sources, and the position of the satellite, tell us that this is the lazer battle station they have planned.”
There was a cold, shroud-like silence. Kananda felt their fear, and could almost taste it, like a thick dark incense filling the vast assembly hall. Then the delegate Allor spoke again.
“So when can we expect their attack?”
“Not yet.” Antar’s lips almost cracked a smile, although Kananda guessed that it was forced to help relieve some of the palpable tension that was stretched almost to breaking point. “Our intelligence suggests two other factors that may save us for a few more weeks. First the Gheddans plan to launch two more similar battle stations. The first one alone would not be sufficient to stop all of our war missiles.
It protects The City of Swords, and it protects Steel City at the mouth of the Lesser Steel River, and the war bases in between those two cities. However, it cannot also protect their other cities, or the war bases in the Great Gar and Stone deserts. The second and third battle stations need to be in place before their defense against the possibility of an attack by our weapons is complete.”
“How long do we have before all three of those battle stations are in their appointed positions?” A delegate at the end of the row raised his head from his hand for a moment to ask the faltering question.
“A few weeks,” Antar shrugged helplessly, “A few months. My intelligence is not complete.”
The man who had asked the question groaned audibly and let his head fall back into the support of his hand again.
“You said there was a second factor that might be in our favor,” Allor probed hopefully.
Antar nodded. “The Council of Twelve in the City of Swords is divided. We have made it plain to them that an exchange of these huge war weapons from both sides may well destroy this world for all of us. We made the initial mistake of siting our first missiles in the natural caverns along the foothills of the Greenwall Mountains. We now know that they are too close to a major volcanic fault line, and that Gheddan missiles aimed to destroy them would almost certainly penetrate the planet’s crust. If that happens then Alpha would be ripped apart, possibly the whole planet would explode, and the continent of Ghedda would also be destroyed. Dooma would no longer exist, except as a orbiting belt of radioactive asteroids and rubble. Some members of the Gheddan Council of Twelve have accepted that in this we are telling the truth.”
“How many,” Allor asked.
“Four.” Antar said quietly.
“Four out of twelve,” Laton threw up his hands in anguish.
“For a military decision as vital as a major war their code demands a nine to three vote in favor,” Antar reminded them.
“So the fate of our world depends upon one Gheddan vote,” Laton said bitterly. “What madness have we brought upon ourselves?”
No one answered him, and Kananda guessed that this breast-beating debate had already been held many times to the point of exhaustion. Now the nemesis they had forged was imminent and there was nothing more to be said in self reproach. They could only face the inevitable.
Allor spoke again. “How long before our escape ships can be ready?
“Ten weeks,” Laton answered him, “Perhaps more. Perhaps less if we simply launch them untested.”
Antar looked directly to Kananda. “Now you know our situation. I know Commander Zela has explained much to you, and we are being as honest as we can. We are building six escape ships that will be able to carry some of our people to your planet.”
“There is no other refuge for us,” Allor was also looking directly at Kananda now and his voice was almost beseeching. “The third planet is the only other inhabitable planet in this solar system.”
“I have seen my planet from space,” Kananda said quietly. “I think there must be many good places where your people could settle.”
“Our ships will contain mostly children,” Laton explained. “There will only be enough adults to guide and teach them. Children are smaller and weigh less. The smaller they are, the more we can send. They will need a place of safety and protection.”
“Then they will be welcome in Karakhor,” Kananda assured them. “I can speak in this for my father, Kara-Rashna, King of mighty Karakhor. But I must also be honest with you. My country also has its enemies. Your children will be safe with us, but only if we survive our war with Maghalla.”
“We understand your situation,” Antar acknowledged. He looked to Zela and added. “I did spend several hours yesterday de-briefing your crew. I know that Karakhor is threatened by an alliance of enemies, and also that you encountered and drove off a Gheddan expedition from that city.”
Kananda saw the opportunity to bring up the matter most urgent in his heart and said quickly, “The Gheddan ship that escaped from Karakhor carried off my sister, the Princess Maryam, First Princess of Karakhor. I am here to find her, and to take her home.” He paused, and then finished as forcefully as courtesy to his hosts would allow, “I can assure you that our father, Kara-Rashna, King of Karakhor, will prove more than grateful for the safe return of his beloved daughter. All of Karakhor will be the eternal friends of the people of Alpha.”
Antar nodded slowly. “We detected the return of the Gheddan ship seven days before your own ship landed. The Gheddan vessel was a Mark Five Solar Cruiser. It landed at the Kaz-ar Spaceport near the City Of Swords.”
“The Gheddan ship we flushed from Karakhor was a Mark Five,” Zela confirmed.
Laton put a hand gently on Kananda’s shoulder. “I am sorry,” he said with genuine regret. “If your sister is still alive and with the Gheddans, then she too will be in the City of Swords.”
“Then I must go there,” Kananda said simply.
“Ghedda is on another continent. We are divided by the Great Storm Ocean. It is not possible.”
“I came here to find my sister,” Kananda repeated firmly. “I will find a way.”
“But how,” Laton demanded.
“I do not know,” Kananda conceded. “I hoped that the people of Alpha would help me. But even if I must do this alone, somehow I will find a way.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then Zela said calmly, “You will not be alone, Kananda. I will help you.”
“And I,” Kyle spoke up impulsively.
Laurya smiled at her lover and gripped his hand. “That means that I must come too.”
There was another second of uncertain silence, and then Cadel sighed. “However you intend to get to Ghedda, you will need some kind of vehicle. So you’ll need an engineer.”
“This is madness,” Laton stared at them all aghast, but mostly at his daughter. “Zela, you cannot do this. What hope have any of you to even survive on that barbaric continent for more than a few hours? You will all be killed long before you can hope to find Kananda’s sister.”
Zela faced her father squarely. “Kananda’s sister was taken by the Sword Lord Raven,” she told him bluntly. “The same Raven who killed Lorin, the sword-butcher who slew my brother, your son! In helping Kananda I may get the opportunity to kill Raven. If we can rescue his sister we can ensure the safe welcome of our children in Karakhor. That gives me two very good reasons to go to Ghedda.”
“It also gives me one very good reason to deny you any involvement in any rescue mission to Ghedda,” Antar cut in sharply. He moved toward her, no longer addressing the full assembly, and his gaze locked with her own. “Commander, would you allow your personal desire for vengeance to come before the execution of your duty to Alpha?”
Zela glared at him. Her eyes were angry and slowly she rose to her feet. She hesitated, and then just as slowly raised her palm in the Alphan salute. “You know that I would not.”
Antar nodded, and slightly relaxed. “I know, Zela. But I had to be sure.”
He turned then to look at her three crew members. “I must commend all of you for your loyalty to your Commander, and for your willingness to follow her, even to Ghedda. But for what I have in mind your presence would not be helpful.”
“What do you have in mind?” Laton was on his feet looking anxious. “Antar, you cannot allow these young people to go alone into Ghedda.”
Antar sighed, he had expected this opposition, and he both understood and sympathized. He placed a hand on Laton’s shoulder. “Old friend, you know that I had two agents working in the City of Swords. Our long range sensory technology does have its limitations. It cannot tell us what is in the hearts and minds of the Council of Twelve. For that I need eyes and ears in the city itself.”
Laton turned slowly, taking full notice of the blue-skinned woman who had so far sat cross-legged and silent at the end of the row of occupied seats. “You are Jayna?” he asked.
The blue-skinned woman nodded in acknowledgement.
“And the second agent,” Laton searched his memory unsuccessfully for a name.
“My husband Blane was killed in the City Of Swords,” Jayna said flatly. Any emotion she had over the matter was spent and her tone was matter-of-fact and cold.
“I am sorry,” was all that Laton could think of to say, and he knew it was ineffectual.
“It is thanks to Jayna that we have up-to-date information on the mood and the talk in the City of Swords,” Antar favored the woman with a grateful smile. “We still need that continuing information, and Jayna is willing to return. However, she cannot go alone. Her route into the City of Swords is long and dangerous and requires the use of a river craft. Her cover role also requires a protector. Blane was both a ground pilot and a good tavern fighter.”
“I can pilot a river craft,” Zela said calmly.
Antar nodded. “That will be one of your roles.” He looked to Kananda. “I am told that you are a useful swordsman. You will have two women to protect, and on Ghedda that means you will almost certainly have to prove your skill with a sword, perhaps also with your fists.”
Kananda smiled briefly. “I was instructed by Jahan, Warmaster General of Karakhor. Many of my lessons were long and painful. You will not find my tuition lacking.”
“Then you must both understand your priorities. The first is to report back any information you can gather on the military intentions of Ghedda, and especially on any change in the power balance in the Council of Twelve. The second is to keep Jayna alive -- she is more valuable than either of you. Third you are to find the Princess Maryam, and if possible bring her back to Alpha when you return.”
