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MAIDEN

"Until I saw Luc on the Mars base, I'd never thought of anyone in anything other than a professional or familial way. All of a sudden, after twenty-five years of indifference, I was almost overwhelmed. It took me a while to realize that it was something more than desire. That's what really scared me about seeking refuge in Maiden. I figured Darraqc could take care of the Dark Lord."

Innocence de Chevalier, as quoted in: The Gospel According to St Luc, the revelations of a new god, by Gerard Steinwalker, © 2152 Terminus Publishing Co.

Innocence huddled down against the warm earth beneath the long prairie grasses, trying to stave off the cold and the tears. She wished she had had time to put on more than her jumpsuit, to protect her body from the icy wind blowing from the still-frozen northern marches, the cold wind that made her bones ache. Oh, how she ached. She ached from the cold. She ached from the cuts the high prairie grasses had made on her skin. She ached from exhaustion, from running without break for a night and day. But most of all she ached from grief. An awful, sickening, gut-wrenching grief that was almost fear. Grief that her dearest father would . . . sacrifice her. Like a pack of wild dogs would slaughter a tethered goat . . . So she wept, until the wind, and the warm earth, and her tired bones sent her to sleep at last.

She awoke into that drowsy, half-conscious state in which time seems to eddy and flow around like water around the pebbles in a burn, and where hours can pass like minutes, and minutes like hours. She felt warm, warmer than she should have been, and she wondered dreamily if she'd died. In the distance she could hear the soft jingling of small bells, and when she opened her eyes she could see a single, growing point of light approaching her in a field of blackness, like the tunnel to the seat of god people are supposed to travel when they die.

"It would be nice to be dead," she thought, to be lost in the depths of God, safe from her father, and the enemy.

She willed herself to rise toward the light, and felt the earth beneath her as she began to sit up. Oh God, she was still alive, still on Robynn, still hunted.

She sat for a while with her head on her knees until she was fully awake, and then stood to look around and assess her position. The wind was coming from the South now, from above the southern oceans, bringing with it the warm, moist southern air. In the West she could see the barest trace of the planet's dim ring before it disappeared behind the clouds. She could already smell the rain, and shivered from anticipation. At this time of year such a storm could bring anything from snow to hail; and even rain would . . . God help her.

She turned again. In the West, perhaps a little to the North, she still saw the light, much closer now and moving rapidly towards her. She recognized the bells as those of a sleigh, and saw that the light was fixed to a tall mast in some kind of wagon. Pulling it was a large team of dark horses, perhaps ten or twelve, and the rear section seemed to contain a covered cabin, as on a boat, and another smaller mast. As it drew nearer Innocence sank down to her knees again so she wouldn't be exposed, and waited, wondering what she should do.

She saw two people in the land-yacht a driver, middle-aged and tall, and an elderly woman, standing on the left and looking out like a queen over her domain.

The woman turned to the driver and spoke, gesturing towards the horizon behind Innocence. He slowed the horses and looked where the woman pointed, but in the long grass Innocence couldn't see what they were watching, and looked back towards the land-yacht. They were moving now at only a slow trot; and the woman was discussing something with the driver. Innocence turned back to the horizon behind her again, rising now to get a better view. Just come over the horizon there were the search-lights of what Innocence knew to be her father's faction of the Ark Enterprise crew. The realization hit her like a wall of chilled water. Kyrie Elieson, they had found her trail again! She staggered backwards a few steps, and then turned and ran towards the land-yacht, crying out for help. It was still; and there, already coming to meet her, was the woman, looking like motherhood herself come to comfort her lost child. They stopped and stood there for a stound, before the woman raised her arms towards Innocence, who ran to her. Innocence buried her head in the woman's shoulder and wept, and she clipt her closely and comforted her.

"My dear girl, my dear, dear girl."


The Golden Rose was an elegant Dol'maren land-yacht, of the kind favoured by the more sophisticated aristocracy of the Tsaghedi plains' herders. On her sails and along her sides she wore the colours of the Fortress of Knowledge, the Raven, who since the last war here, so many thousands of years ago, had been gathering whatever lore remained in the ruin of Ariel civilization.

In the days before the War a gravitational drive would have sent her skimming swiftly over the grain, with only the rush of the wind and strange song of a fuel reactor to tell her passengers that the world really was rushing past their eyes, almost too rathe to see.

Now though, there was only a team of the best sled-horses the plains' people could breed, drawing her sleek lyche over the flowering steppes. There were thirteen lean, stocky horses with golden red-green coats; large, round heads; and short, upright manes. Some twelve would be in harness, making the grass blur, while another rested beneath the mainmast, or trotted alongside.

