I have reached the half-way point in the final (oh I do hope so) comma sweep of Beyond the Realm of Night. To celebrate, and to give me something different to do, here is another excerpt.
The man grimaced but his features relaxed. “Yesterday, early, I heard the sound of riders approaching and a crowd on foot shuffling through the sand. I tried to hide but they found me. A woman, a good woman, Sif her name is, took my hands and urged me into the open. They were all going to Providence, she said, just as soon as the gates were opened. I told her not to listen to the demons’ lies. They were going nowhere but Hell. She had her baby to think of. How could she take a baby into Hell? She might have listened to me—she’s a sensible girl is Sif—but one of the demons barged over. I heard it, a flat, evil voice and the smell of sulphur about it.
‘Leave the old man,’ it said, ‘we need no blind cripples.’ And a rough, sharp-nailed hand, more like an animal’s paw pushed me roughly to the ground and kicked me to one side. As I lay in the dust the crowd shuffled past. The riders passed at a trot and I could hear their horses’ hooves thudding in the sand.
“Sif was still there. She bent over me and whispered. ‘They will finish scouring this area and then we head for the Yellow Rock until the gates of Providence are forced open. After that they say we make for the city. Do you think it’s true? Do you?’”
The old man shook his head sadly. “They dragged her away. I could hear her shouting about not touching her baby. Poor kid. Both of them. That’s why I came here, to find water and a place to hide.”
“Did you not want to go to Providence, then?” Chiron asked.
The man laughed, a harsh, rasping sound deep in his throat. “I know the stories. I recognised the servants of the Evil One. Better to die free in the howling wastes of the desert than as a cringing slave in a crystal prison.”
Jophiel, the gentlest of the archangels, said, “The stranger is right. Abaddon believes he will win the battle for Providence, and the Dananns will fight to the death rather than serve him. Without them, he will need slaves for the menial tasks. Who better than these wanderers who ask nothing better than to be allowed to live in the company of other human beings?”
“But if they are all like…?” Deborah nodded towards the stranger.
Jophiel shook his head. “The survivors of the War were changed and mutilated. All kinds of deformities and handicaps flourished in the poisoned air, but of those who lived, some produced children and grandchildren.”
The stranger interrupted. “The children born with no limbs, no mouths, they died. Only the strongest survived. We are the remnants, ragged and wretched, but the Demon can still make use of us. Except for the blind. Not even Abaddon wants a blind beggar.” The stranger’s voice cracked, and his words ended in a choked sobbing.
Jophiel again placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. “The times are changing, friend. Have patience, just a while longer.”
“Don’t let them take me! That’s all I ask. Leave me here if you want, but don’t let them take me.”
Deborah had stopped listening. She was trying to remember where she had heard the name, Sif, before. Frowning with concentration, she absentmindedly scratched the ears of one of the Fianna hounds that had followed Medb. The dog raised his head and sniffed the air, then slowly and deliberately he approached the stranger. Gently, the hound nosed the destroyed face, his breath startling the man until he realised what it was. He reached out a hand and the hound bent his head and licked it. The awful face broke into a smile of happiness.
“The pups! You’ve found the pups!”
With a shock, the truth dawned on Deborah.
“They’re just hunting dogs, not the…not pups. Did you ever meet a boy,” she asked in a faint voice, unable to pronounce his name, “a runaway from Providence?”
The blind man turned to her in surprise. “Aye, I knew a boy once. A good boy. He would have stayed with me and been my eyes. But I sent him off. I didn’t want him to have the burden of a blind old man. He needed no second bidding—he was itching to be off on some great adventure. He’d got it into his head that there was a girl calling him, a girl from Providence. Said he had to be ready when she needed him.” The man chuckled. “He had these wild ideas all the time. Could never keep still either, always tearing after something or other with his dogs at his heels, a lizard or a strange-shaped rock on the horizon, inspecting caves and galleries, getting himself into mischief. He was a good boy. In a kinder world he would have been destined for great things.” The man’s face darkened. “If those demons have got him, you let me speak to him. I’ll put him straight. It’s no adventure going back to Providence, it’s slavery!”
“It’s all right,” Deborah said gently. “He’s beyond the reach of any demon now.”