Kananda nodded grim acceptance, although in his mind he knew that whatever happened Maryam would always be his first priority.
Antar locked eyes with Zela again. “If the Sword Lord named Raven gets in the way of any of these three objectives, then you may kill him. But you will not seek him out in preference to your prime duties.”
Zela scowled a little, but then she too nodded in acceptance of his conditions.
Laton looked as though he was ready to argue further, but he was forestalled when Allor rose to his feet and asked pointedly:
“Antar, how can you be so sure that we can trust this Gheddan woman?”
Antar looked startled, and then surprised, and then he laughed.
“You think Jayna is Gheddan?”
Allor looked confused. “She wears Gheddan clothes -- she has blue skin?”
“Jayna is as Alphan as you and I,” Antar reassured him. “Leather clothes can be bought in many of our own more rural markets, and if we give her a few weeks then the black hair dye and the blue body dye will begin to fade. How do you think I can send Zela and Kananda into Ghedda if I cannot temporarily change the pigmentation of their skin?”
Allor raised his hands in a gesture of defeat and sat down again. “I apologize,” he said graciously, addressing himself to Jayna.
“This whole thing is still madness,” Laton insisted. “What good can fresh intelligence do for us? Ghedda will strike when they are ready. The exact timing is only academic.”
“Good intelligence is never academic,” Antar countered. “We must live in hope, not ignorance.”
Laton appealed to his daughter. “Zela, you do not have to do this.”
“But I do, father,” she answered him gently. “Kananda has come all the way from his home planet to find his sister. I know that he would still accompany Jayna without me, and I cannot let him do that. I must go with them. Besides, Antar has said that they need someone who can pilot a river craft.”
“We must have hundreds of pilots who can handle a river craft.” Laton said in exasperation. He saw from the set of Zela’s jaw that he was getting nowhere and switched his efforts to Jayna. “You said that your husband was killed on your last mission to Ghedda. Surely you can see that it is madness to go back? Do you want to be killed also?”
Jayna stood up slowly. She was taller than the old man by a few inches, and she had the lean, hungry look of someone who knew what it meant to be hunted. In her eyes there was suddenly a dark sadness.
She moved out from the row of seats until she faced the full assembly. She spoke to them all.
“I return to Ghedda for one reason only. It is right that you should understand this. I have a child, a small daughter. She is only five years old. I believe our planet does face destruction, but Antar has promised me that in return for my continued service then my daughter will have a place on one of the escape ships.”
There was silence. A few feet shuffled uncomfortably. Then Allor reassured her. “You have my word also, and I know I can speak for us all. Whatever happens, Antar’s promise will be honored. Your child will be on the first ship to escape from Dooma.”
The matter seemed settled. Even Laton nodded in support of his colleague’s word. Then the old man looked again to Antar.
“You hinted that my daughter must play two roles. What is the other?”
Antar looked at Zela, and then said mysteriously, “Commander, can you dance?”
Zela looked suddenly suspicious. “Yes,” she admitted cautiously. “I can dance.”
At that point Jayna laughed, an unexpectedly merry sound.
“I am sure you have all the usual social skills, Commander -- but can you perform like a dancing tree bear?”
Due to the sad demise of Samhain Publishing the Samhain editions of my Fifth Planet series are no longer available. However, I am now in the process of publishing all three titles with Create Space with exciting new covers. The new version of THE SWORD LORD is now available. SWORD EMPIRE and SWORD DESTINY will follow as soon as possible. The third planet trilogy, THE GODS OF ICE, THE GODS OF BLOOD, and THE GODS OF FIRE are already published with Create Space. All six of my epic sword and space fantasy series set in the time between the last two ice ages will again be available.
For a taster here is the first chapter of THE SWORD LORD.
They came from Dooma, the fifth planet in the solar system, a planet destined to destroy itself in the holocaust war between the two great continents of Alpha and Ghedda. They came in separate expeditions, each one seeking a potential refuge on the third planet, the only other inhabitable planet in the solar system.
They came in the dawn of time, when the Earth was young, to discover an ancient India, where the splendid kingdom of Karakhor was locked in its own deathly struggle with the massed forces of Maghalla and their allies of sub-human tribes.
And so began the tragic double love story; of Kananda, the First Prince of Golden Karakhor, for Zela, his beautiful golden-haired Alphan Goddess from the Stars -- and of his sister Maryam, the wild rebellious princess of Karakhor, who was fated to love, and be loved, by Raven, the ruthless, blue-skinned Sword Lord of Ghedda.
From the exotic mists of Vedic mythology, to the harsh and barbaric Gheddan Empire, where the law of the Sword is carried godlessly into the space age -- and back again to the great climatic war of the Mahabarata, THE FIFTH PLANET chronicles the last desperate days of one world, and the grim, blood-stained beginnings of another.
The preparations for the wedding had lasted for twenty eight days, and Maryam, Princess of Karakhor, had steeled herself to face her duty.
She had always known that when it came her wedding would be a political one, arranged by her father and his advisors in the best interests of the City and Empire, and now, in her eighteenth summer it was time. Her mother had told her what was expected of her and what she must do. All that was left to her was to pray to the gods that the husband she had never seen would be young, and kind, and handsome, and that as the seasons passed they would learn to love each other.
And now her husband-to-be was encamped outside the city with a huge entourage of warriors, nobles, priests and chieftains, their bright pavilions filling the open plain beyond the blue river in a heaving patchwork of tents and men, cooking fires and chariots, weapon stacks and banners. They were a small army, too many of them to be housed in the city itself. The central pavilion that was occupied by the man who was to be her New Lord and Master was the most magnificent of them all, a splendid erection of blue and gold silks flying the savage Black Leopard banner of Maghalla.
Maryam could see it all from the window of her bridal chamber high in the swan neck tower of the west wing of the Royal Palace, although she was too distant to pick out the faces of individual men. She did not need to, for since the arrival of her intended groom and his wedding party she had sensed the change in those around her, and she had heard whispered the name by which her Lord-to-be was known.
“Sardar of Maghalla, Sardar The Merciless.”
So he was not a kind and gentle man, of that much she was now certain.
For a while she had continued to pray that he might still be young and handsome, but even those hopes had quickly faded. Her mother and the other wives of Kara-Rashna, her sister and all her other attendants, had gradually become reluctant to reassure her on those matters, and had finally become evasive so that she had ceased to ask.
Since the arrival of the bridal party she had seen nothing of her father or brothers, or of any of the males of her household. Custom demanded that she remained in her bridal chamber in a purifying period of bathing and prayer, attended and visited only by other females. But the joy had gone from her mother’s face and her visits had become less frequent, and Maryam had seen the wet tears in the soft eyes of her half-sister Namita.
Inside the city, night and day, on all the altars before all the splendid temples, the scared fires had burned constantly over the past four weeks, wafting the holy flames and smoke and sweet-smelling incense to the blue or star-lit heavens. The priests had prayed and made sacrifices and intoned the sacred mantas to Indra, Varuna and Agni. All that was due to the entire mighty pantheon of the known gods had been offered in incessant entreaty for their benevolence and favour.
Maryam knew in her heart it had all been in vain. This was her wedding day, and the gods were not smiling upon her.
One of her attendants, smiling faintly, offered her a hand mirror, and Maryam looked critically at her own reflection. She was beautiful. She knew she was beautiful because all those around her had always told her so. Her sister and her hand-maidens envied her, the young men of the palace composed sonnets and heaped her with flattery and praises, and even her own brothers smiled and admitted that she was beautiful. But today there was a tinge of paleness to her flawless, dusky cheeks. There were faint lines of stress and tension at the corners of her honey-brown eyes that lacked their normal sparkle. Her mouth was too grim. Her glorious black hair had been washed and oiled, scented and braided, and garlanded with white flowers, but still it seemed to lack its normal shine and lustre. Despite all her bridal finery, the pure white sari, the golden sashes and bangles, and the fortune in sparkling jewels with which she was draped and encrusted, she did not feel beautiful.
She turned her head to look at Namita, her younger half sister who was also her chief bridesmaid. Namita, dressed in yellow and blue silks to honour Maghalla, and almost as bejeweled as the bride, cast her eyes downward and could not meet her gaze.
Maryam smiled sadly. “Sardar is not handsome, is he?”
Namita hung her head mutely. Her shoulders made an attempt to shrug.
“Sardar is not young, is he?”
There was still no answer.
Maryam put her hand to Namita’s chin and lifted gently. Wet eyes stared back at her and then Namita threw her arms around her sister and began to sob.
