The Well of Time

Chapter 1  Prologue

    A man stood alone on a mountain ledge high in the cool silent air. Far below on the plain, smoke rose from a city despoiled.
    The man frowned. He had come to this high and lonely place ostensibly to make a decision, yet he knew that in his heart he had already decided. Although he now debated with himself reasons as to why he should choose war rather than peace he knew that he would choose war. He shivered as he foresaw the curses that would be heaped upon him by generations yet unborn. In his imagination he witnessed the ruin of civilisations, the desolation of worlds, the destruction of peoples. Yet would not all these things occur whatever he did? Whichever choice he made would it not all be the same in a thousand years? Was it not simply pride that invested his dilemma with so much importance? Impatiently he shrugged and the hexagram emblazoned on his short jacket rippled with the movement. He was no philosopher but a man of action. His heart had decided; his head must cease to question. He began to descend the mountain his mind busy with plans for future conquest.

Chapter 2  The Red Grass Plain

    Alorn clung to the bat Jeth as its powerful wings beat through the soft dark. Above them moved the red moon Hirandrel and the grey moon Umandrel. Below was darkness. Jeth had been flying for a long time but showed no fatigue. Blind though the bat was he could sense more of the country below than Alorn could see in the blackness but Alorn could tell when they crossed the coast, alerted by the salt breeze that stirred Jeth's fur. He knew very little else: Alorn was his name and Jeth that of the bat, but he could remember nothing but his immediate past.
    As they flew out over the ocean Alorn could see foam-crested waves lit by the red and grey light of the two moons. From his clouded memory came a name: Ocean of Storms. Onward flew the bat, league after league until the night waned and the huge blue sun Talas loomed over the horizon and rose majestically into the orange sky. All  day  they  flew  and another night. Then as a second day dawned, in the distance appeared a purple smudge on the line between sea and sky and Alorn knew that they were approaching land.
    The sun was halfway up the sky before the bat crossed the shore and Alorn could sense Jeth's impatience to find somewhere cool and dim to pass the day. Alorn pulled out a small whistle attached to a gold chain around his neck and blew it. He himself could hear nothing but as he blew the bat whistle and moved his tongue in a pattern established by habit, Jeth dipped down towards the plain below. The bat flew low over the dark red grass and into a wood, coming to rest on the lowest bough of a tall tree. Alorn relaxed his grip, released the safety harness, and dropped to the ground. He stretched muscles stiff from the long journey. Jeth rested in the shade.
    Alorn walked a little way into the spinney, collecting sticks with which he made a small fire. He took a pan from his knapsack and balancing it above the flames he brewed a fragrant liquid from leaves he had with him and gulped it down. Then he climbed a tree not far from Jeth's and settled down in a fork to sleep.
    As he slept he dreamed. He dreamt he was standing on a wide plain. There was red turf beneath his feet and a cool breeze sent waves scudding across the high grass. Overhead the blue sun burned bright in the orange sky. The red grass stretched away in all directions to an horizon of low purple hills above which brown clouds lazed. In all directions save one that is, for a short distance in front of him the scarlet sward merged into a plain covered with an evil-looking grey plant and arched over with a leaden sky lit by a wan blue-grey sun. Ugly grey trees reared up from this other plain casting weak shadows and in the distance he could see black  mountains. But his attention was immediately engaged by a fierce figure who loomed before him. A large pale grey head with vicious countenance surmounted a powerful body clad in dark grey. The apparition wielded a sword and with a snarl leaped at Alorn, his world sweeping forward with him threatening to engulf Alorn's own.
    Alorn was awakened by a high-pitched whistle. He opened his eyes but remained motionless. Dusk had come in deep violet and magenta but in the west a blue glow persisted and the grotesque trees at the plain's edge were stark against it. The whistle came again from the tiny crystal behind his ear, set there to pick up Jeth's signals and reduce them to an audible frequency. Alorn could not see Jeth but far out across the plain he could just make out a cloud of dust that must mean riders. Quickly Alorn scrambled higher up his tree, disturbing a troop of long-armed tree climbers that dispersed chattering. The wood consisted mainly of laman trees and he soon reached the platform of branches which these trees spread far above the ground, interlocking with their neighbours and forming a floor high above the earth. Alorn ran nimbly across this platform deeper into the wood.
