Battle for Nalipal
White horses crested waves of a steely grey hue as the autumn winds swept across Lake Shokkar. Dusk was on the way, and down in the small harbour town of Nalipal smoke rose from the chimneys of the small stone houses and the salt-encrusted windows shone with the yellow glow of lantern light.
Few were about on this inclement evening, but two young figures stood together on the cliff top staring out at the tumultuous sea and gloomy, overcast sky.
Luca gazed across the waters at the distant silhouette of the Bluff of Shokkar and recalled how, a long eighteen months ago, he and his companion Halil had first rowed out there in a borrowed fishing boat and set a long chain of events in motion. The Skaarj were out there somewhere, and Luca knew that sooner or later they’d return to Nalipal. Mittari would have seen to that. Mittari, that traitorous Nali, at whose hands he had almost lost Halil forever.
The breeze kicked up, and a few stray raindrops blew onto Luca’s arms and face. He shivered and pulled his leather jerkin more tightly over his chest.
“Cold?” said Halil, looking at Luca.
Luca nodded. He stooped and picked up a small, flat pebble, which he threw over the cliff edge. He watched as it bobbed in the wind on its way down, before it landed in the distant waters below with a silent splash.
“I’m not ready,” he said.
“Luca, you’re fourteen,” she replied. “The ascension is rightfully yours. You’ll be declared an adult.”
“I don’t feel like one,” he muttered moodily.
Halil looked at him for a moment, and then shook her head with a chuckle.
“After all we’ve been through, I doubt there’s any fourteen year-old Nali more ready for the ascension than you. You should have more faith in yourself.”
“Would Kew agree to that?” Luca asked, looking back over his shoulder to the abandoned hut that had once belonged to Kew the Elder.
Halil put a hand on Luca’s arm. Luca felt a pang; Halil still didn’t know the truth about his feelings. He turned back and met her gaze.
There was no trace of laughter in Halil’s voice now. “Absolutely.”
Luca turned back into the breeze and undid the cross ties on his jerkin. Halil looked on uncertainly as the wind blew the flaps of his jerkin back against his arms, exposing his chest. The cold wind against his bare skin cut into Luca like a knife, but he remained staring fixedly out at the Bluff of Shokkar.
“You really think I can do this?” he said at length.
“I believe in you,” Halil said quietly. She moved in front of him and pulled his jerkin closed once again, knotting the cross ties carefully.
“You’ll be fine,” she continued, “and the ceremony tomorrow will prove it. Come on.”
Taking Luca by the hand, she led him back towards the cliff top steps, and they began their descent back into Nalipal.
As they descended the ancient stairway, Luca saw the silhouette of his mother Matharil standing in the open doorway of his house, her hands clasped over her breast anxiously.
“Mum?” Luca asked as he and Halil approached the Nali. “What is it?”
“Luca,” Matharil replied, “I’ve just had a visit from Motanisha. He told me that Lo’juura had sent for you, and that you were to go to him at once upon your return.”
Luca exchanged a puzzled glance with Halil. “What’s it about?” he asked. He didn’t know what the chieftain could want with him at this hour of the evening.
“He didn’t say,” Matharil replied, “but I suppose you’d better get down there.”
“I will,” Luca nodded, frowning. “See you, Halil,” he added, turning to his friend.
“See ya, Luca,” Halil replied as Luca turned to go, before adding, “Good luck!”
Leaving Halil and his mother standing by the doorway, Luca set off down the lane past Putanuuri’s restaurant and glanced out across the lake as he passed the empty terrace. All had fallen quiet now that he was alone, save for the chirrup of an autumn cricket. Temporarily, at least, the autumn winds had died down.
Luca descended the steps behind the inn that led to the quayside. A soft babble of conversation emanated from the tavern; the innkeeper Tari was doing reasonable trade tonight, it seemed.
A lick of breeze got up again as Luca turned into the earthen market square, steering away from the pier and passing the stacks of lobster pots and wicker baskets as he approached the town hall. This timber-framed building was where the chieftain, Lo’juura, attended to the daily business of the town. Lights were lit behind the downstairs windows: Lo’juura was working late tonight.
The door wasn’t locked, so Luca pushed it open and entered the warm, lantern-lit corridor lined with colourful tapestries, paintings and other Nali artefacts and artworks. He turned left and walked down the dark blue carpet until he spied the door to Lo’juura’s private office standing ajar with a flickering orange illumination glimmering behind it.
Luca knocked on the door and entered the chamber.
“Ah, Luca! Come on in!”
Lo’juura was sitting behind his desk with a quill in one hand, half way through filling in the logbook with the day’s events and major trade. A warm fire was crackling in the grate behind the chieftain, and an ornate sword with a red gemstone in the hilt hung on the wall to the left. In the far corner, Luca spied the former resistance fighter Motanisha leaning against the wall in the shadows, his eyes glinting. Motanisha winked.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” Luca addressed the chieftain, self-consciously straightening his jerkin.
“Yes indeed, please sit down.” Lo’juura gestured towards a chair in front of his desk. Obediently, Luca pulled the chair back and sat, looking at Lo’juura uncertainly.
“Do you know what this is, Luca?” Lo’juura stood and unhooked the polished sword from the wall bracket. This he placed down in front of Luca, before leaning on the desk, arms spread and looking at Luca expectantly.
“Yes,” Luca replied, “it’s the sword of the Van’thaal, sworn champion of the town.”
Lo’juura nodded. “Quite right.”
“But there hasn’t been a Van’thaal for centuries,” Luca continued. “I didn’t realise the sword even existed any more.”
Lo’juura turned to face the fireplace. “These are trying times,” he replied. “The eventual return of the Skaarj to our shores seems inevitable.” The chieftain looked over his shoulder. “Suffice it to say that I am considering reviving old traditions.”
“Really?” Luca asked. Curiously, he looked from the sword to Motanisha, who shook his head with a slight smile.
Lo’juura had turned to face the fireplace again. “Your ceremony of ascension takes place tomorrow, does it not?”
“Yes, sir, it does,” Luca replied.
Lo’juura turned abruptly and placed his hands back on the table, looking deep into Luca’s eyes.
“I would like you to be the new Van’thaal,” he said.
Luca’s mouth fell open. “Me?”
“Twice you have encountered the Skaarj, and twice you have come away unscathed whilst they have been destroyed.”
“But I was just lucky… I mean… Motanisha…”
Lo’juura shook his head. “You are young, resourceful and calm in the face of danger. These are the true qualities of the Van’thaal. Motanisha may be experienced, but I have spoken with him, and you are the one I have chosen.”
Luca opened his mouth to protest, but was silenced by Motanisha, who gave Luca a warning headshake.
Bemused, Luca fell into silence and blinked.
“Try it for size,” said Lo’juura’s voice. Luca looked up to see that the chieftain had picked the sword up by the blade and was holding it out towards him.
Luca took the sword by the hilt and tested it for weight: the ornate handle pressed firmly into his hand, but it wasn’t too heavy. By means of a trial, he gave it an experimental swing, and the sword slid through the air with a satisfying “swish”, accidentally snicking a leaf off a large pot plant that stood to the left. Luca lowered the sword and grinned sheepishly.
Lo’juura held out his hands with the slightest of smiles playing about his lips. “That will do for now.”
Luca returned the sword to the chieftain, who replaced it on its wall bracket.
“It will be presented to you tomorrow,” Lo’juura said. “Until then, good night.”
“Good night, sir,” Luca replied as Lo’juura returned to the logbook. Motanisha emerged from his corner and led Luca out into the hallway, shutting the door behind him.
“I’m proud of you, Luca,” said Motanisha firmly. “I’m sure you will be a credit to us all.”
“Thanks,” Luca replied, turning to go.
“One more thing,” Motanisha added. “Keep this to yourself for now. All will be revealed tomorrow.”
Luca stepped out into the damp evening air and took the lane around the end of the building, somewhat lost in thought, then climbed the flight of steps behind it. The lanterns around him sprung to life in the gathering gloom as he followed the lane towards the orchards and the cliff wall, until he became dimly aware of a figure sitting on the orchard fence, studying her feet.
“Luca!” she said as she looked up. She sprang up from the low railing and ran over to him. “Did you see Lo’juura?”
“And is everything okay?” Halil asked earnestly.
Luca looked at Halil in silence for a moment, but then he grinned.
“Yeah, everything’s great.”
“So what was it about?”
“They…” Luca began, but then he remembered. “I can’t tell you. But you’ll see, tomorrow.”
Halil looked a little hurt. “You can’t tell me?”
“You know I would if I could,” he replied.
Halil paused, but then nodded and smiled. “Yeah.”
“I’ve got to get to bed… but I’ll see you at the ceremony.”
“Count on it,” Halil replied. “Night, Luca.”
“G’night Halil,” he replied, and then he turned and set off for home.
Luca awoke slowly to the distant cry of a seagull. He began to open his eyes, but squinted as a flare of light danced in front of his vision: a ray of rare autumn sunshine was streaming in through his east-facing window, and it was this light reflecting off the glass lantern hanging from his ceiling that had caught his eye.
He stirred and rolled over in his bed as if it were any other normal morning, but then a sickening jolt hit his stomach as he remembered the day to come, and before he knew it he was sitting bolt upright on the side of his bed, heart pounding.
Today’s the day, he thought. Whatever happened, there was no going back now. Things would never be the same again.
His jerkin and fabric thigh coverings lay untidily on the chair at the side of his room as they always did, but next to them was a new, neatly folded loincloth. Luca removed his rough night clothing and picked up the strange item. Thinking back to the technique his late father Lit’harani had taught him when he was five years old, Luca wrapped the loincloth around his waist in the customary fashion and fastened it with the piece of cord that was attached to it. Having done this, Luca reached for his familiar thigh coverings and pulled them on over the loincloth. He picked up his old leather belt and carefully detached from it the knife given his father had given him before he left to join the Nali resistance (a mission from which he had never returned), and placed it reverently on his chest of drawers. Then he fastened the belt and reached for his jerkin.
Donning the worn leather garment was at once both reassuring and unsettling. It was comforting to feel the familiar leather against his skin and the protection it offered, but it also gave Luca a strange feeling to think that he’d never wear it again.
Luca regarded himself in the roughly framed mirror mounted on his wall and adjusted his clothing uncomfortably. Once he was satisfied, he pushed his window open to air the room, pausing for a quick glance out at the sparkling crests of the waves out on the water, and then opened his door and stepped out into the small living room.
Matharil must have been up for a while already, as the round wooden table was already equipped with two gently steaming bowls of oatmeal and a large earthenware pot of deunaberry jam. She emerged from the kitchen as Luca shuffled into the room.
“Good morning, Luca,” she said. “Have a seat.”
“Hi mum,” Luca replied. He pulled up one of the wooden stools topped with worn maroon leather and placed himself in front of one of the bowls of oatmeal, feeling decidedly un-hungry.
“Are you… dressed?” his mother asked, sitting herself down and passing him the jam.
“Yeah,” Luca replied, adding a spoonful to his breakfast without much enthusiasm.
“You’re so grown up,” Matharil murmured wistfully. “I wish your father were alive to see it; he’d be so proud.”
“Yeah,” Luca replied, feeling every bit the child.
Luca stirred his breakfast listlessly. The deep purple jam blended with the oatmeal, leaving a bright swirl of colour in the bowl.
“You’d better eat up,” said Matharil, “you’ve got a big day ahead.”
Luca forced himself to eat a few spoonfuls.
“Do you know how many Nali will be at the church today?” Luca asked, with his mouth full.
Matharil licked her lips in thought. “Well, Father Thalitha will be there to perform the ceremony, and Halil and her father know, of course. I think you said you mentioned it to Philona?” – Luca nodded at the mention of the elderly fisherman – “and Motanisha will be there, but I haven’t invited that many people. News travels quickly in a small town like ours, though, so I expect we’ll pick up a few more well wishers on the way.”
Luca’s heart sank; he pictured half the town lined up in the church square to watch him as he was paraded from one part of his life to the next for all to see. Silently, he returned to his breakfast and tried to swallow a little more.
The remaining half hour passed far too quickly, and before he knew it Luca was leaving his house with his mother and stepping out onto the paved lane, where Halil was waiting anxiously for him. Luca was relieved to see his friend.
“What’s it like up there?” he asked fatalistically.
“Well,” Halil chewed her lip, “there are a few people… you know… they only want to wish you well.”
“Yeah,” Luca replied. She hadn’t sounded very convincing.
In silence, the three Nali turned towards the harbour and walked along the paved lane. Putanuuri’s restaurant was deserted, the tables and chairs still stacked up in a corner of the terrace. In fact, Luca could see barely hide or hair of a Nali out on the streets this morning. Thinking about it, Luca wasn’t sure whether to be encouraged or worried.