“Sardar the Merciless,” Maryam said bitterly. “Is old and ugly.”
The other girls who were her attendants, three daughters of the three noblest houses of Karakhor, drew back uncomfortably and exchanged distressed glances. Two of them also began to silently weep.
After a moment Maryam pulled a silk handkerchief from beneath one of her golden wrist bangles and tenderly dried Namita’s eyes. “Tell me what you know,” she ordered. “I must face my betrothed in an hour. In two he will be my husband. It will be best if I go prepared.”
Namita choked and cleared her throat. “No one knew,” she whispered. “No one knew until he appeared at our gates. Even Jahan did not know. His spies send endless reports to tell him how many warriors Maghalla can raise, how many spears, how many war elephants, how many chariots. It is said that Jahan knows every word that is spoken in Maghalla’s secret councils. But no one thought it necessary to tell him of this.”
“That Sardar is old and ugly.” Maryam grimaced. “Men would not think that such things are important. Men are fools who think only of war and politics.”
“Our father is furious, and so is Lord Jahan.” Namita weakly defended them. “Kara-Rashna has sworn that those of his council who urged and advised this marriage will pay with their heads -- and Jahan has threatened to whip every spy in his employ. Your brother Kananda wants war with Maghalla now, rather than see this marriage go ahead, and there are many who would unsheathe their swords beside him.”
“But the marriage will go ahead,” Maryam knew, and her tone was heavy with despair, “Because Karakhor needs this alliance with Maghalla.”
“Yes,” Namita said wretchedly. “I have heard our uncles say that to cancel the marriage now will be a terrible insult to Maghalla. Now that Sardar has arrived with his wedding party we cannot send them away without their promised bride. It will mean a certain and terrible war. Even so they are divided as to what we should do.”
“And what does my father say?”
“Kara-Rashna rages. But he says that now the honour of Karakhor is also at stake. He does not fear war, but he will not lose honour.”
“Our father was always a proud man, a noble King.” Maryam spoke with a ring of pride in her own voice, although her heart felt cold and dead as ice inside her breast.
Namita nodded, and again all four of the bridal attendants were helplessly weeping.
“Shut up, all of you!” Maryam snapped and stamped her foot. “I am a Princess of Karakhor. I know my duty. And if this is what it must be, then I will do it.” Her chin thrust defiantly forward, and with more courage than she felt she finished bravely. “I will not be the first young bride who goes to an old and ugly husband. It happens more often than not.”
There was a shuffling of feet, a drying of eyes, and reluctantly the girls continued their tasks, straightening folds in the silk sari and the fine lace shawls, loading her arms, wrists and throat with even more gold and jewels. The gemstones were all white diamonds and blue sapphires. They seated her gently to ease soft slippers on to her feet, and each slipper was almost invisible beneath its scintillating layer of fine blue stones. Maryam stared down at them gloomily, and reflected that each shoe was worth a fortune beyond the wildest dreams of almost all of her father’s subjects, but that neither could buy back the lost days of her childhood and freedom. Suddenly, with an awful urgency and poignancy, all that her breaking heart wanted was to be a child again.
The morning sunlight streamed through the high tower window, and its passage round her chamber marked the moving hours of the day. The hours were passing too quickly.
I am a Princess of Karakhor, she told herself resolutely. I will do my duty. She repeated the vow over and over in her mind, like one of the boring mantras of the priests.
Her hand-maidens worked in silence, and when they were satisfied that there were no more adjustments that could be made they stood back and simply waited.
The inexorable line that divided sunlight from shadow continued its remorseless progress round the walls, lighting up the rich silk drapes with their embroideries, where deer and other gentle animals played and grazed, and birds and butterflies fluttered over glades of cool shade and running water. The line passed over the tall vases of fresh cut flowers, and the wall niches where the statues of the gods were enthroned. The sunlight reached the impassive face of Varuna, the Supreme God above all others, and her time had run out. It was noon, the God had no reprieve to offer her, and her father’s knock sounded on the door.
The girls looked at each other, and then slowly Namita moved to open the door. The others helped Maryam to rise to her feet. She faced her father in the open doorway.
Kara-Rashna, King of Karakhor, Lord of the Golden City, and of the greatest and most far-flung Empire that the world had ever known, still looked every inch of every one of all his royal titles. That is until he moved, for only then did the stiff right arm and leg show that he was no longer the strong young lion of his youth. His beard and moustaches, despite being carefully oiled and tinted, still showed touches of the grey that was now in his eyebrows and hair. His turban and tunic were resplendent with every known gemstone, the blood-red of rubies and the green of emeralds, mixing with the white and blue of diamonds and sapphires, all of them set in pendants, rings and bracelets of gold. For gold was the symbol of Karakhor. Gold spoke of her immense wealth, which in turn spoke of her prestige and power.
Kara-Rashna was all-powerful, all-mighty, all-merciful, descended from the gods, and almost their equal. Yet today he was struck dumb. It might have been her own compelling beauty, Maryam thought fleetingly, or his own parental pride, but mostly she realized, it was pain and embarrassment.
“My daughter -- ” Kara-Rashna began, but then his words stumbled and failed him.
Beside him was Kaseem, the High Priest of Karakhor, the holiest of all the holy men and Brahmins who filled the many temples. Behind him two more priests in their simple white robes, and behind them a small escort of the palace guard in gleaming bronze and leather. All of them looked uncomfortable.
Maryam steeled herself anew, and drew a deep breath as she stepped forward and offered her right hand. The gold bangles shook only slightly on her slim wrist.
“I know, father,” she said softly, “ And I understand.”
A tear glistened in the corner of his eye, but willpower held it back as he forced the grimace of a smile. He took her right hand in his left and turned. The priests moved aside. The guards parted to let them through. Maryam walked bravely beside her father and the small procession formed behind them as they reached and began to descend the circular stone stairway that led down from the tower.
I am a Princess of Karakhor, Maryam repeated stubbornly in her mind. I will do my duty.
The silent vow was hollow, and no longer gave her comfort. The face of her father, and the crushed and wretched face of Kaseem, who had also loved her as devotedly as any uncle, all boded ill. She began to fear that Sardar was not merely old and ordinarily ugly. There was something more.
They reached the foot of the staircase and progressed along a stone-pillared corridor to reach the Great Hall of the palace. Here a great throng awaited them, her mother, her aunts, her uncles and her brothers, and all the great heads and nobles of the powerful bloodlines that made up the great houses of Karakhor. All of them wedding guests dressed in their most colourful finery. There were a few polite handclaps, a few forced smiles, but no real joy. She looked into the face of Jahan, the Warmaster General of Karakhor, an honourary uncle, but the one whom she loved best of all, and although he met her eye without blinking his grizzled face was a mask of iron. Beside him stood Kananda, her full brother, looking as though a caged tiger savaged his breast from the inside.
Maryam’s heart sank even further inside her. She looked away from them, through the avenue formed by their waiting bodies to the high arched doorway that opened out on to the courtyard at the far end of the hall. Outside in the courtyard the wedding party from Maghalla waited with as many of their entourage as could be crowded between the enflanking colonnades. The musicians were playing and there was the sound of coarse laughter and merriment. The sacrificial altar burned with high bright flames before the fountains in the center of the courtyard. She could see their glitter and the plumes of white smoke reaching into the blue sky.
Her father would give her hand into the hand of Sardar of Maghalla and speak the holy words of bride-giving. Kaseem would offer sacred prayers and blessings. The fires would flare and Sardar would lead her three times around the sacred flames and the ritual would be complete. Sardar The Merciless would be her new Lord and Master.
Maryam held her head high, her chin forward, gripped hard on the cold hand of Kara-Rashna, and took the first step down the long hall to the open courtyard. I am a Princess of Karakhor, her strong will insisted. I will do my duty.
Her procession swelled behind her and a trumpet fanfare filled the great dome ceiling and the arches above as the heralds stationed either side of the doorway saw her approach. The sound was joyful, exhilarating, and fought bravely against the subdued silence of her family and courtiers behind her. The trumpeters lining the walls above the courtyard took up the soaring fanfare, drums rolled, the conch shells blared, and Maryam stepped out into the sunlight.
She blinked her eyes, almost blinded by the glare. Her ears were momentarily deafened by the great roar of approval that rose from the massed throats of Maghalla. All her senses reeled, the smells of roasting meats, fresh flowers and fruits, incense and a thousand perfumes, all assailed her nostrils; and the sweet sting of the sacred smoke from burning sandalwood was a cloying taste in her throat. She swayed for a moment, recovered her balance, and opened her eyes.
A sea of faces stared up at her, cheering, shouting, pounding each other’s backs or pounding fists into palms. The men of Maghalla were clearly not disappointed with their new princess. Their women laughed and clapped more politely, and some of them had the grace to look jealous. They were rough faces, many of them brutish, but Maryam looked for only one.
