This is (so far) part one of Fickleday.
It is also an entry to the August 2016 writing competition, run by CWG - in exile from My Telegraph.
Length: about 1,000 words done to a theme of: Islands
Clump, clump, clump. Big, clunking steps. The sound paused. Harsh words came down the cave. They were speaking their harsh Western tongue. I glanced over at Ogd'tham. He glowered.
The sounds started up again, but now the crunch of pebbles underfoot.
“You will leave the talking to me.” Not a request.
I nodded silently.
Far off was a distant thoom! The ground shuddered. We waited in a natural broadening of fissures in the rock, some way below the surface so I didn't think we were in danger, Ogd'tham scowled again though, just for good measure.
“Have you the offerings?”
I checked the baskets silently. We weren't sure what the surface-dwellers wanted – George, our Tongan contact, had merely said that here was an opportunity.
As civic leader, Ogd'tham had grumbled something about credulous sightseers little better than excitable parasites, but nevertheless agreed to the meeting.
More speech came from above. We could hear them more clearly now but I could make out no words. I looked questioningly at Ogd'tham, his brows began to cross; I hoped he wouldn't beat me again.
“English! Why don't they use English?” he snapped. There was no reply I could make. His face changed. There was cruel calculation. After a second he snapped., “Cover yourself! We don't want them thinking we're barbarians!”
This had already been gone through, back in Urshenbal. The proclivities of Westerners were known to a degree and, to present them with something they weren't led to expect might, in turn, generate an unexpected response. But he led here. I put down the baskets and hastily arranged my robe to cover my breasts.
There was no more time. A flicker of other light was slim warning.
“Endlich!” What language was that?
Ogd'tham hailed them before they rounded the final band, “Greetings. We are well met. Please be welcome to the realm of Mu.” The upworlders came into view. They were tall – like giants – with blond hair, crazy blue eyes. That apart they were completely swathed by clothes. Ogd'tham was into his performance and words spilled out, effortlessly. “Although I do concede the unfashionable term of Lemuria may be better currency.”
Somehow I got the feeling we'd miscalculated. I looked down – hardly any cleavage – what's a woman to do if she can't put something on show? Maybe I should have left things as they were. What do they say about last minute changes?
Ogd'tham's flow of unction adjusted to the situation – he knew Tongan and immediately switched into it. I had a smattering, but not enough to pick out more than the odd word. Seeing without watching is an art. I counted our visitors: Seven: five old men, one old woman and a fierce looking hunk. They wore uniforms, even the woman, and all looked worried, as if disaster stalked.
He who'd spoken before interrupted the flow, “English is acceptable.” Spoken as if he'd just realised he'd been eating rancid crawl-bait. Evidently he was their leader. “I'm afraid disposition is governed by events and we are harbingers of change. It follows close and unless you have troop dispositions that, please forgive my directness, is not evident here, our stay will be brief.”
Ogd'tham's face lit up. He was a master of intrigue and it was said of those who crossed him to only later go missing, they were as like to be found in the shale oceans as not at all – which came to the same thing. The shale oceans were vast and treacherous, even to the seasoned. Without taking his gaze from their leader he said, “Avoca, go.”
As I knelt to leave the offerings he added, “Take the baskets.”
I negotiated my way out. We rarely broadened the fissures – certainly not this close to the surface. No need to leave clues, a thought echoed by Ogd'tham as he began his discussion. The way back to Urshenbal was long and perilous; Niuafoʻou was active and I'd little desire to stay around while she blew.
Voices chased me down and away.
“You are hunted?” Ogd'tham's sensed his way to understand their predicament.
“We are the last of our kind. There was misunderstanding and war. There are those that would bring victor's justice...”
I closed my ears, it would be unwise to know too much – knowledge has a way of shaping your actions, yet I wondered, what would he do? Ogd'tham was wily and quite capable of sending them away empty-handed – minus, perhaps, a keepsake for the sake of good relations. Knowing they were pursued would be an advantage and he wasn't known for unforced largesse.
Not long into my way back, all about me strained and shook. That had to be Niuafoʻou, she'd been pitching to set off for some time now. Ogd'tham, like as not, had made his escape, he knew the ways as well as anyone. It occurred to me that he might have purposely kept those blond giants talking until there was no escape. Thus would the secrecy of our underways continue to be kept. The ways weren't suitable for them anyway. Even the young man. He was haughty but I fancied I could teach him manners. I put speculation out of my mind, the way back beckoned and navigating the underways would now be hazardous for the inattentive.
* * *
It was a long and difficult return. Eventually I made my way through the outlying fringes of Urshenbal. The township was barely affected but then the brunt of such shocks was always borne on top – the subterranean depths felt only a fraction. That way was now blocked but others would be found. Given I'd been close to the volcano when it erupted, I expected to be quizzed on the matter. Those in my society had other things on their minds; news of the visitors had preceded me – minus my role of course. More than the news because the visitors themselves were here. You'd think they'd just discovered men given their talk about the hunk and anyway, I saw him first so he ought to be mine. But hey, I'm staying on Ogd'tham's good side... assuming he's got one.