The small party descended the steps to the quayside and crossed the edge of the market square. Still no sign of the townspeople: the market building, which would normally be bustling with life by this time of the morning, was silent.
As Luca, Halil and Matharil reached the end of the quay and began to climb the lane behind the market, a quiet babble of Nali voices became audible, and Luca tried to work out how many were speaking. He couldn’t say, but what he could tell, with a writhing in his stomach, was that it was several. Nothing he had imagined, however, prepared him for what he saw when they rounded the corner into the church square.
Almost the entire fifty-strong congregation of Nalipal Church seemed to have turned out for the ceremony. Luca’s roving eyes swept over the crowd of Nali thronging the cobbled church square, all of whom had fallen silent upon his arrival: he saw Philona, he and Halil’s elderly fisherman friend; Motanisha, who grinned at Luca; Halil’s father, Latana, who stood impassively on the far side of the square; Putanuuri, the plump restauranteur; Tari, the innkeeper; Netarani, a friend of Philona’s; even Kuri, the blacksmith who lived in the village on the hill at Mein’Haar Falls, had put in an appearance. Father Thalitha, the priest, was standing by the open church doors, looking in good spirits: devout though they were, it was rare that such large numbers of the congregation were able to attend his normal services. The only Nali conspicuous by his absence, Luca noticed, was the town chieftain Lo’juura.
Father Thalitha cleared his throat and spread his arms wide.
“Welcome one and all,” he announced, “to the Ceremony of Ascension for our young comrade Luca. If young Luca would like to accompany me, then I invite you all to join us in the church at your leisure.”
At a gentle shove from Matharil, Luca stepped falteringly forwards and followed Father Thalitha into the warm, musty gloom of the church, aware of the rustling of many feet behind him as they entered.
Luca’s eyes began to adjust to the low lighting, and he saw that all six of the large torches mounted on the pillars to either side of the nave had been lit to mark the occasion. They cast a warm, flickering glow over the wooden pews and flag stoned floor, whilst elements of purple and yellow light streamed in from the stained glass windows on the wall above the entrance, highlighting the motes of dust dancing in the air. As Luca proceeded slowly down the aisle, he saw that four flagstones had been removed before the altar, revealing a square pool full of clear water that seemed to have a blue glow of its own.
Luca heard the congregation taking their seats behind him. Father Thalitha had swept on ahead; now he stood behind the pool, the light of the torches playing over the multicoloured tattoos on his arms and legs that were the marks of the Nali priesthood.
“The child will kneel before the pool of cleansing,” Father Thalitha instructed. Obediently, Luca sank into a crouched position, closed his eyes and put his palms together in the gesture of prayer. Behind him, Luca heard the congregation settling into their seats.
“The child will anoint himself with the waters.”
Heart pounding in his chest, Luca undid his jerkin and discarded it on the floor. Then he undid his belt and slid the thigh coverings off his legs, until he was dressed in just the loincloth. Crouching again, he cupped his four hands into the water and sluiced it over his head, his back and his chest.
“Very good,” Father Thalitha said quietly. Then, speaking up, he announced, “The child will stand.”
Luca stood before the Pool of Cleansing and faced Father Thalitha.
“Child!” the priest commanded. “What do you claim?”
Luca recited the speech he had rehearsed several times.
“I, Luca of Nalipal, born of fourteen years, do hereby claim the ascension, and all that comes with it that it is rightfully mine.”
“You contend that you are no longer a child, but an adult of our town?”
“Very well. Be still.”
Luca stood still and stuck out his arms. Father Thalitha turned and picked up a small mortar and pestle from atop the altar. Dipping his fingers into the substance within, the priest began to mark Luca with the familiar pattern of tattoos. Two short brown strokes on each arm, near the wrist; two long stripes on the thighs. A third, thorn-shaped mark above each knee.
The congregation was silent as Father Thalitha paced around Luca and traced two short strokes just above the small of his back; two longer strokes between his two pairs of arms; and finally, four small marks across his shoulders.
“You will now pray,” the priest said softly. One more, Luca placed his hands together and closed his eyes. There was a stinging sensation as Luca felt the magical substance beginning to bond with his skin, signing him in permanence with the markings of the adult Nali.
When the prickling had ceased, Luca opened his eyes and looked up. Father Thalitha was smiling at him.
“Go in peace, Luca of Nalipal, you are now an adult. May the Gods of the Good Lore be with you.”
Applause broke out from the congregation and Luca turned to face them. Relief washed over him in waves and he smiled nervously – it was over. Matharil was sitting nearby, her face streaked with tears, but smiling. Beside her, Halil was beaming and clapping vigorously.
The doors of the chapel flew open, and Lo’juura came striding in.
“This ceremony is not yet over!” he announced.
The applause ceased at once and whispers broke out amongst the congregation. Lo’juura was carrying the sword of the Van’thaal. This time, however, it was sheathed in an ornate scabbard attached to a strong-looking leather belt. Luca’s euphoria faded in an instant and a nervous lump appeared in his throat once more.
“Motanisha, if you please,” Lo’juura said, and said Nali emerged from a pew on the right. Luca noticed that Motanisha, like the priest, was carrying a mortar and pestle, but this time full of colourful red and blue paint.
Lo’juura stood before Luca and held the sword in his outstretched palms.
“Luca of Nalipal, do you accept the sword of the Van’thaal, and all associated privileges and responsibilities?”
Luca swallowed hard and announced, “I do.”
Whispers among the congregation intensified to a steady rustle of conversation. Matharil and Halil were staring at Luca in astonishment; Halil’s mouth had fallen open.
Lo’juura silenced the voices with a wave of his hand. “Do you vow to place the needs of the town above your own, in all circumstances in which you are required to fight?”
“I do,” Luca repeated.
“Then take this sword,” Lo’juura commanded, “and may it never leave your side.”
Luca reached for the proffered weapon and ran the belt around his waist. Fastening it, he rose again to look at Lo’juura.
Motanisha stepped forwards and began to mark Luca with the tattoos of the Van’thaal: a red, six-pointed sun on the forehead, and two blue strokes on the chest. With that, he stepped back, and both he and Lo’juura prayed. Luca felt the prickling, bonding sensation once more, and then Lo’juura looked up and put a hand on Luca’s shoulder, staring directly into Luca’s eyes.
“Go forth, Luca, champion of Nalipal, and may your courage never fail you.”
There was a rumble of conversation as the congregation began to file out of the church. Lo’juura led the way, setting off to attend to town business. Now that the ceremony had died down, Luca was relieved not to be the centre of attention any longer, and he remained where he was while the worst of the crowd dispersed.
Luca caught sight of Matharil and Halil among the Nali heading for the doors. Halil had the chance to smile fleetingly at Luca and made a gesture to say that everything had gone well, but then, swept along by the tide, indicated that she would meet Luca outside and allowed herself to go with the flow.
Luca now felt strangely naked in just a loincloth, without his familiar clothes around him. Glancing at the floor, he saw that they had gone, and just had time to wonder where they had got to before he felt an arm around his shoulder and found himself being led out into the sunlight by Motanisha.
“Well done, Luca,” the Nali told him, “you handled yourself well in there.”
“Thanks,” Luca grinned nervously in return. “I don’t think the congregation were expecting the last part, though.”
Motanisha snorted. “They certainly weren’t! But it looks they’ve recovered from their shock…”
The church square was thronged with various members of the congregation, talking in huddles and peering at his new tattoos. Luca found himself swept away from Motanisha and was suddenly shaking hands with Putanuuri, the plump restauranteur.
“Well, congratulations, Luca! I mean, I say, Van’thaal? We haven’t had one of those in centuries! Of course, I’m sure you’ll do a fine job…”
Putanuuri was shunted aside by the fisherman Netarani, who wrung Luca’s hand vigorously.
“I’m glad to see that Lo’juura is taking the Skaarj threat seriously,” he said. Luca nodded, feeling bewildered.
Various townspeople greeted Luca, and he offered perfunctory replies until he caught sight of Halil standing in the corner of the square outside Motanisha’s house. Excusing himself to his well-wishers, Luca waded through the mass of townspeople to meet his friend.
“Hey,” he said quietly as he came to a halt, breathing a sigh of relief at escaping the clutches of the townspeople.
“Hi Luca,” she replied. Luca noticed that she was chewing her lip again.
“‘S'alright?” he asked.
“Yeah. You look good,” she said.
“Thanks, Luca replied, glancing awkwardly down at himself again.
“Master Luca!” came a hoarse shout.
The voice was unmistakeable. Luca turned to see the elderly fisherman Philona approaching, tottering along with a walking stick in one hand. In another hand Luca spotted his neatly folded jerkin and thigh coverings.
“Thought I’d save these fer yeh,” Philona puffed as he arrived.
“Thanks, Philona,” Luca replied, “but I can’t wear them now, you know that.”
The ancient Nali nodded. “Tha’ I do, Luca, but I’m sure yeh’ll be needing ‘em again when yeh have yer own children some day.”
Philona’s eyes twinkled mischievously. Luca was unable to suppress a quick glance at Halil at this juncture, and as they made eye contact, Luca felt his cheeks begin to burn.
“Thanks,” he managed again, taking the clothes from Philona.
“Think nothin’ of it,” the old Nali winked. Luca and Halil watched as the old Nali hobbled off.
“You’re blushing,” Halil grinned. Luca wished the ground would open up and swallow him whole.
“I…” he began, but he was interrupted by another shout of “Hey! Luca!”
“You’re popular today,” Halil remarked wryly.
Luca rolled his eyes and turned back. Jogging up to Luca and Halil was a girl whom Luca recognised as Tirithil, the innkeeper’s daughter.
Luca had never really got to know Tirithil, although he knew her well enough to say “hi” to. She was about eighteen, tall and attractive, with vivid green eyes and a long plait of unusually light brown hair. She was wearing a smock that was unusually low-cut for the attire of a female Nali, revealing the cleavage of her upper breasts. Catching himself staring, Luca flicked his eyes back up to look the girl in the face.
“Great ceremony, Luca, I mean, wow… Van’thaal!”
Luca forced a smile and nodded. It was nothing that he hadn’t heard about fifteen times already this morning.
Tirithil glanced at the sword attached to his belt. “So I guess you’ll be training regularly now?” she added.
“Yeah, I suppose I will,” Luca replied. In truth, he hadn’t really thought about it.
“Could I train with you? I’m a bit of an amateur fighter myself and… maybe we teach each other a thing or two about how to do it.”
Luca was taken aback. “Okay,” he nodded after a glance at Halil, who was looking at Tirithil in silence. “Whereabouts should we do it?”
“Somewhere with plenty of space,” Tirithil replied. “We’re going to be thrown about a bit,” she smiled.
Luca cast his mind around the town, and then his eyes settled upon the north cliff, where Kew’s hut could be seen perched above the rock face.
“How about tomorrow at dusk, on the cliff top?” he suggested.
Tirithil nodded with a smile. “It’s a date.”
Luca watched, bemused, as Tirithil set off back through the thinning crowd. This was turning into a pretty strange day.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Luca said to Halil. Dusk was traditionally a time that he and Halil would have spent together.
“No… you carry on,” she said quietly.
“Thanks Halil, you’re the best,” Luca grinned, but he was whisked away by a strong arm from the crowd before Halil could reply.
The next morning dawned cool and misty with the scent of seaweed on the air. Luca had spent a strange night trying to sleep without the protection of his usual nightclothes, and had been plagued by strange dreams that he couldn’t quite remember.
Therefore, he was glad to step out onto the paved lane after he had finished his breakfast. He looked around for Halil, who normally met him outside in the mornings, but she was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he saw Tirithil approaching from the left.
“Morning, Luca,” she said.
“Hi Tirithil,” he replied, “have you seen Halil around this morning?”
Tirithil glanced around and shrugged. “No, can’t say I have,” she answered.
Luca nodded. “Okay, never mind.”
Luca began walking towards the market square. Tirithil accompanied him. “Are you looking forward to tonight’s training session?” she asked.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Luca replied distractedly. He was still wondering where Halil had got to.
“I’ve got a couple of wooden staffs for us to use,” said Tirithil, “it’ll be safer than you swinging that thing about.”
She gestured at the sword attached to Luca’s belt, hanging next to his father’s knife, which he had reattached that morning. Luca nodded.
“Good idea,” he replied.
“Are you okay?” Tirithil asked, “You sound a bit… elsewhere.”
“I’m okay,” he lied, “I’m just worried you’re gonna show me up tonight.”
Tirithil grinned and flicked a hair out of her eye.
“There’s no need – I’m not that good, really.”
They were descending the steps beside the inn by now. As they emerged onto the quay, Luca caught sight of Halil sitting at the far end of the waterfront.