Sardar of Maghalla was unmistakable. He stood a pace forward of all the rest with a small knot of resplendent chieftains and lords behind him. He wore tunic, turban and pantaloons of blue and gold, and his jewels were blue sapphires and yellow amber. A huge curved sword and an equally wicked-looking curved dagger with ceremonial jewel-encrusted hilts were thrust through the red sash at his waist. His hands were planted on his hips with the stubby fingers spread wide to display a score of glittering rings. A mailed warrior who could have dwarfed an ox held the Black Leopard banner so that it floated boldly above his master’s head.
Sardar was broad and squat, with shoulders even wider than his banner bearer, and his arms were long and powerful. There were tufts of thick black hair at his wrists and at the neck of his tunic, suggesting a hairy body that would be more like that of an animal than a man. He was not old, no more than forty years, but that was no consolation as Maryam stared at his face.
Sardar wore a fearsome grin on features that would have been ugly even before they had been brutally scarred. It was a face more ape-like than human, black and wrinkled with bloated lips and wide-flared nostrils. The deep set eyes were coal black in red-veined whites, and reminded Maryam of a wild pig she had seen once in a cage on the market. The scar tissue that gave the final touch of horror began just below the left eye, slashed through the corner of the mouth, and finished in an unnaturally deep cleft at the chin. It was a face that she could not have imagined in her worst nightmare.
The shock as the blood drained swiftly from her own face only caused more laughter from the crowd below. Sardar saw her repugnance and only grinned the wider. She saw that his teeth were rotten and knew that his breath must stink. The brave words -- I am Princess of Karakhor. I will do my duty -- no longer echoed in her mind.
Stunned she allowed herself to be led down the broad swathe of marble steps into the courtyard, until her father stopped her face-to-face with the horror that was to be her husband. Behind her Kaseem was reciting a blessing and the other priests were chanting mantras, and in a half swoon the awful, sub-human face of Sardar seemed to dissolve, only to harden again as she forced herself to hold tight to her senses. The pig eyes burned hotly into her own and she saw that there could never be love there, only a fierce unbridled lust.
Her father had lifted her limp hand forward to place it in the rough, hairy palm of Sardar. Kaseem and the other priests fell silent, and even the crowd was hushed. The fanfare gave one last trumpet flourish and fell away into silence.
“Sardar, Lord of all Maghalla,” Kara-Rashna began his address in flat and hollow tones. “This is my First Daughter Maryam, beloved of all Karakhor. Take her hand and walk the sacred circuits thrice round the sacred flame. Let her be from this day forth, your own true and faithful wife.”
The speech should have been longer, with more flowering phrases invoking the gods and extolling the virtues of both bride and groom, but Kara-Rashna had to pause, to steel his own heart before he continued. Sardar was oblivious to such subtleties and to the responses he was expected to make. He tightened his grasp on Maryam’s hand, clearly eager to lead her around the flames with no further delay.
Maryam stared into his eyes, and suddenly the iron will that had determined that she must do her duty turned a swift, soul-searching circle in her mind. She was a Princess of Karakhor, and she would not accept this cruel trick of fate. As firmly as she had determined to endure and obey only a few moments before, she now decided with death-defying finality that she would not. Like a flash of fire the word burned behind her eyes and was ripped from her constricted throat.
“NO!” She shouted, and tore her hand from the bestial grasp that held it.
She flung herself backward, but the crush of those behind her blocked her immediate escape.
“No,” she shouted again, defiant and trembling. “I will not marry him.”
There was a stunned gasp from the mass of on-lookers. Time froze. Kara-Rashna turned to stare at his daughter with a look of confusion. The face of Sardar grew black and even uglier with rage.
“What is this?” he snarled. “You are mine, woman. In Maghalla you will learn how to behave.” He stepped forward, snatched her hand again and dragged her toward him. Maryam struggled but this time his iron grip was prepared and she could not break it.
“Leave her,” a cold voice demanded. And suddenly her full brother Kananda was at her side. His left hand clamped upon her upper wrist, side by side with Sardar’s. For a moment she thought that her bones would be crushed between them, and she heard the scrape of steel upon scabbard as Kananda’s right hand half drew the sword at his waist.
“Gently, Lord Prince.” Jahan hissed in Kananda’s ear. The old Warmaster’s left hand was heavy upon Kananda’s elbow, preventing him from drawing his sword and pushing it back a few inches into the scabbard. But Jahan’s own right hand was resting on the hilt of his own sword.
Sardar stepped back, his face flushed now with rage. His own hand dropped to his sword-hilt and on both sides a score of blades cleared the first few inches of their scabbards. Maghalla and Karakhor backed apart.
“What insult is this?” Sardar roared, turning his anger against the flustered king.
Kara-Rashna was hesitant a moment longer, and then he sighed, almost it seemed, with relief. He stared from the grotesque face of his almost son-in-law to the white-lipped mask of his daughter, and then to his oldest and dearest friend.
“It seems our daughter shames us,” he said quietly. The reproach in his voice was for himself alone, and he too dropped his hand lightly on his own sword.
Jahan nodded, and in his eyes there was almost a smile. He glanced upward and both Kara-Rashna and Sardar followed his meaningful gaze. The trumpeters lining the courtyard walls had vanished, and from behind them had stepped forward ranks of archers. At Jahan’s almost imperceptible nod each man nocked an arrow to his bow. As always, the Warmaster General had been ready for anything.
“A trap,” One of Sardar’s chieftains snarled, his anger laced with fear.
“No trap,” Kara-Rashna reassured them all, “Just a misunderstanding.”
“I think,” Jahan said politely to Sardar, “That our daughter is unwell. You can see for yourself how pale she is, how near to fainting. We regret that for today the wedding must be postponed.”
“If there is no marriage, there is no peace.” Sardar bellowed. “This insult can only be wiped out with blood.”
He glared hatefully at his intended bride, and Kananda carefully handed his sister back to her attendants and their mother. The rank of his brothers and uncles re-formed behind him. Maryam stared at their defensive backs and listened to Sardar’s vile threats and cursing.
With tears in her eyes and her heart beating wildly Maryam knew that she had won. Her father had relented and Karakhor would not force her into this marriage. She found her feet and fled back into the palace with her mother and her attendants running behind her.
She had failed in her duty, and had been reprieved, but at what terrible cost for the future she could not even begin to know.
THE HYMN OF LIFE
In church and cathedral, on each Sunday morn,
Hymns fill the rafters and sweet praise is born,
High up to Heaven, on glad tides of song,
Float voices of Faith, a million times strong.
Faltering and failing, my own voice is small,
I know some of the words, but I don’t know them all,
In uncertain moments I lose the tune’s theme,
Or else my mind wanders and drifts in a dream.
But the gaps are all filled by the voices around me,
The harmonious whole is all that surrounds me,
And perhaps when another voice misses a note,
In filling that gap is where I contribute.
Perhaps it’s like that in the Great Hymn of Life,
The Song of Creation, with its joys and its strife.
We all seem so pointless, but we each play a part,
Like the links of a chain, or the beats of a heart.
When one of us fails, or misses a cue,
With all of us trying, someone will win through.
The Great Hymn of Life will go on and on,
Eternally noble, eternally strong.
Have you seen the film DEEPWATER HORIZON yet?
It’s a fantastic fiery film about an oil rig explosion and the resulting inferno and environmental disaster. It would make a perfect prologue for a film of my novel SEASCREAM. In SEASCREAM the new warm water currents generated by an oil rig explosion penetrate deep into the ocean to disturb a colony of prehistoric plesiosaurus. The monsters move and eventually surface off the coast of Cornwall. The story is DEEPWATER HORIZON, plus the guys that ate jaws as a passing snack, with a Romeo and Juliet love story between two warring fishing families.
When the hungry horrors cause the wreck of a giant supertanker it seems as though setting fire to the oil spill might be the only way of driving them back where they came from.
The film rights are still available. (If you are an American producer you can always substitute Cornwall with the coast of Florida.) In the meantime you can read the first chapter of SEASCREAM for free below.
It was out there somewhere offshore in the thick swirling mist which filled the pitch black night.
It was a diffused sound which could have come from any direction, or from all directions
AS THOUGH THE SEA ITSELF WAS SCREAMING
The sea creatures were not unknown. They were frequently sighted and recorded in the days of sail when ships moved silently under wind power, or lay becalmed in remote parts of the world's vast oceans. The sightings stopped when the ships were fitted with noisy thudding engines and kept to direct but relatively narrow sea lanes which the creatures learned to avoid.