    The cloud of dust had now resolved itself into figures. Alorn had keen eyesight even for his people and could make out their forms despite the gathering gloom. There were three creatures in general similar to men, two-armed bipeds with heavily muscled bodies and heads that were normal but for their three eyes and grey skin. They rode mounts of a kind unfamiliar to Alorn: quadruped, with long flowing coats and large fiercely muzzled heads. Reaching the outskirts of the copse the riders halted and peered about them, their eyes moving independently. One of them caught sight of the glowing embers of Alorn's fire and they urged their beasts forward to investigate.
    At that moment Jeth fell from the sky like a thunderbolt and seized one of the riders in his talons. The creature gave a shriek as it was born aloft and its companions whirled round. Jeth dropped his victim from a considerable height and the creature hit the ground with a thud and lay crumpled and motionless. Jeth returned to attack the remaining two. Alorn left his tree and raced across the laman platform. It took him long moments to reach the edge of the wood and as he sped across the boughs he heard several more screams and an angry fluting from the crystal in his ear.
    As soon as the trees thinned Alorn found a gap in the platform and clambered through, shinning down the trunk beneath and dropping to the ground. He drew his sword and ran between the remaining trees but faltered to a halt as he saw he was too late. The three riders were dead, all slain in the same fashion. Alongside them lay the huge shape of Jeth. Alorn ran to him although he knew the bat must be dead. One of the riders' spears had pierced his body. The beasts they had ridden were fleeing across the plain.
    Alorn experienced great sorrow. Although the doors of his memory were locked fast, the feeling that he had known Jeth a long time and been fond of him was very strong. He stood a while silent and withdrawn. However the sense of urgency which also emanated from his hidden past soon roused him. He stooped over the bodies of the riders but could find no clues to their identity or origin. Their epidermis was scaly and their hands ended in talons rather than fingers. He did not recognise the creatures but could not decide whether this was because they were unknown to him or because the information was lost with his memory. He inclined to the first alternative.
    The sky had deepened into the maroon of night. Stars gleamed dull and red and to the east the first of the moons, Hirandrel the red, was rising. Alorn shivered. He was quite alone; he did not know where he was or where he was going except that it must lie to the east, that being the direction in which Jeth had been flying. He had lost his only companion and his means of transport. He had no idea if the countryside would support him or how far it was to the nearest habitation nor which way that might be. He could not even remember what time of year it was although judging from the plants he observed it must be the third or fourth quarter of the season of Growth.
    Having considered his position Alorn decided that his best plan was to walk towards the east hoping to come to a settlement from which he could obtain aid. He would not start until morning however and spent the rest of the night in vigil beside the corpse of Jeth.
    At first light he began collecting fallen branches from the wood and piled them around Jeth until he had constructed a pyre. This he lit and stood watching it burn until only ashes remained. Then he set off through the spinney in an easterly direction. At length he emerged from its further side and saw that dark red clouds were banking up in the sky, threatening a storm later in the day.
    The grass of the plain was short and Alorn made rapid progress, striding forward as the sun rose higher in the sky. By late afternoon he was approaching a belt of trees which seemed to be the limb of a forest thrusting out onto the plain from the south. The clouds had now covered most of the sky and soon drops of rain began to fall. Alorn increased his pace and reached the shelter of the trees just as the rain became heavy.
    The wood turned out to be a tangled thicket and Alorn was forced to worm his way in amongst the dense undergrowth until with his back to a thick trunk he obtained good shelter from the downpour.
    By the time the rain ceased it was dusk. Alorn worked his way through the tangle until he came to more open woodland. With some difficulty he lit a fire in a small glade and ate a frugal supper. Then he climbed a tree, less hospitable than the laman so that he had to secure himself in a fork with the rope he carried round his waist.
    Again his slumber was invaded by a dream. Once more he stood on the plain of red grass. The blue sun was hot on his back and the clouds over the distant hills were thin and faint. Before him the scene was strangely distorted as though in a poorly fashioned mirror. Straggling pink grass ill concealed the dark blue soil and contorted trees struggled from the ground. A herd of blue beasts wandered past the ruins of a considerable city which threw black shadows across the landscape. As in the previous dream he confronted a swordsman with pale grey skin and white hair. His head was smaller than before but his face no less malevolent. He flung himself upon Alorn, his sword whirling and slicing - and Alorn awoke. Thereafter he dozed fitfully.

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