“Look, I’ve got to go,” he said quickly to Tirithil, “but I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah, see ya then.” Tirithil raised a hand as Luca jogged away towards his friend.
Halil was sitting on the quayside and kicking the air listlessly as Luca came to a halt beside her.
“Hey,” he said. Halil looked up.
“Hi, Luca,” she replied.
“Missed you this morning,” Luca frowned.
“Oh, yeah… sorry,” Halil replied.
Luca sat down on the quay beside her.
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
“Everything’s fine,” Halil responded with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
“What d’you want to do today?” Luca persisted.
“Oh… I can’t hang around today, Luca, sorry,” Halil replied. “I have to help my father with some chores.”
“Oh, okay,” Luca replied, disappointed. Halil stood up and dusted her smock down.
“I guess I’d better go and make a start,” she said. “I’ll see you later.”
“It’ll have to be after training,” Luca said, “I’m not sure how long we’ll be up there for.”
“Of course,” Halil replied, slightly abruptly. “See you, Luca.”
She set off diagonally across the earthen square. “Halil!” Luca called to the retreating figure, who paused and looked around.
“If you want to come along any day…” Luca said earnestly. Halil looked slightly mollified.
“I’ll think about it,” she said. “Bye, Luca.”
“Bye,” Luca replied softly as she resumed her path across the square, before disappearing quietly up the steps beside the chieftain’s house.
“Ready,” Luca replied.
Tirithil’s staff flew through the air and hit that of Luca, who had raised it just in time to block the attack.
“Got you,” he grinned.
“Not bad for a first time,” Tirithil said, “but I won’t hold back for long.”
Luca just had time to raise an eyebrow before Tirithil swung her quarterstaff once again, and Luca raised his weapon as before to block the attack, but Tirithil subverted Luca’s move somehow. The wooden staff hit him in the gut and he was sent flying back onto the rough grass next to his temporarily discarded sword, his own staff rolling away from his open hand. Now it was Tirithil’s turn to grin as she stepped forwards and offered Luca a hand.
“Thanks,” Luca gasped, winded, as Tirithil helped him to stand. “Now how did you do that?”
“It’s simple really,” Tirithil replied. “You left yourself open by lifting your staff too high, so it was easy for me to make a comeback.”
Luca nodded. “Right.”
“Ready to try again?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. He bent and retrieved his weapon.
“Stand ready,” said Tirithil. She lunged and Luca parried, and in seconds he was sprawled on his back once again.
“I thought I had it that time,” he said from the ground, much abashed.
Tirithil smirked. She helped Luca stand again, holding onto his hand until he tugged it away. “You’re trying your best. You can’t expect to be good right away. We’ll go through it more slowly this time.”
Luca and Tirithil stooped into position, and she began to show him the move in slow motion.
Within an hour, Luca was becoming quite adept at basic sparring, and was able to keep Tirithil’s staff at bay for several moves, although he had yet to successfully defeat her.
The two Nali continued practicing for some time on the cliff top. Seagulls wheeled against the twin suns sinking in the darkening sky, and the breeze acquired a colder edge as Luca tried to fend off Tirithil’s attacks. By the time the two Nali had exhausted themselves, it was almost completely dark and the town below was illuminated by a network of twinkling oil lanterns.
“That was a good session,” Tirithil said as they descended the cliff top steps. Both quarterstaffs dangled loosely from her hand: Luca had seen enough of them for one night.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I didn’t beat you, though.”
“That’s because you’ve been too defensive,” said Tirithil. “We can get you trying out some attacking moves tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Luca said, glancing at her and pausing on the steps.
“If that’s okay,” she said mildly, looking back at him.
“Sure,” he replied at length, his thoughts once again of Halil. They resumed their descent.
“Well, goodnight,” said Tirithil. They had reached the bottom of the steps; Luca had been lost in thought, but came back to the real world with a jolt.
“Yeah, ‘night,” he replied.
Tirithil put a hand on his arm and smiled. “You did pretty good,” she said.
“Thanks,” Luca replied. With a tip of a hand Tirithil set off on the path towards the inn. Luca watched her depart until she turned right at the far end and disappeared from view.
Luca decided to look for Halil. He strolled down the lane that Tirithil had taken, passing Putanuuri’s restaurant, where a few townspeople were sitting at tables on the terrace, candles glimmering in glass jars as they chatted in quiet voices. Luca looked out to sea: the twin moons had risen, and their broken reflections formed an attractive pattern on the slightly rippling water. It was an unusually still and quiet evening.
As Luca descended the steps to the left of the inn he heard the chatter of voices and the music of a reed whistle emanating from within. He walked along the quay until he reached the market square; to the right, in the inn porch, Halil sat alone on their usual bench, nursing a flagon of cordial under the light of the lantern that glimmered below the roof.
Luca walked between the lobster pots towards the entrance, the light breeze and waves rustling quietly in his ears. He sat on the bench opposite Halil, who looked up from her drink, apparently aware of his arrival for the first time.
“Hello Luca,” she said.
“Hi,” he replied.
“I saw Tirithil arrive,” Halil continued, “so I didn’t think you’d be long. How was your session?”
“It was okay,” Luca replied. “I’m learning quickly. Tirithil kept decking me, though.”
“I’ll bet she did,” Halil replied.
“I’m going back up there tomorrow evening,” said Luca. “Tirithil’s going to get me to make the first moves.”
A look flickered in Halil’s eyes as if this confirmed something for her, mentally. She raised two hands to her eyes and rubbed them.
“I’m tired, think I’ll turn in,” she said.
“Chores?” Luca asked.
“Yeah,” she replied.
“Sorry I wasn’t around this evening,” Luca ventured. “I feel like we’ve hardly seen each other today.”
“That’s something I think I’ll have to get used to,” said Halil. “You’re going to be busy with your training now.”
“So come and train with us tomorrow!” Luca entreated, “it’d be great if you could…”
Halil shook her head. “I don’t want to intrude.”
“But you wouldn’t!” Luca insisted desperately. “I miss you, that’s all.”
Halil contemplated this for a moment, but then nodded. “Maybe I’ll join you later on.”
Luca grinned. “Excellent.”
“I really am tired, though,” said Halil, “so I’ll see you tomorrow. I still have a lot of chores to do, so I won’t be around that much.”
“Okay,” said Luca, “g’night.”
“’Night Luca,” Halil replied with a slight smile, and then she turned and left.
Luca watched her depart, feeling slightly less miserable.
The next day dawned as before: cool, misty and autumnal. Luca couldn’t find Halil in the morning – her father Latana must have her busy with his chores already, Luca supposed – so he joined the fisherman Netarani in his boat and helped him to haul in a large catch of silver Mera fish.
Luca was looking forward to his next training session with Tirithil – he couldn’t wait to get his hands on a quarterstaff and, hopefully, defeat his opponent for the first time. So, Luca was in good spirits as he and Tirithil climbed the cliff top steps that evening.
Luca began practicing swinging the quarterstaff as soon as they reached the top of the cliff, swishing it through the air whilst Tirithil tied her long brown hair up in a plait to stop it from getting in her face as they fought.
Once Tirithil was prepared, the two Nali stood in their now accustomed positions and faced each other down.
“Okay, when you’re ready,” Tirithil said evenly.
Luca swung his quarterstaff at his opponent. Tirithil lifted hers and, using Luca’s weight against him, knocked him in the side and sent him sprawling onto the ground, the staff flying out of his hands.
“Chizra’s word,” he muttered as he scrambled to his feet, retrieving his staff. Tirithil laughed.
“A classic mistake. Come on, let’s try again.”
Determinedly, Luca stood and faced the female Nali.
“Show me how to do it,” he said.
“All right,” she replied.
The two Nali fought on. Luca improved steadily, but was still defeated every time. It wasn’t until a half hour or so had passed that Luca began to get the upper hand.
Luca thrust the staff and Tirithil parried. Luca’s staff was knocked off-course, but he dodged as Tirithil lunged in retaliation and brought the staff round in a circle. It hit Tirithil in her side and she dropped her weapon with an “oof”. Luca brought his staff round again, and Tirithil fell backwards, lying sprawled on the ground as Luca had so often done already. She looked at him and grinned.
“Well done,” she said, “you finally got me.”
Luca let out a whoop of victory and dropped his weapon. Tirithil stuck a hand up and Luca took it; she put an opposite hand on his shoulder and he helped her to stand up.
“You’re getting good,” she said, her hand still on his shoulder.
“Thanks,” he grinned. Tirithil blinked a couple of times and smiled at him.
“You’re a very good looking Nali, you know, Luca,” she said.
Luca glanced down and noticed that he was still holding her hand. His heart was beating harder than usual. Looking back up at the Nali, he saw that she was drawing closer. He watched, transfixed, as Tirithil closed her eyes and leant towards him.
A sound from their right made both Nali look around. Halil was standing at the top of the cliff top steps, a quarterstaff in one hand, and a stricken look on her face. Then, in a flash, she had dropped the weapon and disappeared down the steps.
“Halil!” Luca cried. He disengaged quickly from Tirithil and looked up at her.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay,” the Nali replied, eyes downcast. “You go on.”
Without any further comment, Luca turned and sprinted towards the stone stairway. Looking down the steps, he saw that Halil was already well ahead of him, descending the path at a run. Luca set off in pursuit.
“Halil! Wait!” Luca shouted as he reached the foot of the steps. Halil had doubled back along the path towards the vineyards and her home, still running through the evening gloom, but Luca was gaining on her. He vaulted over the end of the wall and chased her down, catching hold of her smock just as she was about to round the next corner.
Halil turned to face him. Her cheeks were flushed and streaked with tears.
“What do you want, Luca?” she asked angrily.
“To explain,” he replied desperately.
“What is there to say?” Halil demanded, spreading her arms for emphasis.
“What you saw back there, it was nothing!” said Luca.
“It didn’t look like ‘nothing’ to me,” Halil retorted.
“I was confused,” he said, “we’d just been fighting, but there’s nothing between me and Tirithil.”
“Can you prove it?” Halil replied.
Tears stung Luca’s own eyes. His stomach was tied up in painful knots. He reached up and brushed a tear from Halil’s face; there was only one way he could prove that what he had said was true. Luca leant forwards and kissed Halil gently on the corner of the mouth.
Silence prevailed as Luca pulled away. A lantern on the small house beside them flared into life, catching Halil’s tears in the light and making them sparkle.
“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered at length. “I didn’t realise you felt that way.”
“Then don’t say anything,” Luca replied.
“How long have you known?” Halil asked.
Luca glanced at the ground. “Three months, since the time that Mittari took you away.”
“And now?” she said quietly.
“Nothing’s changed,” Luca replied softly.
Halil’s composure broke down and she fell against him. Luca put his arms around her and they embraced. Tears seeped from Luca’s eyes and dampened Halil’s smock as he felt her heart beating next to his own.
“Luca!” came a whisper.
Luca stirred reluctantly in his bed; he was comfortable, and didn’t want to move.
“Luca!” more urgently now; “Luca, wake up!”
Luca opened his eyes; a figure was crouching beside his bed.
“Halil? What are you doing here?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Listen!” Halil replied.
A quiet, unnatural rumble of noise could be heard over the sound of the autumn wind and the waves breaking outside. As Luca listened, he heard the sound of a distant scream.
Instantly, Luca was wide awake. He sprang up and grabbed the sword that lay on the nearby chair.
“What’s going on?” he hissed.
“Something’s happening in the square,” Halil replied.
Luca took his father’s knife from the bedside table and, pulling open his chest of drawers, retrieved from it a cylindrical metal weapon.
“Here,” Luca whispered, handing Halil the dispersion pistol and clipping the knife to his belt. “Come on,” he said. He grabbed Halil’s hand and pulled her out of the room. The front door was open; he saw that his mother Matharil and Halil’s father Latana were already standing outside on the lane, looking nervously towards the centre of town.
“Luca!” said Matharil anxiously as they emerged. “They’re here!”
Now that he was out in the cool night air, Luca could hear the noises more clearly: there were Nali voices crying out, and the sound of occasional gunfire. Below all this could be heard a deep rumbling sound, and the orange glow amid the nighttime mist beyond the slate roof of the inn told Luca that something was on fire.
Luca glanced round anxiously. Already Nali were appearing from the houses at their end of the town; Luca could see one or two shadowy figures disappearing up the cliff top steps.
“Follow them,” Luca told the two older Nali.
“But …” Matharil began.
“I’ve got a job to do,” Luca said sharply. “Go!”
Latana nodded, then took Matharil’s arm and led her towards the cliff top steps. Matharil gave Luca one last anxious glance before the two Nali disappeared from sight around the corner; Luca turned to his friend.