But the creatures were still there, far down in the abyss depths, where they might have remained, unseen and undisturbed, if Aztec Three had not exploded to turn the sea above them into a sea of fire.
The creatures moved east across the Atlantic. They were angry and they were hungry, and for those who had to live and work upon the sea it was the beginning of a savage, screaming nightmare.
The gas bubble had been born more than one thousand feet down below the bed of the ocean. For a millennium of years it had been trapped motionless under enormous pressure, but now the three hundred foot thick layer of hard, compressing cap rock had been drilled through to reach the vast deposits of oil in which the gas bubble floated. The bubble was pure hydrogen and after aeons in lifeless limbo in the stygian darkness it began slowly to move.
Its progress was invisible and unknown, drifting slow millimetre by slow millimetre through the huge undersea reservoir of oil. Time and its direction were meaningless. Another century or another thousand years were as irrelevant as the journey itself. The bubble simply moved, following the pull of the strange new forces which had broken into and changed its world, Ultimately it reached the drill hole where the two miles of steel pipe had penetrated from the surface.
On the last part of its journey the bubble was drawn faster, the sucking pull increasing and the pressures all building up inexorably behind it. No longer drifting it was hurtled into the upward swirling vortex to eternity.
The production rig straddling the new well had been named Aztec Three and was an offshore platform operated by Pemex, the Mexican State oil monopoly. During the late seventies the discovery of immense oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico had promoted the Mexican oil industry into one of the biggest in the world. Their own proven reserves were the sixth largest in any part of the globe, and encouraged by this veritable bonanza, together with eager American Investment, Pemex had expanded its operations throughout the entire Caribbean. Wherever the drilling rights could be bought or leased the Pemex rigs flourished, and Aztec Three was the most far‑flung outpost of a booming oil‑industry empire. It was also the first rig to step outside the Caribbean and be sited on the Atlantic side of the Windward Isles,
And Aztec Three had struck oil, another black gold bonanza with estimated reserves of up to a thousand million barrels.
For five months the rig had been bringing up oil at the rate of twenty thousand barrels per day, but on the day of the disaster the round‑the‑clock drilling operation had been stopped. The wellhead was due for its first routine overhaul and maintenance cheek. Various pieces of piping and safety valves had to be cleaned, checked for wear and efficiency and if necessary be replaced,
The first priority was to kill the well, which meant stopping the oil flow. This was achieved by pumping heavy liquid mud from the big side tanks on the platform down through the steel pipeline into the well. The density of the mud had to be finely judged until its sheer weight was enough to plug the well and hold down the upward thrusting pressure of the trapped crude oil and natural gases straining to escape from below.
The next step was to remove the Christmas tree, the gigantic fire hydrant arrangement of valves which was clamped on to the producing well, The Christmas Tree had to be removed for inspection, and while this was taking place the hard rubber mass known as blow‑out preventers would be snapped shut on top of the open tubes to seal off the well head. The changeover was the crucial moment the few vital minutes of real danger, and before making this move the engineers on Aztec Three had waited for five hours to be sure their well was stable with no sudden surges of unexpected pressure from below.
When the five hour safety delay was over the engineers began their work. They did not know ‑‑ could not possibly have known ‑‑ that the fatal gas bubble was lurking two thousand feet down in the volatile darkness.
By killing the well the fast, upward rush of the hydrogen bubble had been checked, but it had entered the pipeline and being lighter than the surrounding column of crude oil it had slowly squeezed its way upward. Finally it had by‑passed the oil and encountered the downward thrust of the liquid mud.
Slowly, infinitely slowly, the gas bubble continued to rise, pushing up against the mud, finding its way through and allowing the pressure of the bottled crude oil to build up behind it.
The first sign to reach the working platform of the oil rig was the slowly rising level of the liquid mud in the mud tanks. At first it was so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and for a full minute it was not noticed.
It was during this minute that the last bolts were removed and the Christmas tree was swung clear of the well head.
The mud level in the tank rose faster and bubbles began to appear. A roustabout watching from a higher level suddenly realized what was happening and uttered an urgent shout of alarm.
For the men working at the wellhead one look into the mud tanks was enough. The level was rising visibly and the first streaks of thick brown crude were showing through the heaving grey surface of the mud. Their luck was out and disaster was already overtaking then.
The engineer in charge of the operation yelled frantic orders and in panic the work team grabbed for the blow out preventer and tried desperately to manoeuvre it into position. They had less than three minutes and the seconds were fast running out.
The hydrogen bubble was gaining in momentum. The surge of mud and oil overflowed the tanks and slopped on to the platform. The well-head team found themselves fumbling, dropping vital bolts and tools, but right from the very beginning they had been given no chance at all. The first spurts of oil jetted out from the well head, spraying them with thick grey brown slime, and then they fled as the well blew out with a force which hurled the partially positioned preventer cap clear across the platform.
The blow‑out was uncontrollable and within seconds it was a hundred‑foot high geyser which was drenching the entire rig with its downpour of black rain. The alarms were already sounding as men ran from all directions to abandon the rig.
The rig master and his senior officers and engineers made hopeless efforts to maintain some discipline and order, but mostly they were ignored in the blind, yelling scramble to launch the life rafts. The men who had been working on the upper levels saw the very real possibility that they might be left behind in the general panic and became even more reckless and desperate in their race to reach the main deck.
One of these was a maintenance engineer who had been working to tighten up a wind‑loosened radio mast high up on the black steel derrick tower which topped the rig. With his heart thudding with fear he had tried to restrain the speed of his descent on the dangerously slippery ladder rungs inside the derrick. By the time he had climbed down to the upper catwalks his red overalls were saturated with oil. Somehow he had, lost his hard hat and the oil was flowing out of his hair and over his face, half blinding him and almost choking him. As he swallowed a mouthful of the filthy mixture he saw through the black downpour the first of the life rafts being launched far below. He still had a long way to go and a cry of anguish spilled up from his gagging throat as he broke into a fast run along the catwalk. The perforated steel planking beneath his feet was smothered in oil, but now the fear of slipping and falling was by far the lesser of two evils.
And inevitably he did fall, His feet skidded from under him and he screamed as he grabbed at a hand rail to stop himself from shooting out into space. His hands slipped along the rail, his body twisted painfully in mid‑fall and he hit down on the catwalk on his shoulder, slithering forward and groping for another hold as the top of the next gangway rushed to meet him. Somehow he braked, wedging his toes into the peroration holes in the steel planking. He stopped with his face thrust out over the top of the gangway but an object of black steel carried on past him and soared out in a slow falling arc to the decks below.
The scream froze on his lips as he watched it fall. He knew what it was and with sickening certainty he knew what was going to happen next.
He had been carrying the heavy steel wrench in the long thigh pocket of his overall, and the sudden absence of its weight against his leg helped him to recognise it as it had blurred past him. Everything was frozen now, time, the breath in his body, and even the wild pumping of his heart. He was suspended in that agonised second before death. For he knew he was dead. They were all dead.
As if in a slow motion dream he saw the wrench move in a circle and drop. The wrench started to spin, turning gracefully in mid air as it fell. And then it met the steel rail of another catwalk two decks down with a resounding clang.
It was steel upon steel, the fatal spark. The up-rush of hydrogen in the great geyser of escaping oil ignited, and Aztec Three was blown up into a million red hot fragments in the most spectacular rig explosion the oil industry had ever known. Not one man survived, and where the rig had been, a vast, spreading sea of flames leaped high on the bulging surface of the ocean.
With the rig totally destroyed there was nothing which could be done to control the raging fire-spill inferno. Within a matter of hours the monstrous red flame tongues were rising a hundred feet above the well site, and, within a week the blazing oil slick covered a, hundred square miles of ocean. And with every hour it was spreading wider. Until the pressure eased from below there was no hope of getting another rig close enough to drill a relief well, and even when that was achieved it would still take many more weeks before the oil reservoir could be tapped again and the flow diverted so that the wild well could be capped.
In the meantime the fire-spill continued to expand, a hundred foot high wall of creeping flames advancing on three fronts and blanketed by a pall of thick black smoke which turned even the days into perpetual, night. Mercifully the initial winds had been favourable, and instead of threatening the long chain of islands encircling the Caribbean the fire-spill was slowly pushed out into mid Atlantic.
For the peoples of the Windward and Leeward islands, and for the oil industry and the governments of Mexico the USA and Venezuela, this was a huge relief. The disaster was not as catastrophic as it might have been if the firewall had engulfed the inhabited islands, and the prevailing easterly winds had proved a blessing. Soon the ecologists and the environmentalists were the only ones left gnashing their teeth and making an ungrateful howling. The media made a seven day sensation out of the story, but with no coastline endangered it soon ceased to be news.