There had been only one passenger, the woman, Mrs Amarie Sammers, an elderly queen of the merchants Riker, whom the Raven had named Tser Etiann, which means Pale Queen. The driver, Sebastian Windrider, was half Ariel, the son of an Raven engineer, and the woman's grandson on his mother's side.

Mrs Sammers was a matriarchal figure among all five generations of her descendants and the Riker; and Innocence soon found herself thinking of her in the much the same way, and calling her simply, "Mother". She felt as if she had found someone to take the place of the mother she had never known.

For several days they ran north-by-north west, towards Darren of the Raven, and the Robynn base of the merchants Riker. They talked as they fared, about the history of the native Ariel peoples; the recent events on Earth and the Mars bases; how and why the merchants Riker had come to Robynn; about how the arrival of the Ark Enterprise had rocked the delicate balance of powers here; about the Garæþjan (as the native Ariel called the crew of Ark) and their politics and beliefs and factions.

Of all their discussions, those that interested Innocence the most were those concerning the Way, the faith that the Riker had brought from Earth, and which the Raven (if few else Ariel) had adopted as the new revelation of their own.

Like many other astrophysicists, Innocence had seen God in his shapings, and most aspects of the Way were as familiar to her as the morning sun. The rest, prie Dieu! It was a revelation. Had she been blind before? It all seemed so plain, so obvious, so right. Dan the Raven called him. Darraqc-Dan. Tsi bhar Darraqc-Dan, ennoi Jamaler. Our shepherd He-Is-Forever-God, saviour of Man. She accepted it all completely now, and it left her breathless with joy and wonder. And she felt ever more keenly the Call.

It was at Ur-Base that she had first felt the Call. The Dark Lord had made his sudden departure with the Black Knights some weeks earlier, and her Father's cabal had assumed control of the remaining crew of the Ark Enterprise. As a senior officer she was given a prominent position in the "Court," but was consistently ignored, and denied any knowledge of the real intrigues and events going on around her. It had grown on her slowly, a yearning to get up and leave, to go somewhere, anywhere; frustration and boredom seeking an outlet, a release. No. The Warning had come then, and she had fled, and frustration and boredom had been left behind, and the Call had remained, persistent and nagging, calling her somewhere. But where, where? Where did Dan want her to go? The suddenly, one day, she knew. And the knowing filled her with fear.

She didn't tell Mrs Sammers or Sebastian for some days of her conviction. Amarie Sammers looked at Rayburn, the sun, as it disappeared and whispered to herself, ". . . Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell," and Innocence found herself agreeing. She was going to the Dark Lord.


They sat in the bow of the Golden Rose, in the warm morning sun. Several yards away the clear water of the Fiann chattered over the Lower Ford's pebbled bed. Sunlight reflected of the water played of the sides of the 'boat, and the glossy flanks of the horses grazing on the long grass and lenten flowers. Somewhere upstream Sebastian was trying to catch some of the famous golden trout first bred by the ancient Dol'raager.

"Mother," said Innocence, "I need to leave soon. I'd like to be baptized, here, in the Fiann before I go."

Tser Etiann lowered her sewing and looked up at Innocence. "Did you know, Innocence," she said, "I used to think that the Dark Lord was the Anti-Christ, come to destroy us all."

She paused, and put away her sewing, while Innocence sat forward, watching anxiously for her to continue. Finally she rose from her seat, sighing, and looking lovingly at Innocence went on: "Stannart was right, after all, though. De Chevalier wouldn't have abandoned Earth if he was The Foe. Come. I have something to show you."

Mrs Sammers led Innocence to a large humpback chest in the berth she had been given. She brought out a package wrapped in golden-white tissue paper and twine, sat down, and carefully unwrapped it. Inside was a dress of fine silky linen the same colour as the paper, embroidered with intricate patterns and stylized animals in gold and silver thread like viking filigree-work. Underneath was a black cloth bag with a plain line drawstring, lying on a chemise of the finest, unbleached goat's wool, finely knit into a soft downy fabric that seemed to radiate warmth.

Innocence lay the sark beside her on the bed as Tser Etiann emptied the bag. There before her, were armbands of Tsaghedi filigree work in gold and silver, inset with precious stones; a torque and bracelets of golden woven like rope, animal heads at either end wolves and bears and wild cats with jewelled or amber eyes; and a snood of gold and linen thread and large white pearls, with open filigree combs of fine silver set with jewels. Next she brought out a wooden box, graven with runes and images of men, and trees, and ships and strange creatures; and inlaid with ivory. Inside were an ox-horn, samewise graven; a round flask of orange-hued glass containing "Johnson's baby oil"; and a tiny vial of some dark green liquid, which Tser Etiann carefully laid aside.

"My daughter Adelhaide wore these at her bridal," she said, "They are my gift to you for your baptism."