“You too,” he said.
“I’m not leaving you,” she replied.
Luca didn’t have time to argue. “Be careful!” he said, and then he set off at a run towards the square with Halil in hot pursuit.
Luca skidded to a halt as he rounded the corner of the inn, almost running into a pair of Nali who were standing on the fringe of the square.
“Nice of you to join us, Luca,” said Motanisha. He was standing on the corner, with a longer tubular weapon that Luca recognised as an ASMD trained on the far side of the square. Lo’juura was beside him, wielding a dispersion pistol. Both looked as if they were waiting for something.
Luca surveyed the scene before him. Flames were licking hungrily out of the open doors of the market building, and one of the stacks of lobster pots in the square was on fire; the acrid smell of burning timber assailed Luca’s nostrils. Nali were appearing in ones and twos from the alleys on the far edge of the square and running across the open space towards the north side.
“What’s happening?” Luca asked quickly.
“A party of Skaarj have just arrived,” said Motanisha. “They’re flushing any Nali they can find out of the south side of town. I don’t know why.”
Lo’juura gestured at the waterfront, where Nali who were appearing from behind the burning market were traversing the quay for the safety of the north side. “Luca,” he said, “I need you to protect these people while they make their escape. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Luca nodded.
Lo’juura turned to Halil, who was looking on with wide eyes.
“Make sure these Nali get to safety. I’m sending them all to the cliffs.”
“Right,” said Halil. She set off back the way she had come after a quick glance at Luca, who nodded encouragingly.
Once Halil had disappeared up the steps at the end of the quay, Luca jogged out towards the pier and stood with his sword at the ready, scanning the square for Skaarj activity as townspeople continued to pass sporadically by behind him. He heard a wheezing sound, and glanced to the left to see Philona shuffling across the square as fast as he was able, supported by Netarani.
“Yeh’s a good lad, Luca,” Philona puffed as they passed. “You keep ‘em Skaarj at bay and we’ll be alright.”
Luca gestured his understanding and returned to scanning the empty square for Skaarj. He mopped his brow with a free hand: the heat from the nearby blaze was making him sweat.
For a moment all was quiet except for the crackling flames, but then there was a scream and the doors of the home next to the market building burst open. A Nali whom Luca recognised as Barthias, a butcher at the market, ran out onto the square closely followed by the lean reptilian figure of a Skaarj Scout. The terrified Nali stumbled to his knees and received a savage broadside blow from the Skaarj’s prosthetic claws; the poor Nali went flying through the air, landing in a heap on a collapsed stack of wicker baskets.
Luca sprang forwards as the Skaarj prepared to deal Barthias the killing blow, knowing that he wouldn’t reach the Nali in time, but then there was a shout from the corner of the square and a bright blue energy bolt hit the Skaarj on the shoulder, sending the creature reeling backwards. Motanisha and Lo’juura were running towards the beast, weapons raised.
The Skaarj looked up and roared, its red eyes blazing as it saw the three Nali approaching it. Luca was there first and he faced the Skaarj down, waving the sword in front of its face. The Skaarj lunged with a clawed hand, but Luca parried as Tirithil had taught him to do, and the attack was deflected. The Skaarj swiped at Luca with its other arm, and Luca fell back with a cry of pain as the three claws raked him across the chest.
For a moment the Skaarj stood above Luca, its crimson eyes boring into his own, but then it was hit by a hail of charges from the weapons of Motanisha and Lo’juura, and it slumped lifelessly to the ground. Within seconds the two Nali were beside Luca, helping him to stand.
“Are you all right?” Lo’juura asked. Blood was leaking from Luca’s wound, running down his chest and staining his loincloth a deep red.
“I think so,” Luca replied, breathing heavily. The wound burned and throbbed, but his vision was clear and he was able to stand unaided.
“Battle scars – the first sign of the true Van’thaal!” Motanisha grinned.
Lo’juura was looking round the square; Luca noticed that the stream of Nali emerging from the south side of town seemed to have stopped. The chieftain stooped to help the prone trader, who seemed to be unconscious, breathing shallowly.
“We have to get Barthias to safety,” he said.
“Agreed,” said Motanisha, “come on.”
Motanisha took the trader’s other arms and helped Lo’juura to lift him to his feet. With Luca leading the way, one hand held over his bleeding chest wound, they made for the safety of the quay behind the inn.
There was the sudden growl of a Skaarj and a flash of light as the three Nali reached the corner of the building. Luca looked round just in time to see a white energy projectile streaming across the square before it hit Lo’juura in the back; Luca cried out as the chieftain fell to the ground with a grunt, and Motanisha staggered as he tried to hold onto the prone Barthias’ weight.
“Luca, help me,” Motanisha panted. Luca leapt forwards and threw his weight under Barthias’ right shoulder, and they struggled around the corner of the inn.
“What about Lo’juura?” said Luca.
“We can’t help him now,” said Motanisha.
Leaving Lo’juura’s shadowy form on the ground, the two Nali struggled towards the stairs, with the sound of the burning market building receding behind them.
Halil and Latana came running forwards as Luca and Motanisha struggled over the crest of the cliff top steps. Latana helped Motanisha with Barthias, allowing Luca to disengage and pause for breath, clutching his chest once more.
“You’re hurt,” said Halil. She pulled Luca’s hand away from the wound and examined the three deep gashes. “Ouch…”
“I’m okay,” Luca panted, but he was beginning to tire, and he was grateful when Halil put two arms around his back and helped him to cross the plateau.
The Nali refugees had assembled on the rough grass outside Kew the Elder’s abandoned home and were talking in hushed voices. Netarani, the fisherman, was working to get a fire going with what looked like broken furniture from inside the hut.
Netarani stood as Halil arrived with Luca and helped her to slide him down to the ground. Halil rested Luca’s head in her lap, and he looked up to see Matharil and Philona also crouching around the fire; Matharil took one of Luca’s hands and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
“Are yeh okay, lad?” said Philona.
“I’ll live,” Luca replied, managing a weak smile.
Father Thalitha approached the crowd and handed an earthenware tray to Halil, who removed the lid and pulled out several smaller items.
“What are you doing?” Luca asked.
“Taking care of your wound,” she replied. “You bandaged a wound for me once, remember?”
“Yeah,” Luca said. He remembered the Devilfish attack like it was yesterday. Halil produced a tub of dried healing fruit, which she began to dab gently onto Luca’s injury. It stung and he winced, but he trusted her, and soon the pain began to abate.
Motanisha and Latana arrived with Barthias, who had begun to regain consciousness, and sat him slowly down by the fire. The side of the Nali’s chest was badly bruised, and Luca suspected cracked ribs, but apart from that he looked uninjured.
“Where’s the chieftain?” Barthias panted.
“He didn’t make it,” Motanisha replied quietly. Luca watched as the butcher dropped his gaze to the fire, and tried to imagine how he must be feeling right now.
“Then who’ll take over? Motanisha?” said Matharil.
“Nope,” said Philona, and there was a murmur among the crowd. “While ’m sure Motanisha here would do a grand job,” he continued, “the law of our people says tha’, should the chieftain be killed in action during a time o’ war, the mantle of leader shall be passed to the Van’thaal.”
All eyes turned to Luca, and even Halil paused in bandaging his wound.
“Me?” Luca protested, looking back at the faces that gazed expectantly towards him. “I can’t lead you all!”
The corner of Motanisha’s mouth seemed to twitch, but then he took on an expression of utmost solemnitude and he shook his head.
“Sorry Luca, it doesn’t look like you have a choice.”
The Nali shook his head again. “No buts. Like it or not, you’re our leader now.”
Luca glared reproachfully at Motanisha, who looked back at him with an irritatingly placid expression on his face. Philona chuckled.
“Sensitive, ain’t yeh?” the old fisherman said.
“Some people like that in a Nali,” whispered Halil. Luca looked up at her and gave her a wry smile.
Luca awoke to the cry of a seagull. The morning breeze played about his face and he sat up, momentarily confused.
He was sitting on the rough grass next to the remains of the previous night’s fire. The air was cool and possessed of a foggy dampness, and the sky was a silvery white. As he looked out to sea, Luca was able to discern the vague shape of the Bluff of Shokkar shrouded in morning mist, but beyond that the sea vanished into a pale blanket of fog.
Several of the Nali townspeople were wandering around the plateau, standing in pairs and talking quietly whilst others slumbered on. Luca stood and wandered to the southern cliff edge, looking out over the roofs of Nalipal. From here it looked almost normal: fishing boats bobbed and widows were shuttered; it was just like the town would normally look early in the morning, before the day’s trade got underway. The only alien sight was the burned-out hulk of the market, where a few wisps of smoke still emerged from the now roofless, smouldering shell.
A movement caught Luca’s eye and he saw a lone Krall walk along the quayside. As he watched, a Skaarj Warrior appeared from the vicinity of the town hall and crossed the square. It exchanged a few words with the Krall, before clouting it unexpectedly in the face with a balled fist; the Krall reeled for a moment, but then continued dispiritedly on its patrol. The Skaarj paused to look out to sea before returning across the square.
The seagull called again. Luca looked round to see Father Thalitha standing a few metres away, with the bird perched on his outstretched arm. Halil was with him, hands in the pockets of her smock for warmth, watching with interest.
Luca sauntered over to the two Nali and touched Halil on the arm. She looked round and grinned.
“Hi, Luca,” she said.
“Hi,” he replied, “what’s this?”
The priest was whispering to the seagull in an undertone, eyes closed. He passed a hand in front of the seagull’s watchful eyes, and it squawked again.
“Father Thalitha’s sending a message to Avenati town,” she replied. “He’s trying to get help.”
Father Thalitha opened his eyes and looked up.
“I have a friend there,” the priest said. “I am hoping he will be able to help.”
“Who is he?” Luca asked.
“A mage and healer,” he replied. “He also has contacts with the former resistance fighters.”
“Like Motanisha?” Luca asked. Father Thalitha nodded.
“But speaking of healers,” the priest continued, “how is your wound this morning, master Luca?”
Luca looked down at his neatly bandaged injury; he had forgotten it was there.
“It’s fine,” he replied. “Halil here fixed me up well.”
Halil smiled as he put an arm around her shoulders.
Luca glanced across the plateau. It was Motanisha who had called him; he was standing with the plump restaurant-owner Putanuuri near Kew’s abandoned hut, gesturing for Luca and Halil to join them.
The two young Nali walked over the plateau together to where Motanisha and Putanuuri were standing.
“What’s up?” Luca asked.
“Putanuuri here just raised a very important point,” said Motanisha. He glanced at the restauranteur, as did Luca and Halil.
“Well, it’s like this, you see,” the large Nali said, looking flustered. “We don’t have much in the way of supplies up here, and sooner or later the townspeople are going to start getting hungry.”
“Right,” Luca said. “What do you suggest?”
“Well, I have ample food in my kitchen,” the restauranteur replied, “it’s not going anywhere, but it’s all down in the town, and I really don’t feel like trying to fetch it by myself!”
“You’re suggesting a raid?” said Halil.
The restauranteur shrugged and wrung his hands. “I think it’s our only option.”
“Luca?” Motanisha asked, “What do you think? You’re our leader now.”
Luca glanced around at the other three Nali, who were looking at him expectantly. Luca sighed inwardly.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “We’ll do it tonight.”
Luca put a finger to his mouth to silence Putanuuri, who had trodden on a sharp stone and yelped. The restauranteur stifled his whimpering, and the three Nali resumed creeping down the cliff top steps.
There had been no response from Avenati town over the course of the day. By lunchtime Father Thalitha had become worried, claiming that the seagull should have returned by now.
In the early afternoon, Tirithil had emerged from Kew’s abandoned house carrying several more pieces of broken furniture, which she began to fashion into crude wooden weapons. Whilst Luca knew she was right to do this, he sincerely hoped that the untrained townspeople would not be forced to fight the Skaarj unaided.
As dusk began to fall, Luca had looked out over the town as the oil lanterns flared into life of their own accord, sparkling in the gathering gloom. Luca wondered with vague amusement what would happen if a Skaarj dismantled one of them and took a look inside: the logical creature would find nothing within to explain how the lantern was able to light up all by itself.
Once the darkness of the evening was to Luca’s satisfaction, he assembled his small party. Motanisha had come willingly enough, but Putanuuri was reluctant. The fat Nali had refused to come until Luca and Motanisha had persuaded him that he was the only one who could find the right supplies in a short enough space of time.
Now, as they approached ground level, Luca paused and looked out over the surrounding area. There was no sign of activity on the lanes in the immediate vicinity, so he led the other two Nali cautiously into the pool of light cast by the first lantern at the bottom of the steps.