The governments and oil industrialists of three nations argued over the best ways to disperse or contain their fiery problem, while the rest of the world lost any immediate interest.
Unfortunately the ecologists and the environmentalists had some valid points. Their views were sought, debated and forgotten, but the dangers they feared did not go away. Vast areas of the ocean were being warmed up as the fierce heat radiated eastward from the gigantic fire blanket on the surface, and the violent changes in temperature and current movements began to have unseen effects.
The ocean waters are never still, but are constantly moving in a complex pattern of currents stirred by the forces of the winds, the rotation of that earth the gravitational pulls from the moon and sun, and the differing densities of cold and warm water. The superheated waters from beneath the fire-spill injected a new, random factor, some of it being circulated on the existing currents, and some of it causing whole new current patterns as it encountered waters of different temperatures.
The currents were not confined to the surface water. They curved deep through all levels, through sunlight, through twilight, to the abyss. Meanders from the main currents often broke away to curl back and form spirals toward their point of origin. Smaller eddies would spin off the spirals and gradually reach to all parts of the ocean. So it happened that one of the new currents of warm water generated by the fire-spill slowly made its way out into mid Atlantic, circled deeper through a thousand miles of ocean and finally curled back westward to penetrate into the freezing, abyssal darkness of the Puerto Rico Deep.
By the time the warm water current had completed its long involved journey from its source down through twenty‑seven thousand feet to the bottom of the Deep, it was capable of raising the sub‑zero temperatures at that depth by only a few degrees. But it was enough to disturb the creatures.
They were a prehistoric colony which had survived here for millions of years. Once, their ancestors had been warm‑blooded, flesh‑eating surface creatures, which had inhabited the upper surface waters of their world, then had come the great ice ages of advancing glaciers, which had brought doom and extinction to their land‑walking counterparts. Most of the surface‑feeding sea creatures of that long forgotten era had also perished, but a few had adapted by going deeper in search of food, and gradually evolving into the essential cold-blooded creatures of their new environment.
Now the slight temperature increase could not harm them, but it irritated them, making them uncertain. It moved them from their deep familiar haunts causing then to embark upon a lost, blind pilgrimage to nowhere. Their tiny brains could not know that they would have fared better to remain where they were. Instead they moved up from the depths and began to travel eastward across the Atlantic.
To buy and read the rest of the book follow the link on my Horror books page
I spent twenty years as a retained fireman on call with the Suffolk Brigade so when I started writing for the Suffolk Journal it was almost inevitable that I would write a piece on the Fire Service. It’s hard to believe now that this was more than twenty years ago.
BY ROBERT LEADER
It’s three o’clock in the morning and you are wrenched out of a cozy, dreaming sleep like death catapulted out of a coffin. It’s mid-winter and outside your bedroom window a full-scale blizzard is raging, and East Anglia is doing one of its credible imitations of the frozen Arctic. Your brain is shattered, and your multitone pocket alerter is shrieking its urgent bleeping.
Somewhere out there in the howling, hostile night, there’s a blazing inferno, or a piled-up road traffic accident with bloodied human bodies and mangled vehicles scattered over black ice -- or perhaps it’s just a slice of burnt toast setting off somebody’s over-sensitive automatic fire alarm. You won’t know until you get to the Fire station, and whatever it is, you have to respond to the call.
That was just one of the joys of being a retained fireman, on call 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. And it’s not just when your nicely tucked up in bed that the inconvenient call out comes. Emergency situations happen when they happen. The bleeper has no respect for those most intimate moments of your private life, no coyness about whether you’re in the bath, on the loo, or even making love.
Make no mistake, carrying a Fire Service bleeper is a definite pain, constant interruptions dominate your life, and elicit howls of frustration from your luckless spouse. And yet, most of those who carry one would not be without it. I’ve collected my own Twenty Years Long Service and Good Conduct Medal from the Suffolk Fire Service, and I have no regrets. In fact, now that I’m retired and bleeperless, I find I miss the damned thing.
Now I can actually finish every meal I start, take the time to soak and luxuriate in a hot bath, and sleep peacefully right through every night; but sometimes I would just rather be riding that big red engine again, with the blue lights flashing and the adrenaline pumping as I struggle into the harness of a breathing apparatus set. It was often hard, dirty, hot, and even dangerous work, alternating with the frustration of the “Mickey Mouse” calls, as we dubbed the false alarms, the routine of small chimney and grass fires, or the boredom of just waiting on stand-by. But in action or waiting you are always a part of an Elite Team, always ready for the Big One.
It’s hard to know precisely how many lives the Fire Service saves. A “Persons Reported” message gets the blood pounding quicker than anything, but mercifully live person rescues from burning buildings are relatively rare. The most common life or death situation is the road traffic accident. Here you work to free casualties as quickly as possible, without adding to or exacerbating the injuries they have already suffered. The final battle will usually be carried out by surgeons at the nearest hospital, but you have the satisfaction of knowing that if you have worked carefully and quickly enough, then you will have added to that person’s chance of survival as the ambulance ferries them away.
On one occasion we arrived on the scene just as one of the crashed vehicles burst into flames. The driver was trapped helpless behind the wheel, his feet crushed up between the foot pedals, and I shall never forget his horrified face, framed in the broken glass of the shattered windscreen and wreathed in tongues of leaping fire. Two of us hit the road running to whip the hose-reels, always the quickest means of attack, from either side of our machine, and I know for certain that on that day we did save a life.
Of course, for all of us Old Timers, our year of pride and glory was the hot summer of 1976. I was part of the fire crew at Brandon, and through July and August I never finished a single meal or slept a full night at home. We were in the heart of Breckland and ran till we were exhausted from one forest fire to the next. We finished that scorching summer with a plane crash. A Phantom jet from USAF Lakenheath nose-dived immediately after take-off with a full load of aviation fuel on board. In those tinder-dry conditions it set four square miles of fir plantations alight. Adrenaline-pumping stuff indeed!
In 1979 I transferred to Bury St. Edmunds, then a three-pump station, with the second and third pumps still manned by retained crews. In March the following year, at four-thirty in the morning of the 19th, the Bury St. Edmunds Sports Centre was completely destroyed by fire, an incident involving seventy men, fourteen major pumps and a turntable ladder. The fire had started in the cafeteria end of the upper building and when the first pumps arrived strong winds had swept the flames through the full length of the roof.
The first breathing apparatus teams to go inside were quickly pulled out again when the roof started to collapse. I went in twice with the second waves of BA teams allowed in after the roof was down, hauling a fire-fighting jet up the concrete central staircase that gave us some protection from any further collapse, but there was no way to beat that particular fire. Fifteen hours later we were still there, sweat-soaked and smoke-blackened, wearily damping down a huge pile of twisted girders and steaming debris.
But we didn’t really lose that fire. As any fireman will tell you, it’s still a good stop if you save the foundations!
So was it all worth it? Of course it was -- and there are always vacancies for those who can still do it. Most of East Anglia is covered by retained fire stations where crews are on bleeper call as and when they are needed, and even the few full time stations also need retained back-up. A full fire-crew is six fire-fighters, which means that to allow for sickness, holidays, and those times when you just can’t respond, the ideal is for twelve fire-fighters to be on call for each pump. However, the demands of most modern employers mean that not many people in full-time employment can make the total commitment needed for what is technically a part-time job so many stations are often short of crew.
Actually, it’s not quite a total commitment. It is recognized that even retained firemen are only human, so you will only be expected to make 65% of your station’s total number of calls. Training is usually an initial one week course, and then a two-hour drill night once a week.
So if you are a fit and healthy insomniac who doesn’t mind interrupted meals, and interruptions to all those other delicate activities which ordinary mortals expect to conduct in peace and privacy, then why not give it a go? Serving your community brings its own reward, and just one life saved, or one rampaging fire stopped in its tracks, makes it all worthwhile. Plus you’re almost guaranteed a cheerful, wise-cracking camaraderie that you won’t find anywhere else. London’s Burning got that part right at least.
I know that I’d do it all over again, if only they’d let me.
A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL MY READERS.
In December I put up the last chapter of SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY. Well, not quite the last chapter. The good news is that in putting up the book chapters on this blog I have again made contact with Tim. He is currently running fishing safaris on Lake Nasser in Egypt. (Look up the full details on his website at www.african-angler.com) Tim is keen to resurrect the book with a new third section on the highlights of all the following Siafu expeditions he organized through the seventies and eighties. We’re working on that together and hope to get the book published under a new title, OVERLAND THROUGH AFRICA.