She warmed the oil and poured a little into the horn, and then added a tiny drop of the green liquid, carefully sealing the vial. Innocence knelt, and Mrs Sammers poured out the oil over her head. It smelt bitter and sweet at the same time, like laughter mixed with tears. Amarie smeared her with the oil, and brushed it through her hair, until she glistened like satin sheets of gold.

"In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost . . ."

She could hear Sebastian through the water, garbled, as if in a dream, and then he was lifting her up and out. Up, up, up, up . . .

She wasn't surprised to see God there when she opened her eyes. Nothing else, just God. All around her, and all through her. It is not possible to describe God the way she felt him then. It must be experienced. All she could see was God, all she could hear was God, all she could touch was God, all she could feel was God, all she could smell was God, all she could taste was God, all she knew was God. If you could imagine everything that is God, the faith, the hope, the trust, the peace, the joy, the life, the light, the power, the glory, the knowledge . . . the love; if all these things were alive, if you could see them, if you could feel them; if they were all around you as far as you could see like points of light in space, and you could see; and if you chose a point in all that space and magnified it until it was all you could see, further up and further in; and if you could see and feel just as much of everything, as far as you could see, until you dared not look any further; if all those things were One, if he knew you, if he knew who you were, if he loved you; if you could imagine all this; you would know just a vague shadow of what she knew then.

In all of this a vision appeared, seeing the earth through a gap in the clouds. Down below her she could see a lake, Rogh'iann; bounden on the one side by a moss, Fiannweg (or Fenwick); and on the other by the high black cliff of a mountain range, El'danan. Down the mountainside ran the Fiann, falling around a jutting section of cliff in twin falls into the lake, and winding out through the moss of the Fenwick. Darraqc had called her, and now Darraqc was teaching her where to go. There, under the mountain, was Maiden. There, was the Dark Lord's lair. No! No. Not the Dark Lord. Darraqc called him some other name. And for a moment Innocence glimpsed something . . . breath-taking. But what could she do? If thou goest, he will come. And I will be with ye always. This the foe fears greatly.


Before her, on either side of the Fiann, were the two lows the Dol'raager had raised to bound the Fenwick, Darrow Sarth on the North and Darrow Gorm on the South. She steered the scout towards Sarth and buried her little nose into the soft earth of the bank. The crossbow lay on her pack nigh the stern, and she hove them both with her after drawing the scout out of the tug of the stream; making sure that the bow's magazine was full of shuttles. It was a steep climb up the side of the low, but the loft was warm and sweet, inviting great breaths; and the lithe, feathery grass blows brushed softly against her. At the crest she paused and showed Northwest, towards the high peaks of El'danan, the High Forge. All she could see was the vast expanse of the Fenwick, stretching rest upon rest like a green sea, broken only by the black ribbon of the Fiann and seldom black lakes and sandy aits with even selder firs.

The river had lost itself in the moss after the first day past the Darrows, and for the next fortnight she trekked out gain over the moss, dragging the scout behind her. She made slow progress, and decided to conserve her limited fuel by burning peat for cooking, despite the smoke. In the peat she sometimes found relics left behind by others - a gold ring, a sole-less boot, and most interesting, a peat-blackened sword &emdash; a long thin S-shaped blade that balanced well in her hands. For four days she saw the sun rise over the Darrows; not until the fifth day did the white haze of the High Forge appear on the horizon. Each day after that it would grow both wider and higher, glowing gold then rose as the sun disappeared over the horizon. Then came a storm, up from the south, and she was forced to shelter for three days in the air tent, pitched on an ait barely larger than the small scout.

The storm broke during the third night, and Innocence rose to see the Rayburn climbing over the moss. Westwards she could see cliffs of El'danan that had been hidden by the storm, towering over the encircling low of Darrow Tarn. Hoving only her pack, set out over the Fenwick till she reached the top of the darrow and looked out. There, just in front of her, hidden by the mist thrown up by the falls, was Maiden, the fortress under the mountain. She hesitated still, wary of what awaited her. A wry grin crossed her face as she realised that she was actually relieved to be here after the trial of the moss. More than that, she was actually home. To her left, in the corner of her eye, she noticed an air-boat emerge from behind the falls. It skirted the mist and approached her. When it was about an hundred metres from her she recognised the pilot as Decameron, de Chevalier's bioroid adjutant. He drew along-side and tossed her a line.

"Good morning Dr. Carter," he said good naturedly, "climb aboard and we'll get your boat. Dr Remy is anxious to see you."

"Decameron," she said, taking his hand firmly and shaking it, "It's a great morning," and closed her eyes as she looked up into the sky and smiled. Suddenly she was immensely happy. Warm and content in the crook of Dan's arm. She felt like she was finally going home. It's been a beautiful morning. What a morning, a great morning. It's a great morning.

©1992-1999 Andrew Charles