The party continued along the path towards the small waterfront terrace outside Luca’s house. Luca halted at the right turn, placing a hand on the dispersion pistol he had clipped to his belt and peering around the corner.
There was nobody in sight, so Luca slipped into the next lane and gestured for the others to follow. Putanuuri trotted hurriedly past him and onto the terrace beyond his restaurant. Luca removed the dispersion pistol from his belt and took up a position overlooking the steps down to the quayside, while Motanisha, armed once again with his ASMD, slipped past him and took up a position covering the lane to the right. With no voices emanating from the windows of the inn, the town was strangely silent: only the insistent rumble of the waves and rustle of the autumn breeze broke the silence as Putanuuri disappeared into the restaurant kitchen.
Although the roof of the inn largely obscured Luca’s view of the market square, he could see a blue-coloured Krall patrolling the quayside in the distance. It was walking away from him, towards the church: Luca hoped that it would turn off behind the burned-out market building before it saw them.
There were some muffled clanking noises from the kitchen of the restaurant, and Luca glanced nervously over his shoulder – time was running out.
At the far end of the quay the Krall paused, looking from left to right, but then turned and began walking back down the quayside towards them. It didn’t seem to have seen the Nali up on the terraces as yet.
“There’s a guard in the square,” Luca hissed to his companion.
“Krall?” Motanisha whispered back.
“They have poor vision. Just stay still.”
Luca remained where he was, eyeing the Krall watchfully. Time seemed to drag its feet as the Krall moved slowly in their direction, but then the silence was broken as a “clank” signalled Putanuuri’s return to the terrace.
“Ready,” said the Nali, heaving a large, roughly woven sack out onto the lane.
“Okay…” Luca began, but then he stopped abruptly. The Krall had halted, and was looking directly at his position. After a tense moment that seemed to last forever, the Krall strolled off to the right and disappeared behind the roof of the inn.
“Let’s go,” Luca said quickly.
“Did he see us?” Motanisha asked.
“I’m not sure,” Luca replied, “but let’s not take any chances. Come on!”
The Nali set off at a run. Motanisha led the way with his ASMD as Putanuuri puffed along with his sack of goods, and Luca brought up the rear. There was no sign of armed pursuit as yet.
The three Nali rounded the corner and set off up the cliff top steps. Sensing that Putanuuri wouldn’t last the course with his burden, Luca relieved the plump Nali of the heavy sack, slung it over his shoulder and powered up the steps as quickly as he could, glancing back every so often to make sure that the restauranteur wasn’t getting too left behind.
Luca was nearly exhausted by the time he reached the top of the long ascent. He paused, panting, and Motanisha took the sack from him and jogged across the cliff top towards the bonfire, where the other townspeople were waiting. Luca was shortly joined at the top of the steps by a red-faced Putanuuri, and Luca took the plump Nali by the arm and half dragged him across the grass until they were out of sight of the cliff edge.
Luca released Putanuuri as they approached the bonfire and Kew’s hut. They were met by Halil, who caught Luca under the arms just as his knees buckled from fatigue. Luca let Halil support his weight and managed to stay standing as his mother emerged from the crowd to greet him.
“Thank Chizra,” she said. “Did Putanuuri get everything he needed?”
Luca glanced questioningly at the plump restauranteur, who was unpacking various foods, saucepans, flasks of water and herbs from the sack. The fat Nali looked up and nodded.
“I think so,” Luca replied.
“You rule,” Halil grinned, and kissed him on the cheek; Luca flashed her a smile. Matharil raised an eyebrow.
“When did this happen?” she asked.
“Er –“ Luca began, but before he could continue, he was interrupted by a scream from the crowd. He whipped round to see a Skaarj Scout poised at the top of the steps, claws outstretched.
“Looks like you were followed,” Halil muttered quickly, but Luca was already running towards the Skaarj, despite the complaints of his exhausted legs.
“Wait!” Halil called after him.
Luca drew his sword and charged the Skaarj down. It leapt forwards and fired two bright flares of energy from its claws, but he dodged these and raised the sword as he and the Skaarj met. It swiped out with a clawed hand, but Luca jumped back and thrust the sword forwards. A growl told him he had hit his mark, but he was broadsided by the other clawed hand and went tumbling to the floor.
There was a cry from the right and Tirithil came running into the fight, swiping at the Skaarj with a crudely made wooden club. Luca struggled to his feet and jabbed the Skaarj in the chest just as three of its claws raked Tirithil’s weapon arm, causing her to cry out and drop the implement.
A blue jolt of energy seared out across the glass as Motanisha joined the fight with his weapon, clouting the Skaarj in the chest. The attack caught the Skaarj off-guard and it reeled; Luca leapt forwards and barrelled into it, and it went flying backwards. Gaining the upper hand, Luca put a foot on its chest and his sword to the throat of the creature, which glared back with blazing red eyes and uttered something in its native tongue. Luca prepared to deal the killing blow.
“Wait!” came a voice from across the clearing. Quickly, Tirithil clouted the Skaarj hard on the side of its head with her makeshift club, and it went limp, unconscious.
Luca looked up to see who had spoken, and saw Father Thalitha striding across the cliff top with a hooded stranger in tow.
“Do not kill the beast,” Father Thalitha instructed.
Luca looked curiously at the figure in the full-length grey cloak, thrown by this departure from the customary Nali attire.
“Who’s this?” said Tirithil, holding one hand over her bleeding arm and regarding the robed figure suspiciously.
“This is my friend from Avenati Town,” Father Thalitha replied. “His name is Juura.”
The robed figure lowered his hood, revealing an ordinary Nali face with cool greyish eyes. The monk regarded Luca thoughtfully.
“Greetings,” he said. “I may have witnessed many things, but never have I seen a real, live Van’thaal.”
Motanisha had dropped his weapon and advanced across the cliff top. He and the monk embraced.
“My friend,” Juura said, “it has been many a year.”
“I’m glad to see you,” Motanisha replied. “What news from Avenati town? Why have you come in person?”
The monk sighed, and Luca thought he saw a tear in the corner of one grey eye.
“There will be no help from that source,” he replied. “Avenati has been destroyed.”
The news hit Luca like a ton of rocks; he had paid many a visit to the large, bustling town of Avenati in the past, and his mother had friends there. From the way Tirithil sat hurriedly down, he knew that he was not alone in feeling this way.
“Destroyed? Completely?” Father Thalitha gasped.
Juura nodded sadly.
“All those lives…” Tirithil murmured. “How did you escape?”
Juura spread his arms desperately. “I was not there when it happened. I had been visiting some friends further north. When I returned, the town…”
Juura’s voice cracked momentarily. “The town was in ruins, and some of the buildings were burning. When I got to my own shattered home, your messenger was waiting for me.”
“There were no survivors?” Luca asked.
Juura shook his head. “I saw no-one. But I know not how fast the attack may have been; I pray that some of my friends will have found refuge at Shahari Bay, or maybe on the plains. I did not linger: instead I left at once for Nalipal via Mein’Haar Falls, and hiked across the cliff top from there.”
“So we’re alone here?” Motanisha asked.
“Maybe,” Juura nodded, “but I have contacted my friends from further north. They may yet be able to help.”
“We can’t rely upon it,” Luca replied.
The monk nodded. “Agreed.”
Luca turned to the unconscious Skaarj, which was being watched closely by a newly arrived Halil.
“What about this thing? Why didn’t you let me kill it?” Luca asked.
The monk smiled for the first time.
“I have a better idea,” he said.
“I’m not sure about this,” Luca protested as Motanisha and Halil led him towards the fire. The two Nali knelt Luca down facing the flames, opposite the prone form of the Skaarj, which had been carried across the grass by Father Thalitha and Tirithil.
Motanisha released Luca’s arms and stood, although Halil remained kneeling to Luca’s left, clinging onto his lower left arm. Juura was busying himself preparing an array of herbs and strange artefacts on the grass beside the fire. Motanisha rubbed two hands together.
“Don’t worry, Luca,” he said. “My friend Juura assures me that the chances of your ending up with the brains of a cow are minimal.”
“That’s a great help,” Luca replied, shooting Motanisha a dark look. Juura smiled slightly.
“You will need two anchors,” the monk said.
“Me,” Halil volunteered, raising a hand.
“Very well. Who else?”
Matharil, standing among the townspeople, looked concerned but said nothing. There was a murmur from the crowd of onlookers and various glances were exchanged, but then the mass parted and a hunched figure stepped forwards.
“Allow me,” Philona said, kneeling creakily on Luca’s right hand side and taking a free arm. “We’ll keep yeh on this plane, young Van’thaal.”
Luca looked uncertainly between his two friends. Halil nodded emphatically. “You’ll be fine,” she said.
“Are you ready?” the monk said quietly; Luca nodded numbly. “Then I shall begin.”
“I gather the Gods of the Good Lore,” Juura intoned, casting bundles of herbs one by one into the fire. “As I speak this prayer, I request that my wish be granted. As one is unto another, may the transfer be complete.”
The air became fragrant with the scent of the burning herbs, and Luca saw Juura’s head dipped in silent prayer, but then the world swam before his eyes and Luca felt the strength drain away from his body.
Luca’s eyes burst suddenly into life, and he found himself looking at the stars. He lay for a moment, listening to his slow, emphatic heartbeat. There was power in this form, oh yes, there was…
Luca sat up slowly and found himself staring across the dancing flames, straight into the eyes of Philona and Halil. Between them, Luca saw his own fourteen year-old form, hanging loosely from the two Nali’s arms as if asleep. The effects of the spell were clearly taxing the two Nali, and beads of perspiration could be seen on the elderly fisherman’s forehead.
“Luca?” Halil asked. Her cheeks were flushed. Luca nodded slowly.
“Get on with yeh, lad, we’ll be fine here,” the old Nali panted.
Luca arose to a standing position. A powerful, clawed fist passed across his view and he raised it. He relaxed his fingers, and the claws retracted.
Luca looked up at the crowd. Some of the townspeople quailed under his gaze, but Motanisha stepped calmly forwards.
“Go down into Nalipal. Find out as much as you can. Return here as soon as you are able, and we will release you from the mind of this creature.”
Luca tried to speak, but what emerged was a throaty growl. He nodded, and then turned and padded towards the cliff top steps.
Luca tried to master walking like a Skaarj as he descended into the deserted town. The autumn breeze felt cold, damp and unpleasant against his reptilian form, but by the time he had reached ground level he felt that he had mastered a confident, loping gait.
Luca’s heavy feet thudded against the paved footpath. Quietly he passed Putanuuri’s restaurant and descended the steps onto the quayside. As he stepped past the inn and into the market square, the blue-coloured Krall that had sighted them earlier approached him, swinging its concussion staff in one horned hand.
Luca waited calmly for the Krall to reach him. Hoping that Juura’s enchantment would do everything it was supposed to, he growled, “Report.” The Krall seemed to understand.
“There have been no further sightings of the enemy,” it croaked. “Was there anything up on the cliffs?”
“There was nothing,” Luca replied.
The Krall bowed subserviently. “Perhaps I was mistaken.”
“Perhaps you were,” Luca said.
“What should I tell the commander?” the Krall asked.
Luca thought quickly. “Tell him nothing. I shall make the report myself.”
The Krall nodded. “As you wish.”
Luca looked around the square as the Krall continued on its patrol. The sight of smoking, roofless hulk of the market building looming over the stacks of lobster pots and wicker baskets that lined the square, symbolising everything that the people of Nalipal had lost, made Luca feel slightly queasy. Those stacks that had burned during the attack had been replaced by small heaps of ash from which protruded the occasional piece of charred greenwood or metal. The acrid smell of dead fires hung on the air, and the voices now emanating from behind the shuttered windows of the inn suggested that several the Krall had just discovered Tari’s fine selection of ales and cordials.
The door of the town hall stood ajar and a wedge of light shone out from within. Luca supposed that he would find the commander within, but first he padded southwards, towards the shell of the market building and the cobbled lane that led to the church.
The south end of town was in a worse state than the north, and it was soon clear to Luca that this was where the Skaarj were lodging their forces. Many windows were broken and several doors had been forced; Luca saw a Krall emerge from Motanisha’s house and saunter towards the market square. Meanwhile, the church door was open, and Luca could hear Skaarj voices growling within, although he could not pick out the words.
Luca crossed the church square and followed the steps back down towards the water. Glancing down a side turning, Luca was relieved to see that Philona’s modest waterfront home was as yet untouched.
Luca followed the path around the back of another house and emerged at his and Halil’s favourite spot: a small, sandy space by the southern cliff where a bench stood under the shade of a palm tree, facing out to sea. Luca remembered how he and Halil had sat together here after their misadventure with the Skaarj ship Shrekta’Naaji, which had lead to the death of Nalipal’s oldest and best loved resident. How long ago that had seemed, although it had been but a year and a quarter ago. He and Halil had been much younger then.