In the meantime I have to decide how to continue this blog. Over the past eighteen years I have published over three hundred feature articles in the East Anglian county magazines, the old, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire Journals, the Essex Magazine, and currently the Suffolk/Norfolk Life. I realize that for people outside East Anglia this is a foreign country and so I intend to go back to the beginning and put them all up here, alternating with some of the poetry that originated in my travelling days.
My first article was LORDS OF THE DANCE, a feature on Morris Dancing which appeared in the May 1988 issue of The Suffolk Journal. It was published with the first seven of my photographs. Since then I have had over two thousand of my photographs published.
LORDS OF THE DANCE
By ROBERT LEADER
From May to September you will find them all over England, outside pubs, on village greens, at folk fairs and festivals, feet flying, bells jingling, thwacking sticks or waving handkerchiefs, flamboyant costumes whirling and weaving in circle and line dances that have evolved from the pre-Christian mists of pagan Britain. The dances are a celebration of the cycle of the seasons, for hunting and fishing, of Spring and Harvest, of fertility rites and rites of passage as ancient as Stonehenge and the druids. The dancers are, of course, the Morris Dancers, the modern day Lords - and Ladies - of the ritual dance.
Symbology abounds, greenery and maypoles for the resurgence of nature and the renewal of life. Circle dances to represent the changes of the seasons, the passage of the sun or the phases of the moon, or perhaps just the spirit of the community. Much of the true meanings are lost in the past, in the instincts, experiences and emotions of our long dead ancestors, and the explanations are now best guesses or logical deductions.
The themes are world wide, and in England Morris Dancing seems to have reached the height of its development around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Then most of the dancing would have been village based by agricultural labourers celebrating Christmas, Plough Monday (The first Monday after Twelth Night when the fields were ploughed and the crops were planted), May Day and the completion of harvest. Through the seventeenth century the dances were boosted by inter-village competitions, and by the injection of new factory sponsored teams, where clog-dancing was introduced in the new industrial towns. The clogs were initially the only footwear the mill working men possessed, but they were ideal for stamping out a heavy, noisy rhythm, and so many Morris sides still wear them today.
Morris dancing almost died out during the First World War, due to the vast numbers of young men who perished on the bloody battlefields of Europe, and it was only the introduction of female dancers which kept the traditions going, leading eventually to the modern day folk revival. A few areas such as the Cotswolds resisted the new mixed side trend, preferring to stay male only. All male sides can get much more robust, especially in the many stick battle dances that are possibly derived from the concept of summer beating back winter, and may deliberately try to break each other’s sticks. With ladies involved the mixed sides tend to be just as enthusiastic, but perhaps a little less aggressive.
In Suffolk alone there are almost twenty sides with strange names like Lagabag, Barley Brigg, Danegeld, Devil’s Dyke, Flying Tatters, Gyppeswyck Garland, Haganeth, Green Dragon, and the Haughley Hoofers, to name just a few.
Usually a Morris side needs around twenty members to be sure of fielding a regular dancing eight with at least two musicians favouring melodium and drums. Most of them will practice regularly in winter and dance out at pubs, festivals and street fairs at least once a week through the summer. Traditionally most of them will dance at the crack of dawn on Mayday, perhaps in a farmer’s field, although some prefer to wait to catch an early bird audience in the centre of one of our bustling market towns. The rest of the time they will dance for the fun of it, and perhaps the sheer joy of working up, and then slaking, a good thirst.
Most of the dance routines performed by the Suffolk Morris sides are derived from the more traditional dancing areas of England, but Suffolk ingenuity means that they are often given a new style and flair of their own. Danegeld, who are based at Woodbridge, wear black trousers or skirts and yellow shirts and socks, female waistcoats are green and the male waistcoats are red. Their vividly colourful dances are a form of North West clog morris which originated in Lancashire and Cheshire.
Some are processional dances associated with the ancient customs of well dressing, others celebrate rituals like the changing of the rushes, one of the many forms of dance that once took place within churches. Before Cromwell and the puritans it was not uncommon for folk dancers to perform inside the churches, or to dance around them in circles of unity.
Danegeld, who will celebrate their tenth birthday in October,(1988) take their name from Danish Gold, the extortion demanded by the Danes in the eleventh century as an alternative to their raping and pillaging your town or village. It was perhaps the first known protection racket. Danegeld’s tongue-in-cheek variation of the principle is that if you don’t put money in their hat they threaten to dance again.
Green Dragon Morris, who are based in Bury St Edmunds, dance in tatter coats and black faces. The tatter coats, jackets sewn with a complete covering of brightly coloured strips of rag, or tatters, represent the tattered poverty of the original dancers, the agricultural labourers or factory workers who had only rags to wear. Today the streaming tatters are also popular for their colourful whirlwind effect as the dancers leap and twirl.
The custom of blacking their faces is generally held to have originated from the dancer’s need in some circumstances to disguise their identities. Just as the modern day groups need to pass round the hat to cover their costs in transport, instruments, costumes, and hiring halls for winter practice, so many of the mediaeval dancers had to beg to survive. Blackening their faces meant that they were not so easily recognized when work became available again and they had to face their prospective employers. Also their pagan posturing became looked upon with disfavour when the puritans came to power, and it was not necessarily a good thing for the church and civic leaders to know exactly who the dancers were.
Most of Green Dragon’s dances come from the Cambridgeshire borders, although combined with any other style that takes their fancy, including the creation of “traditional” styles of their own. There is nothing static in folk dancing, like everything else that is alive and vibrant, it evolves.
One of the Cambridgeshire traditions is Molly Dancing. The “Molly” was a man dressed as a woman, who usually partnered the “Squire”, in dances that deliberately aped and ridiculed the more genteel, Mozartian waltzing of their betters. Many dances, and especially the mummers plays that go hand in hand with Morris Dancing, were cheerfully disorderly and satirical, reversing the rules and roles of rural society, and generally taking the mickey.
Today’s Morris dancing is a feast of colourful, traditional entertainment, of noisy music and dance that is joyful and vigorously energetic. Its devotees are drawn from all walks of life. Green Dragon’s dancers include a computer operator and a carpet-fitter, a radiographer and a schoolteacher, a nanny and a doctor. All they need in common is a little rhythm, a great deal of physical energy, a love of life and a great sense of fun.
And why do they do it. The obvious reason is to keep our national dancing traditions alive. It’s also a fantastic way of keeping fit. It’s a great day or evening out with convivial company. It’s an opportunity to dress up and play to the crowd. It’s the ultimate stress-buster, because dancing is an exhilarating and happy way to escape into the thrill of the moment.
It could lead to travel. Danegeld have danced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Luxembourg, Normany and Germany. They simply present themselves at the local tourist information office and ask if they can dance in the town square. To celebrate the inauguration of the new Stenna Line hover-speed service the side danced on the quayside in Holland.
And of course, there is always the possibility of romance. When Pip Conen, a lady dancer with the Green Dragon Morris, fell in love with Adam Garland, a male dancer from the long-established East Suffolk Morris, both sides turned up in full regalia to provide a ceremonial arch of honour, and then danced outside the church. Dancing at weddings, especially when it is one of their own, is one of the things Morris dancers do best.
If you fancy having a go, then contact a bagman. The bagman is the one who carries the bag with the paperwork and money, a sort of secretary-come-treasurer.
(Look up the sides on the internet to find their contact details.)
SIAFU – THE TIM BAILY STORY
AS TOLD TO ROBERT LADER
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: SIAFU IS BORN
There was only one way to pull Siafu and myself out of the red and that was to promote an immediate return trip to England using the same four Land Rovers. There was a tremendous amount of work to be done before my ancient indestructibles were fit to tackle the overland route again and I had to practically re-build each vehicle. At the same time I placed more advertisements in the South Africa Press. Thanks to these and the publicity I had been given in the Rhodesian press when we had made our jubilant entry into Salisbury I gradually began to pull together enough adventurous spirits to form a new expedition. Some of them were South Africans and Rhodesians, travelling of course on British passports, and there was the usual sprinkling of Australians and New Zealanders.
During the six months that I spent in South Africa organizing the return trip I stayed with the Hooper family who very kindly allowed me to use their home as the base of my operations. Peter was still working in London but during my stay he flew out to South Africa on a brief visit and I was very happy to met up with him again. My dept to the Hooper family is a very large one for they gave me support and encouragement at a very trying time when I needed it most. My fledgling idea for turning Trans-Africa into a viable business enterprise was struggling to survive and most people still considered that I was crazy. However, the Hoopers gave me moral support and allowed me to run my course. There was a standing joke between Mrs Hooper and myself that she was my Southern Hemisphere Mother, and indeed it was more truth than a joke.
Gradually the new expedition took shape and with the money paid by my new companions in fares I was able to purchase the necessary food and spares and pay off some of my debts to my original team. By this means I managed to reduce my total debt to eight hundred pounds.