Luca turned and climbed another flight of steps back towards the church. There were no two ways about it: with or without help from outside, the townspeople would have to re-take Nalipal and defend their way of life. The fight may never truly end, but it was a war worth fighting. Too many Nali had too many memories of this place, dating right back to its foundation many hundreds of years ago, to let it go now.
Luca paced through the shadows of the darkened village, navigating the maze of narrow lanes that led back to the market square. On the way he passed another Krall, but Luca made no eye contact and the Krall paid him no attention.
The door of the town hall was still ajar as Luca returned to the main market square. Ignoring the two Krall that were now patrolling the quayside, he strolled as nonchalantly as he could across the earthen surface and pulled the door open.
Luca overheard Skaarj voices emanating from the chieftain’s office as he crept down the carpeted hallway. Doing his best to stay out of sight and flattening himself against the wall, he paused outside the open door and listened to the conversation within. Although the Skaarj were speaking their own language, Luca could understand every word.
“Have there been any sightings of Nali resistance within the town?” growled a voice.
“None,” growled another. “Scout Shari’Naas is on routine patrol with the Krall, but has reported no disturbance.”
“What is the current status of the townspeople?” the first asked.
“Unknown,” replied the second. “They are believed to have evacuated the settlement via a flight of steps to the north of the town upon our arrival.”
The first voice made a rumbling noise that Luca interpreted as a pause for thought. “Skaarj intelligence indicated that a strong resistance sector was operating in this town.”
“Perhaps our intelligence was mistaken,” the second voice replied.
“Perhaps,” the first voice muttered, “but prepare to make a scouting mission to the northern cliff top. Any civilians we find must be eliminated.”
Anger rose in Luca’s body at the cold, dispassionate dismissal of Nali life suggested by this instruction. Carelessly, he clenched a fist, and the claws built into it extended, scraping the brick wall with a harsh metallic sound. Conversation broke off within the chieftain’s office and Luca stood hurriedly away from the wall, trying to act naturally.
The hulking figure of an armoured Skaarj Assassin padded out of the chieftain’s office and regarded Luca with beady red eyes.
The assassin gestured towards the open door. “Scout Shari’Naas, report.”
Having no alternative, Luca walked in through the chieftain’s door and tried to look confident. The assassin followed.
Seated behind the chieftain’s desk was a Skaarj in a full body suit. The officer regarded Luca keenly with its bright green eyes, as did a Skaarj Warrior that stood to the right, watching Luca suspiciously; there was something familiar about that stare. A well-oiled Razorjack glinted in the lantern light cast upon the chieftain’s desk.
“State your business, scout,” the officer instructed. Luca recognised the voice as the first he had heard. Luca stood firm and tried to sound like a Skaarj.
“The Krall on patrol reported sighting Nali in the northern part of town,” he said. “I chose to investigate more fully.”
“And?” the officer asked.
“I searched the area and then climbed the steps to the northern cliff top. I found nothing.”
“There was no sign of any resistance, or recent habitation?” the officer pressed.
“None,” Luca lied. “Only a long-derelict hut.”
“Very well,” the officer replied. “You may go.”
The assassin stood aside and Luca backed out of the office. The silent Skaarj Warrior continued watching him until he set off down the corridor, but he was not followed.
Luca’s powerful borrowed heart was thumping as he stepped out into the fresh air once more. He decided to quit while he was ahead, since he now knew why the Skaarj had attacked the town, and he set off in the direction of the quayside.
Luca was half way across the square when the inn doors opened, and he halted.
Stepping out into the moonlit square was a familiar figure. A Nali, now clad in a jacket of leather armour, swaggering confidently out into the open.
Fury unlike any he had ever experienced as a Nali coursed through Luca’s Skaarj veins, and before he knew it he had the whimpering Nali pinned against the heavy stone wall of the inn, a hand around its throat. Calls of alarm went up from the Krall on patrol, but Luca no longer cared.
“You treacherous son of an ancathope!” he roared. “How dare you show your face in this town?”
“But… I… what…” Mittari yelped. “What did I do?”
“What did you do?” Luca spat. “Betrayed your people! Your own kind! You call yourself a Nali? I’ll kill you!”
Luca raised a clawed first to strike, but a strong hand grabbed his arm and he was swung forcibly to the left, finding himself face to face with the Skaarj Warrior from the chieftain’s office. Mittari panted, rubbing at the raw patch now visible on his neck.
“Thank you, Shan’Rath,” he said.
A light shone in Luca’s mind as he realised why the Skaarj was so familiar: it was the same creature that had been in command at Minatha Bay, where Halil had been held captive three months ago, until Luca had destroyed the newly established base. Its green eyes bore into Luca’s red ones.
“I know you,” it growled.
The time for pretence was already over. Luca raised his free hand, extended his claws, and plunged them deep into the eyes of the Skaarj warrior. Blood spurted forth and the Skaarj slumped to the ground, dead. Luca turned to the stricken Mittari.
“Halil says hi,” he spat. Raising his claws in a mock salute, he turned and ran as the sound of Skaarj voices giving chase emanated from the town hall. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the officer and assassin running in hot pursuit, and two white energy bolts were already flying towards him from the Skaarj Assassin’s claws.
He was approaching the corner of the inn, but just as he was about to turn, something struck him hard in the chest and he fell. The blue Krall was standing over him, concussion staff raised and regarding him with glinting eyes.
“You are not Skaarj,” it uttered.
Luca was just beginning to shake his head when a razor blade from the officer’s weapon piled into the top of his skull, and the world dissolved in an instant.
Luca jerked in Philona and Halil’s arms as his essence ploughed suddenly back into his body. He coughed and then looked across the flames at Motanisha and Juura, who were looking at him in surprise.
“They’re going to kill us all,” he said.
The next morning found Luca pacing restlessly back and forth over the rough grass of the cliff top. Shouts and clattering emanated from inland, where Tirithil was trying to teach the townspeople to fight with makeshift quarterstaffs and clubs, but Luca knew that there was no way a motley bunch of Nali townspeople armed with wooden weapons could take on a Skaarj task force and expect to win.
Father Thalitha and Juura had been intermittently meditating and scouring the landscape for signs of help on the way, but had so far seen nothing. Halil, meanwhile, had been alternating between practicing with Luca’s dispersion pistol and keeping the anxious young Nali company.
Luca had been trying to think of strategies that might give the townspeople a fighting chance, but had so far come up blank. Never had he felt so inadequate and ill equipped to handle a situation as he did now. Frequently he would pause in his pacing and just stare out over the town, looking for signs of activity and wondering when the inevitable attack would come.
It was at one of these moments that a strange sight greeted Luca. There was a padding of feet and a baby cow appeared at the top of the steps down to the town. It scampered out onto the grass and shook its head nervously, apparently in some distress. It bleated plaintively.
“What is it?” said Halil, who had arrived beside Luca.
“It’s carrying something,” Luca frowned. “Look.”
Luca and Halil slowly approached the young cow, which shook its head again, trying to rid itself of the object that had been tied around its neck. Putting out an arm to stop Luca, Halil knelt gently beside the beast, trying not to scare it. Reaching out, she untied what now appeared to be a dirty piece of parchment from its neck and cast the cord aside. The baby cow, free of its burden, flicked its ears and began to graze in a docile manner.
Luca knelt down beside Halil as she unfolded the parchment.
“It’s a message,” Halil said.
Scrawled on the parchment in an extremely untidy Nali hand, written in what looked like Tari’s Thirumban wine, were the words:
Luka – you has frend.
Luca and Halil glanced at each other in puzzlement.
“A friend? Who?” Luca said.
“Juura’s friends?” Halil suggested.
Luca shook his head. “They wouldn’t send a message this way.”
Halil paused, but then ventured, “Mittari?”
Luca scowled. “There’s no way that coward’s changing sides.”
“Then who?” she asked.
Luca looked back out over the town, where there were no signs of life.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But if it’s true, I’m glad they’re out there.”
An hour or so later saw activity down in the town. Luca watched from the cliff top as a group of about a dozen Krall, overseen by a Skaarj Assassin that Luca presumed was the one he had encountered the night before, began to clear the stacks of wicker baskets and lobster pots out of the square. One by one the Krall filed into the burned-out market building and deposited the fishing gear within, before reappearing from round the back of the building and fetching another load.
Whilst this sudden spate of industry was not in itself threatening, Luca didn’t like the look of it at all. It suggested that the Skaarj were preparing to make their move.
Once the Krall had finished clearing the square, including sweeping up the remains of the burned-out stacks, Skaarj of various classes began to appear from the south end of town. All were of the warrior type, with none in full trooper armour, but among the warriors Luca identified at least four distinct breeds, from lowly scouts through basic warriors, tough-looking assassins and one hulking creature that Luca supposed, based on the stories that Motanisha had told him in the past, must be a Skaarj Berserker.
The commanding officer and his subordinate assassin shortly emerged from the town hall and stood before the massed Skaarj, which totalled about fifteen creatures in all. The Skaarj had formed themselves into three orderly ranks and stood attentively as the officer, wielding his Razorjack, gesticulated at his troops. Luca could hear nothing from this distance, but the assembled Skaarj were clearly receiving their orders.
“Are they getting ready to attack?” said Halil, arriving at Luca’s side once more.
“I’m not sure,” Luca replied. “But if so, we’re not prepared for it.”
“Are you suggesting that we ever will be?” Halil added. Luca shot her a look, but said nothing. Down in the square, the officer and the assassin had moved to the side of the ranked Skaarj.
“It’s okay, I think they’re just training,” Halil said. Indeed, as Luca watched, he saw the row of scouts at the front of the assembly fire rounds out to sea from their claws and then leap aside, allowing the rank of warriors behind them to follow suit. They were followed by the final rank, of four assassins and the berserker, who sprang forwards and fired a rapid volley of projectiles out towards the Bluff of Shokkar.
“Pretty slick,” said a voice. Tirithil had arrived beside them with a wooden staff dangling from one hand, and was watching the Skaarj exercises thoughtfully. “There’s no way we’ll get that good. We don’t even have projectile weapons.”
“We have this one,” Halil said, raising her sidearm.
“Yes, that and Motanisha’s ASMD,” Tirithil replied, “but a dispersion pistol alone won’t do that much damage, and Motanisha is fast running out of ammo.”
“Juura’s friends,” said Luca. “We need them.”
“Who are these friends of his, anyway?” Tirithil asked.
Luca shrugged. “He didn’t say, but I’m hoping they’re members of the resistance.”
“If that’s the case, then maybe they’ll bring more weapons with them.” Halil suggested.
Luca took one of Halil’s arms in his own. “I hope so.”
Tirithil glanced in their direction. “Well, back to training. I’ll leave you two to it.”
Halil sat down as Tirithil set off towards the horde of townspeople beside Kew’s hut. She tugged Luca down with her and they sat on the ground, arms around each other’s shoulders.
“If we survive all this,” Luca said, “I promise I’ll find us a place to live. Maybe some day we’ll even start our own family.”
Halil smiled. “Offspring of the two of us? Nalipal wouldn’t know what hit it.”
“I’d hope it was twins,” Luca replied.
Halil raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
“We always got into the most trouble when we were together,” Luca replied. “It just wouldn’t be right if there was only one child terrorising the village.”
Halil smirked. “Isn’t the Van’thaal supposed to be responsible?”
“Yes,” Luca nodded. “But there’s nothing in the lore about the Van’thaal’s son.”
“Son?” Halil remarked playfully.
“Or daughter…” Luca added quickly.
“Or both…” Halil replied.
“Yeah. Little Kew and…”
“…Kira?” Halil supplied. Luca nodded.
“Kira. Sounds good,” he affirmed.
The Skaarj in the square continued to exercise sporadically throughout the morning. Luca and Halil watched them for a while, but at length grew tired of the sight of such a well-trained force, and returned to the crowd of townspeople, leaving Motanisha and Tari the innkeeper to keep watch over the town.
Luca and Halil paced up and down the ranks of Nali as they tried to spar with Tirithil’s wooden weapons, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The fisherman Netarani and Halil’s father Latana could be seen thrusting and parrying fairly well, while others, such as Putanuuri and the butcher Barthias, were less adept. Others, including Matharil, sat resting on the grass beside the training Nali, whilst Philona and two others who were too old to fight sat watching the exercise calmly, seated on the top of a wide, flat rock.
Luca was pleased to see everyone trying their hardest, but inside himself he knew that there was little chance that an untrained Nali would successfully slay a Skaarj with nothing but a wooden club or quarterstaff.
“Master Luca!” Philona called from his stone vantage point. Circumventing the crowd of sparring Nali, Luca and Halil approached the elderly Nali.
“Yeh got a plan?” the old fisherman croaked as they arrived. “This lot don’t look like they’d las’ long in a fight wi’ a Skaarj.”
Luca shook his head. “Not really,” he replied.
“But yeh have to try, righ’?” the old Nali prodded.
Luca nodded. “Right. What else can we do? Run away to the ruins of Avenati?”
Philona shook his head. “Not an option for the likes o’ me.”
“We’re hoping Juura’s friends can help us,” Halil said.
“…if they ever come,” Luca added.
Philona shifted slightly, looking over Luca’s shoulder.
“These friends o’ his, what do they look like?” the elderly Nali asked. “Bunch o’ fellers in funny cloaks?”
“What?” Luca said, turning to look behind him, but then he stopped. Crossing the plateau from inland to the north was a line of colourful figures, each one carrying a backpack over one shoulder.
“They’re here!” Halil exclaimed, and she and Luca began running towards the approaching figures. Ahead, Juura was already advancing on the small line of Nali.
Luca and Halil reached the approaching Nali at much the same time as the monk. About ten Nali had arrived, and Luca gaped as he recognised the colourful robes worn by members of the Commune dei Fiori.
The line of Nali halted and set down their backpacks gratefully.
“Juura, my friend!” spoke the leading Nali, who was wearing streaky robes of light pink and mauve.
“Brother Theoda,” said Juura, embracing the Nali before turning to face the second arrival, who wore chequered robes of yellow and blue, “and Brother Sharuun. It is good to see you again so soon, although I wish it were under happier circumstances.”
“We were deeply saddened to receive your message,” Sharuun said. “Has the whole of Avenati town been completely destroyed?”
Juura nodded. “Sadly it is so. Did you not travel through Avenati on your journey?”
“We hiked across the cliff tops,” Theoda replied. “We did not think it safe to use the main roads.”
Luca observed the reunion quietly, but was about to speak when his thoughts were interrupted by a different voice.
“Luca? Brother Luca?”
A familiar Nali in blue and gold robes had stepped out of the crowd and now grasped Luca’s hands warmly. “It is good to see you again,” the Nali added.
Luca racked his brains, trying to remember the Nali’s name. This Nali had made conversation with him once or twice during his brief stay at the Commune dei Fiori three months ago.
“Is it Brother… Onthio?” he tried.
The Nali smiled and nodded. “It is indeed. Poor Sister Tintsaea was quite upset when you left us so suddenly. I think she’d taken quite a shine to you.”
Luca tried not to shudder as he recalled the circumstances of his departure. “Yes, I remember.”
“And look at you now,” Brother Onthio continued. “Do I see before me a living, breathing Van’thaal?”
Luca grinned slightly and put a hand to the hilt of his sword. “You do.”
“Well,” Brother Onthio said, “over at the Commune we don’t set much stock by the old ways, but it is indeed a most honourable title you hold.”
“Thanks,” Luca replied.
“And what of your young friend Skrill?” Brother Onthio asked. Luca drew breath to reply, but he was interrupted once again.
“Theoda! Sharuun!” came a voice. Motanisha was advancing across the grass, grinning broadly. Luca saw that Tirithil had replaced him on watch duty, and that the sparring townspeople had temporarily broken up to watch the new arrivals with interest. Luca remembered how shocked he had felt the first time he had encountered these brightly coloured, overdressed Nali.
“You know these people?” Halil asked Motanisha as he arrived.
“Do I know them?” Motanisha replied emphatically. “I still remember the day that Huratha first introduced me to those two young resistance fighters from the Pan’thali Mountains, and I have to say, a finer pair of Nali you’ll never meet.”
Luca stepped forwards and tried to look confident.
“As Van’thaal and leader of the village, I am honoured to have such seasoned fighters by my side,” he said, bowing slightly.
Theoda also bowed. “It is likewise an honour to be here, master Van’thaal. Despite the isolation of our order, who are we to refuse a call to serve our fellow Nali one more time, when it comes in the face of the Skaarj and from such a trusted friend as Juura?”
“Luca is Lit’harani’s son,” Motanisha chipped in.
Theoda bowed again. “Then we are doubly honoured,” he added.
Sharuun was appraising the motley bunch of townspeople who stood watching the proceedings, their wooden weapons dangling loosely from their hands. “Your forces appear ill-equipped,” he said.
“And untrained,” Motanisha replied. “But time is rapidly running out. The Skaarj are planning an attack on the cliff top.”
“Well, I do not know that we can help with the training,” Sharuun said, but we can certainly help with the armaments.”
Brother Onthio stepped forwards carrying one of the heavy backpacks. Opening it, he drew out several metallic parts and assembled them into a long, slender and lethal-looking weapon with two prongs on the end, also producing an extra dispersion pistol, which he handed temporarily to Theoda.
“This is a rifle,” Sharuun explained as Brother Onthio handed the newly assembled weapon to Luca. “It can strike accurately at considerable range, and even has a scope.”
“A scope?” Luca queried, wielding the weapon, which was moderately heavy, but manageable.
“Here,” Brother Onthio explained. He flicked a switch on the side of the weapon and a lens sprung up on top of the weapon. Raising the weapon so that the lens was at eye level, Luca was impressed to see that distant objects were considerably magnified.
“I like it,” he said.
The newly arrived Nali continued to unpack their backpacks and produced a variety of armaments. All together the Nali of the Commune had brought about twenty weapons, ten of which they retained and ten of which were handed over to Luca and Motanisha. Luca was also able to get hold of additional ammo for his Rifle and for Motanisha’s ASMD, as well as a strange device that, when plugged into Halil’s dispersion pistol, caused it to split in two and produce more powerful, yellow projectiles when fired.
The rest of the most powerful weapons were retained by the Nali of the Commune, as they were the more experienced fighters, and included hefty contraptions that fired shrapnel (Sharuun called them “Flak Cannons”) and bulky rocket launchers that Sharuun identified as Eightball guns. There was even one oily, black and deadly looking weapon that Sharuun described as a Minigun. Luca had no objection receiving the weaker armaments, as the new arrivals were more experienced in combat. However, with ten weapons going spare him and a supply of ammo available, it was left to Luca, as dusk began to fall, to pick which of the townspeople would lead the attack on the Skaarj occupying Nalipal.
Luca would not at first allow Halil to come, but she refused to be left behind. After that, the first choice was easy: Motanisha would be joining the party, armed with his trusty ASMD. After an examination of the assembled ranks of townspeople, Netarani was pressed into service with a Razorjack (albeit one that was somewhat rusty and less well oiled than that belonging to the Skaarj Officer down in the village). Latana was handed a crystal weapon that Luca recognised as a Stinger. Barthias the butcher, despite Luca’s initial misgivings, joined the party armed with a sidearm that Sharuun described as an Automag. Luca supposed that Barthias had unfinished business with the Skaarj occupying the town, given his experience in the market square.
The group was soon joined by Tari, armed with the dispersion pistol from Brother Onthio’s backpack, and by Tirithil, who carried an ASMD. After that, the ranks were swelled by a further four Nali, fishermen known to Netarani, and finally Luca approached Matharil and handed her a Stinger.
“I need you to keep guard here on the cliff top,” he said. “Can you do that?”
Luca’s mother looked back at him solemnly. “Of course.”
“Take care, mum,” Luca said. She smiled sadly.
“And you,” she said.
Luca drew his sword and swung it through the air with a swish.
“You know I will,” he replied.
Midday had come and gone by the time the subdued band of Nali descended into Nalipal. Since the arrival of the Nali of the Commune, they had formed themselves into four small groups and practiced briefly with the weapons brought by the new arrivals. At around lunchtime, the Skaarj training exercises had ceased and the market square had emptied. Luca had planned to wait until dusk, but rain clouds were gathering out to sea, and soon he had decided that they could wait no longer.
Matharil was left watching over the townspeople on the cliff top whilst a few other willing individuals had taken up some of Tirithil’s improvised weapons and stood guard alongside her, and Luca had led the small band of fighters towards the cliff top steps.
Now, as the Nali reached the foot of the long stairway, they parted, and two groups led respectively by Tirithil and Sharuun took the path that led towards the vine orchards and the boathouse. Meanwhile Theoda’s group, and Luca’s group which consisted of Motanisha, Halil, Netarani and Brother Onthio, took the path that led past Luca’s house and onwards to the market square.
No words were exchanged, but the Nali readied their weapons as they padded through the deserted lanes. Everybody knew what they had to do, but Luca knew that many of his comrades would be thinking the same thought – Where are all the Skaarj?
As the two parties reached the back of the inn, they split up and Luca led his group down the steps towards the quay, whilst Theoda’s group struck off for the steps that would emerge by the town hall. A rumble of Skaarj and Krall voices could be heard emanating from behind the shuttered windows of the inn, suggesting the presence of a number of the creatures within.
As they rounded the corner onto the waterfront, Luca saw the back of the Krall on patrol receding towards the market end of the quay. He put out a hand to halt his colleagues and raised his rifle, flicking the switch on the side. The small tubular scope rose from the weapon’s housing with a surprisingly loud whine in the stillness of the market square, and at once, the Krall halted.
“Chizra…” Luca whispered.
Luca stayed frozen to the spot, with the scope raised to his eye, as the Krall turned slowly around. He was about to fire, when the Krall made a sudden croak of surprise and sprinted off behind the market building.
“They’re onto us now!” Motanisha hissed urgently. “Go!”
“Now!” Luca yelled, and he sprinted out into the square, closely followed by the rest of his party.
As they emerged into the open space, Motanisha and Brother Onthio swivelled and fired their weapons into the wooden pillars of the inn porch. With a terrific crash, the sturdy porch under which Luca and Halil had whiled away many a pleasant summer’s evening collapsed in on itself, sealing the occupants of the building within. At once, the level of noise intensified alarm calls were raised inside.
Across the market square, Theoda’s party had reached the entrance to the town hall. At a wave of Luca’s rifle, Theoda and Latana kicked the door open and the group of Nali dived inside, only to come reeling out again as the commander’s assassin henchman leapt out with a roar and began slashing about with its prosthetic claws. The butcher Barthias took a glancing blow from a clawed fist, but was back on his feet fairly quickly and taking pot shots at the Skaarj with his Automag. It didn’t look to Luca like many of his shots were finding their target.
The alarm was now well and truly raised, and Skaarj had begun sprinting into the square from the south side. Luca’s squad turned around and began firing their weapons at the oncoming creatures. Meanwhile, gunfire erupted from further afield and a Skaarj Warrior came rolling out onto the main road from behind the boathouse, closely followed by Sharuun and the rest of his party.
Luca, Halil and Motanisha were concentrating their fire on a pair of Skaarj Scouts that had emerged from Barthias’ house next to the market and were charging them down, whilst Netarani and Brother Onthio fired on a Skaarj Assassin that had appeared from the lane by the quayside.
Luca fired his rifle at one of the two scouts and it reeled. There was a roar from the town hall corner, and Luca glanced across the square to see that the commanding officer of the Skaarj had now joined in the fray, swinging his weapon arm wildly. There was a cry and Barthias, impaled by the twin prongs of the officer’s Razorjack, crumpled to the ground. Luca winced.
“Luca!” Motanisha called and he swung back round, realising with shock that the Skaarj Scouts were nearly on top of them, still coming despite the gunfire from Halil and Netarani. Instinctively, he dropped the Rifle and drew his sword to defend his group, blocking a swipe of the first scout’s claws just in time to prevent Halil from receiving the sharp ends in her chest.
The second scout was flagging under sustained fire from Motanisha’s ASMD. The three Nali backed off slowly, with Luca doing his best to block the first scout’s onslaughts whilst Halil peppered it with fire from her dispersion pistol. The second scout collapsed under Motanisha’s onslaught just as, with a scream, Netarani was sent flying over the quayside with a vicious uppercut from the assassin’s clawed fist.
“Help!” Brother Onthio shouted, now too close to the oncoming assassin to use his Eightball gun safely, but Motanisha was already grappling with the first scout trying to pull it off Luca, and was unable to help.
Halil grabbed Luca’s knife from his belt and tossed it to Brother Onthio, but just at that moment a bright blue bolt of energy flew across the square as Tirithil’s party came sprinting in from the main road, sending the assassin reeling. Tirithil raised her ASMD again and fired another shot, backed up by rifle fire from a Nali of the Commune that was running beside her. The assassin stumbled and fell, just as Luca finished off his scout assailant with a plunge of the sword into its heart, and Brother Onthio finished off his fallen attacker with a jab of the knife to the back of the skull.