I still had Andy Robertson to help me in running the show but my hardest task was to replace Allan Crook. Allan had continued his travels by sea to Borneo, where he had joined another Land Rover party driving overland to Australia, and so I needed a new mechanic. Not just any mechanic, but a good bush mechanic who could improvise and keep my vehicles moving under practically any circumstances. It was a headache, but one that was finally solved when Don Townsend, an old school-friend and another expatriate from Kenya answered my advertisement in the press. Don was working in South Africa but was keen to visit England. He was a big, stalwart character, an ideal man to have on the trip, and more to the point another brilliant mechanic. I signed him up immediately.
It was in October of 1969 that I set out with Andy to lead my battered convoy of reconditioned Land Rovers back across twelve thousand miles of Africa. We by-passed the delicate Rhodesia-Zambia border by circling through Malawi and here we stopped for a few days by the lake to remove every made in Rhodesia or made in South Africa label from every single item of our food and equipment. We cut the tags out of shirts and clothing, hacked the giveaway words from rubber tyres and clipped the labels from literally hundreds soup packets and food can wrappers.
That return trip proved much the same as the trip down except that the amount and the variety of mechanical breakdowns increased. However, I had again picked a splendid team who tackled the journey as an adventure and a challenge in which it was up to each one of them to help get the expedition through. They all relished every minute of it; the hard work and the campfire parties, the dust and the mud and the cold beer at every stop, the Congo roads and the Malindi nights, the difficulties and the delays, and the ever changing panorama of Africa with its diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna and people.
In the Congo we had trouble again at Monga. The Congolese officer in charge of the garrison there was blind drunk when we arrived and because he enjoyed the presence of our girls he refused to let the party cross the river. He insisted that we all stay to drink with him instead. We eased out of that situation by passing round a bottle of cane spirit drugged with sedatives from our medical chest. While we pretended to take sips he took hefty pulls and finally passed out.
In Tamanrasset we ran foul of our old friends the customs officers when they found that one of our party was smuggling a revolver. I had warned everybody of the folly of trying to carry a gun and now there was nothing I could do to help him. He was jailed for two months and had to pay a fine of four hundred and fifty pounds to get out.
Finally, after another journey of three months, “Henry”, “Sarah”, “Maggie” and “Matilda” all limped wearily into London. During the last few weeks the whole expedition had again been desperately short of money but again we had arrived safely at our destination. Reluctantly I put the four Land Rovers up for sale and with the proceeds I succeeded in paying off the last of my debts and breaking even.
Now I had to review my situation yet again. I had no debts but I had no assets either. Without my Land Rovers I had nothing except the fact that I had led two successful expeditions across Africa and proved that my project was feasible. I started to look around for someone who would back me financially and this time I found the support I needed. Errol Baker, a good friend and at one time my managing director at “Samorgan” decided to invest in Siafu. He was joined by Gilbert Brown, another old colleague who had worked for an associate firm during my “Samorgan” days. They put up the hard cash to purchase new vehicles and equipment and again with Andy Robertson I led two more successful expeditions to and fro across Africa.
We hit a new problem in crossing the Oubangui at Bangassou. The ferry we had previously used had now rotted through and sunk. Undaunted we hired a fleet of native canoes, placed planks across them athwart ships and gingerly drove our vehicles onto those make-shift rafts. It was a risky business paddling our own improvised ferry across the wide sweep of the river, but we made every crossing without mishap.
In other spheres the trip became easier. The civil war in Nigeria was over and both Central Africa and the Congo became much more settled. The Siafu ant painted on the white door of a Land Rover eventually became familiar over the whole overland route and past experience and old contacts helped to smooth our way. With new vehicles and a sound knowledge of the hazards and terrain each trip became a little less difficult than the last, although Africa itself remained the same magnificent adventure.
In May of 1970 we were at last able to open an office at Abbey House in Victoria Street as a permanent base. And SIAFU EXPEDITIONS was registered as a Limited Company with Errol Baker, Gilbert Brown and Tim Baily listed as directors.
From this point on Siafu Expeditions were making regular Trans-African safaris, each one lasting three months between London and Nairobi and vice versa. Each safari consisted of approximately twenty-five young people in four Land Rovers. Plus an experienced expedition leader and a competent mechanic as second in command. Our prices were all-inclusive of transport, all the necessary equipment for cooking and camping, and all game park fees, camping fees and ferry tolls. All the organization and planning was done by Siafu, but once the expedition left London or Nairobi the expedition members were on their own. It was their trip and it was up to them to run it, for it was our endeavour to offer adventure and a challenge. The men took their turns at driving the vehicles, carrying the water and erecting the tents; while the girls did the bartering in the native markets and cooked the meals. In the event of a real emergency or an expedition leader being taken ill I was always ready to fly out personally and take charge, but otherwise it was our policy to give our expeditions free rein to show their own mettle.
Now that Siafu had pioneered the way there were soon other companies moving into the exciting new field of Trans-African travel. The route was getting easier but Siafu continued to run expeditions the hard way, opening up new routes to avoid the advancing spread of civilization. We began running expeditions down through Tunisia and entering Algeria via Djanet, and from there making the wildly beautiful but unmarked crossing over eight hundred miles of vividly painted sandstone desert before rejoining the main through route at Agadez. The Djanet crossing took an extra three days and had to be made by compass bearings with the help of Toureg guides. Economically, we were told, Djanet is crazy. Those extra days mean extra costs and the passenger on his first Trans-Sahara trip will never know the difference if we take him by the cheaper but less spectacular main road. My answer always reverted to the basic principle of Siafu – our aim was always to offer young people genuine adventure and to show them the best of Africa. We were a part of Africa and not just another commercially-minded company selling holidays.
In the shifting moods of Africa it became Siafu policy to explore every new route that became politically possible. Wherever there was something new to be tried in African experience or Trans-African travel, then Siafu would attempt it.
As we grew we expanded our ambitions. In addition to our regular overland expeditions Siafu would also contact out to private expeditions with a definite purpose. We could arrange specialized climbing expeditions to tackle Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro, or short purely photographic expeditions in search of any specific animal. We were the experts with all the necessary knowledge, vehicles and equipment and the experienced personnel to outfit any type of expedition anywhere in Africa. We were ready, and able, to cater for zoological or archaeological, or any other scientific or university research teams who needed to penetrate into the more remote and difficult regions of the continent.
Siafu soon became linked with the Association of World Learning. For any group that wished to promote a greater understanding of Africa; whether it be by studying prehistoric rock painting in the Sahara, living with the Congo pygmies, or combing the Ruwenzories for those few remaining gorillas, Siafu was always ready to undertake the organization of such an expedition. We could guarantee the safe and efficient transport of its members to the site of their researches.
Siafu in the mid-seventies was a thriving company, with many thanks due to the early generosity of my fellow directors Errol Baker and Gilbert Brown. Our vehicles were the best and the personal contacts I had built up over the past few years had ensured reasonably smooth sailing through all the political frontiers we had to pass.
However, the overland journey through Africa is never certain and will never be easy. To make that trans-continental journey will always be a challenge and an unsurpassable adventure. In an age where man has left his footprints on the moon Africa can still offer untrodden regions of forest and jungle. Africa is mystique and excitement, freedom and peace and nature untamed and timeless.
And even in our safe, comfortable and insulated welfare state world, I believe there will always be young men and women ready to respond to the magic call of Africa. For the young man or woman who truly wants to discover his or her own capacity, strengths and weaknesses, there is no better testing ground than Africa. Under expedition conditions true character must emerge and be strengthened.
On a Siafu expedition there is much hard work to be done: sand, mud, dust, heat and tsetse flies to be faced. But on the credit side there is the experience of a lifetime: the close circles of talk and laughter lit by the red glow of the camp fires, the blue skies that burn above beautiful desert isolation, the mountain peaks whose snows dazzle under the equatorial sun, the vast grassy plains dotted with wildlife, the tangled forests with their green and mysterious depths, and the continuous pageant of fascinating indigenous peoples.
All these, I can testify, are the rewards of Africa. But most of all, he who discovers Africa the hard way, the Siafu way, will also discover himself.
So ends the original book.
However, the good news is that in putting these chapters up on The Far Horizons I have again been able to make contact with Tim Baily. Tim is now running fishing safaris on Lake Nasser in Egypt. You can check out his website at www.african-angler.net
Tim is still keen to see the book published and we are now working together on a third section telling all the highlight stories and dramas of the later expeditions that continued to run all through the seventies and eighties. There are some fantastic tales here for Africa never fails to surprise and delight.
So watch this space.
Look out for the Book.
It’s going to be called:
OVERLAND THROUGH AFRICA