Tirithil looked like she was about to celebrate, but more Skaarj were already running into the square, and before Luca could warn her, a Skaarj Warrior had plunged its claws deep into her back. She screamed and slid to the ground, her ASMD falling uselessly by her side. With a quick spin and swipe, the Skaarj also demolished one of the fisherman who had accompanied Tirithil’s team, his dispersion pistol joining Tirithil’s ASMD on the ground.
“No!” Luca shouted, but his voice was drowned out by the clamour of the battle now raging around him. In the town hall quarter of the square, one of the Nali of the commune had joined Barthias on the ground, and the claws of the commanding officer’s assassin henchman were now bloody. The commander himself was exchanging fire with Theoda who, unable to use his Minigun because of the number of Nali around him, had traded it for Barthias’ discarded Automag. One of Theoda’s shots struck the commander in the arm and drew blood, but then he was knocked aside by a Skaarj Warrior that had emerged from the alley beside the boathouse.
Sharuun had finished off one of the Skaarj Warriors with his Flak Cannon and he now ran into the square, charging down the warrior that had stabbed Tirithil, followed by his group of Nali. Tari, seeing his daughter on the ground, discarded his Razorjack and dropped to his knees, cradling her head in his lap. Somehow the fight went on around him without him getting hurt.
Sharuun began to fire on the Skaarj and was joined by one of the Nali of the commune from Tirithil’s group, who also plied the creature with shrapnel, but the Skaarj clouted the second Nali’s Flak Cannon away with a claw and knocked the Nali to the ground. A fisherman who had been using an Automag dropped his weapon and grabbed the Flak Cannon, and then leapt upon the Skaarj, only to discharge the weapon at too close a range and fall back to the ground, blooded. The Skaarj Warrior, taking a shell full in the chest from Sharuun’s weapon, exploded, its body parts flying in several directions, but a piece of shrapnel from the fisherman’s attack clouted Sharuun in the leg and he too fell, cradling the injured limb.
Luca was now scanning the square for someone to fight, watching things go from bad to worse. Over at the town hall, Latana had fallen to the ground along with the commander’s henchman, and Luca could not tell if either was still alive. The commander, meanwhile, was still being defended resolutely against Theoda and his comrades’ attacks by the Skaarj Warrior that had knocked Theoda aside, and a new arrival in the form of an armoured Skaarj Assassin. As Luca watched, another of the fishermen, this one helping Theoda, fell to a burst of energy projectiles from the assassin’s claws.
Behind Luca, there came a loud crash as the occupants of the inn tried to break the blocked door down.
Theoda and his comrade were now outnumbered, and the two remaining members of Tirithil’s party hastened to join them, but were distracted by the arrival of another Skaarj Warrior. Theoda’s comrade, a Nali of the commune, tried to hold off the three Skaarj that now outnumbered them by firing a spray of glowing green sludge into their midst. The assassin and the warrior were hit and reeled, but the commanding officer dodged back and fired a returning shot with his Razorjack, amputating the Nali’s weapon hand. The Nali screamed and fell to his knees, blood soaking his robes, until finished off by a blow from the Skaarj Warrior’s claws. Theoda, now alone, backed up to join the remaining members of Tirithil’s party, who had finished off their Skaarj Warrior assailant between them. The remaining members of Sharuun’s party meanwhile, two Nali of the commune and a fisherman, were fighting their own battle in the far corner of the square against a newly arrived Skaarj Scout and Skaarj Warrior. As Luca watched, the last fisherman fell at the hands of the Skaarj Scout he was fighting.
“Luca,” Motanisha hissed. He gestured to the lane behind the market building, where two Skaarj Assassins had arrived and were advancing slowly on them.
“Regroup,” Luca called to Motanisha, Brother Onthio and Halil. The four of them formed a line and backed slowly away from the oncoming assassins.
Behind them, there came another great crash from the doors of the inn.
“Luca,” Halil hissed, “where are the Krall?”
“Good question,” Brother Onthio replied.
“I don’t know,” Luca replied, glancing over his shoulder at the blocked inn doors. “They can’t all be in there.”
There was a final great crash and the doors of the inn flew open, sending bits of debris from the collapsed porch flying out onto the ground. Whipping around, Luca and his group saw the hulking form of the Skaarj Berserker, flanked by two Skaarj Scouts, step out into the square. Behind the Skaarj, Krall began pouring out through the new opening, just as further Krall flooded into the square from the south side.
For a moment, combat ceased and the square fell silent. Theoda and the remaining members of Sharuun and Tirithil’s groups joined up, forming a huddle of five brightly coloured figures, whilst the nine remaining Skaarj, backed up by the Krall and watched by the commanding officer, spread out to surround the two small groups of Nali. On the fringes of the square, Sharuun remained cradling his mangled leg and Tari still knelt beside the lifeless form of his daughter.
“This is it, then,” Brother Onthio muttered, “I always wondered how I’d meet my end.”
“We’ll think of something, right, Luca? Motanisha?” Halil whispered.
Motanisha shook his head. “Sorry.”
Halil gripped Luca’s hand fearfully, and Luca gripped hers back. His heart was pounding furiously, but there was nothing he could do.
“Goodbye Halil,” he said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she replied.
There was a moment’s pause, during which nobody spoke and Luca and Halil clung desperately to each other’s hands, but then a shrill cry arose from somewhere near the market as something was shouted in the hoarse Krall language. At once the square erupted into chaos.
“What’s happening?” Halil said.
All around the square, the Krall were turning on their Skaarj masters. Concussion staffs were plunged deep into scaly hides and vicious kicks dealt by clawed feet as Skaarj bodies were sent flying. Behind the marauding Krall, a small figure could be discerned leaping around and croaking out incitements. Wasting no time, Motanisha and Brother Onthio leapt off to help.
“Yes!” Luca began to laugh. “We has frend! It’s Skrill!”
The juvenile Krall punched the air victoriously as one of the Skaarj Assassins went tumbling to the ground. Halil beamed. “Go, Skrill! You rul –“
But she was cut off as something small and brown struck her suddenly in the side of the neck. Clutching at the dart instinctively with one hand, Halil had just enough time to give Luca a shocked glance before falling to the earthen floor with a thud.
“No!” Luca cried, falling to his hands and knees beside the Nali. Sensing a movement to his left, he looked up to see a familiar figure swaggering towards them, a wooden pipe dangling from one hand and a malevolent smirk on his face.
“Game ends,” said Mittari.
For a second Luca could feel nothing but numb shock, but then he found his voice.
“What have you done to her?” he shouted.
Mittari twirled the blowpipe between his fingers. “I injected her with the poison used by the Velshan of the Northern Mountains. It doesn’t kill instantly like the venom of their southern cousins, no, it’s significantly slower, and much more painful. Paralysing, too, so you can’t even move as you die.”
“Why?” Luca demanded.
“Because you burned me, Luca… and now it’s payback time.”
“Look around you,” Luca replied. “You’ve lost. There’s no way you’re leaving this village alive.”
Mittari nodded. “You’re probably right. Yes, you may have defeated us… with a little help from your young Krall friend…” he added, “but I have defeated you, Luca, and to me now that is all that matters.”
“Why do it, Mittari?” Luca said. “Why betray your people?”
The Nali shrugged. “I thought I’d picked the winning side. I still think I have. The Skaarj will crush this planet eventually.” Mittari looked around the square, where the last of the Skaarj resistance was being overcome, before adding, “It’s just a pity I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Luca picked up his rifle. “You do know that I’m going to kill you now, don’t you?”
Mittari smiled ingratiatingly. “Are you? Gosh!”
Luca pointed the Rifle at Mittari’s chest and poised his finger over the trigger. He wouldn’t make the same mistake again. But looking at the unarmed Nali standing in front of him, he faltered.
Mittari sighed patronisingly. “You may bear the tattoos of the Van’thaal, my young friend, but you haven’t changed a bit. You still can’t kill another Nali in cold blood.”
Allowing himself one last smirk, Mittari turned to leave, but just as Luca began to lower his weapon, a bolt of blue energy seared through the air and struck Mittari in the chest. The Nali folded up with a cry and fell against the remains of the porch, staring incredulously at his assailant.
“And now he won’t have to,” said Motanisha.
Luca watched as Motanisha raised his weapon to deal the killing blow. Calmly, Motanisha squeezed the trigger, and in a flash of blue light Mittari slumped lifeless to the ground.
Luca took one of Halil’s hands. It was cold and sweaty, but he could still feel her heart beating faintly. He looked up at Motanisha.
“Take her to Juura,” he said quickly, “now!”
Motanisha lifted Halil under the upper arms. “Brother Onthio!” he called.
Luca watched as, aided by the other Nali, Motanisha carried Halil off towards the north end of town and the cliff top steps.
The fight was over. Discarding the rifle and trailing his sword along the ground, Luca walked to the pier head and gazed out towards the distant Bluff of Shokkar, lost in thought. As he stared out to sea, spots of rain began to fall.
Soon Luca felt a tug at his sword arm. Skrill was beside him, an expression of concern on his alien face.
“Will Halil be all right?” the Krall asked in his halting Nali tongue.
“I hope so,” Luca replied.
“Luca worries for her,” said the Krall.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Does Luca love her?”
Luca looked hard at the Krall for a moment before saying, “You asked me that once before.”
“And does Luca have an answer now?”
Luca nodded. “Yes.”
Skrill blinked sadly. “Then Skrill hopes Halil lives.”
Luca knelt down and grasped one of the Krall’s small, spiny hands firmly. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for fighting for us. But why do it? Why put your life and your people’s lives at risk?”
“Luca is kind to Skrill,” he said simply.
Luca nodded his understanding, for against the Skaarj, this explained everything perfectly.
“What will your people do now?” Luca asked.
The young Krall shrugged. “No Nali at Shahari Bay. Maybe Skrill and his people settle there. Skrill will never serve the Skaarj.”
Luca grinned. “I believe you.”
“Skrill goes now,” the Krall said. “His people do not belong in Nalipal.”
Luca nodded. “See you,” he replied.
Luca watched as Skrill turned and ambled across the square. He spoke to the first group of Krall he encountered and they followed him, and soon all the Krall were filing off towards the main road out of Nalipal.
A wave of exhaustion overcame Luca. He sat on the quay wall and dangled his feet above the water, praying to himself that Juura would be able to rid Halil of the poison that Mittari had inflicted upon her her.
At length Luca became aware of a dragging sound. It was Theoda and two of his comrades from the Commune, dragging the body of the Skaarj commander towards him. On reaching the quayside, they heaved the carcass over the edge, where it disappeared into the depths of the water.
“Let the Devilfish have it, if they want it,” Theoda muttered.
At length the Nali began to move out of the square. It was still littered with bodies, both Nali and Skaarj, but those Nali that had fallen were covered respectfully with roughly woven blankets weighed down with stones.
The Nali of the Commune managed to convince Tari to part with the body of his daughter and take a rest. Theoda and one other Nali helped Sharuun to stand, whilst the remaining Nali carried Latana, who had been discovered seriously wounded but not yet dead, and together they made their way back through the village towards the cliff top steps.
The sworn champion of Nalipal sat at the table on the terrace outside his mother’s house on a mild autumn evening, staring out towards a distant island, as he had back when it had all begun.
The funerals for those who had died had been held, and the people of Nalipal had mourned, but they had remained strong. Word had come of reconstruction beginning in Avenati town, initiated by a small number of Nali townspeople who had escaped the Skaarj holocaust. Maybe, Luca wondered, the town might yet return to its former vibrant self. The empty houses in Nalipal, meanwhile, remained as a reminder of the losses the village had suffered.
There was a creak as Halil slid onto the bench next to Luca. He put two arms around her, and she rested her head on his shoulder.
“Philona told me that Netarani’s old house is almost ready for us,” she said.
Luca smiled and gave her shoulders a squeeze. “Excellent,” he said. “And your father?”
“He’s doing okay,” she replied. There was a pause, during which all that could be heard was the waves, the breeze and the distant sound of reconstruction proceeding at the market, but then Halil went on, “I went to see Juura. You know I said I’d been feeling a bit… off, since the battle?”
“Yeah…?” Luca said.
“Well… It turns out there’s nothing wrong with me at all.”
Halil took one of Luca’s hands and placed it gently on her stomach. He looked at her, puzzled for a moment, but then his mouth fell open as realisation dawned upon him.
“You? And me?” he gasped.
Halil beamed and nodded. “Yeah.”
Luca grinned broadly. “Awesome!”
Overhead, seagulls wheeled and cried as the sun began to dip behind the distant Bluff of Shokkar.
All text herein is © 1998-2005 Michael Wilberforce. All characters, events, place names and creatures, barring those previously appearing in the work of and priorly © to Epic Games, Digital Extremes and associated authors, are also © 1998-2005 Michael Wilberforce unless otherwise stated. The text herein may NOT be reproduced for any form of distribution without the prior written consent of the author.