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Ephemeral: Chapter 34
The term, “bridge,” was a generous title given to the sagging ropes barely supporting an uneven distribution of weathered boards across the chasm between the Silva forest and Silex quarry. Most of the thin boards had moss growing on them, and several had given up their supportive roles altogether. Clara's internal red flags waved frantically.
“Better dismount here,” Chaska said as he slid off his saddle. “I don’t think that thing will hold a horse.”
“No kidding,” Clara said as she followed suit. “I'd have more confidence in a spider’s web.”
“The new bridge is unfortunately a nine degree ride from here, and you two don't have that kind of time,” Chaska said. “You can give me your horses' reins.”
“You’re not coming with us?” Clara asked, suddenly feeling uncertain. “What about the Omnia stone?”
“With the drone, I'll still have eyes on it. If it gets confiscated, I’ll pick it up on its way back to the city.”
“And if Raven decides to treasure it in her armed retinue?” Aaric asked.
“I’ve got a backup plan.” He smiled briefly. “You two better get going. Elpis is going down, and you’ll need the light to keep your footing.”
The end of the bridge lay anchored to a boulder as large as a living room just beyond the trees. Clara climbed it, with Aaric clamoring up a few moments after. Clara took a long look at the river and rocks below and the wispy bridge swaying in the wind. She trembled as she realized her fear of heights was inversely related to the bridge's sturdiness. This was not at all like walking atop the suspended Silvan boardwalks back on the mountain; this was basically walking a tightrope.
Aaric put his hand on Clara’s shoulder. “Why don't I go first? If it can hold me, it’ll hold you.”
“Thanks,” Clara said hurriedly and she crouched against the boulder's reassuring bulk.
Aaric stepped in front of her, gripping the two weathered ropes in his hands. Then he began that side-to-side shifting gait carefully from one board to the other. Clara watched with her heart in her throat as each board creaked noisily.
“They can’t hear us on the other side of the canyon, can they?” Clara asked Chaska.
“I doubt it, not with the natural din of the crowd. You should start crossing.”
Clara looked down at him with wide eyes. “Shouldn’t I wait for Aaric to finish first?”
“You'll run out of time. Raven's nearly there,” he held up his armband's screen. “That bridge is at least a hundred yards long. And Aaric’s only completed about ten …”
At that moment, they heard a snapping sound and turned just in time to see Aaric’s longer leg plunge through a board, the wooden fragments falling so far below they couldn’t hear their splash. Clara’s heart practically stopped. Aaric still grasped the ropes with his hands and strained to pull his fallen leg up. He struggled back to an upright position, then called over his shoulder. “Don’t step on that one.”
Clara’s chest hurt; she hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath. She exhaled and called, “Aaric! We’re running out of time. I’m coming after you!”
This is suicide! Clara thought as she reached out for the ropes, but there was nothing for it. She took a couple big breaths to psych herself up, and stepped onto the first board. The instant she left the boulder, she became hyper-aware of the least breeze which rocked the bridge. She white-knuckled the ropes and studied each plank before putting her weight on it. As such, she could not avoid seeing the valley beneath her. In normal circumstances, the canyon with its rugged rocks and graceful river below would have been a lovely sight. But seeing such beauty through a dry-rotted frame tainted the overall vista.
Suddenly, Clara heard a frightful popping sound and felt the taut rope in her right hand go slack. She yelped in surprise and compensated for the sagging right side by leaning far to the left; this sent the whole structure swaying dangerously, although the right rope did not entirely fall.
“Guys!” Chaska called through clenched teeth behind them.
Clara turned to see Chaska straining with all his might as he grasped the right rope in his hands and leaned back with his foot braced against a tree trunk. “Run! I can’t hold it for long!”
At this, Aaric shot forward and practically leapt over the boards in his scramble toward the other end.
Still shaking, Clara made slower progress. She hobbled from one board to the next, with a sinking feeling growing in her stomach. I'm not going to make it! She heard Chaska mutter an oath; then the right side of the bridge collapsed. This caused the whole bridge to lean perpendicularly to the ground. Clara and Aaric wrapped their legs around some boards and tried to remember how to breathe as the rope Chaska had had in his hands dangled in the wind below them. A black bird cawed from overhead; an unsettling omen.
“I’m sorry!” Chaska called. “I couldn’t hold it any longer!”
Aaric looked at the ledge ahead. It was only about ten yards away. He looked behind at Clara's pale face about twenty yards back and mere inches from panic. Then he got an idea. He called back to Chaska. “Cut the other rope!” he ordered.
“What?!” Chaska asked, mouth agape.
“No!” Clara shrieked. “We’ll fall!”
“Not if you hang on with all your might,” Aaric said over his shoulder. “And you have more strength than you realize.” Aaric looked back to the boulder. “Cut it, Chaska! And God be with us!”
“Wait!” Clara pleaded. “I’m not ready for this!” But then she felt that familiar presence again.
Don't worry. I have you.
Still trembling, Clara wrapped her legs around the thickest board she could find and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Here goes!” Chaska cut the rope.
Clara felt the rope give way behind her and could not help screaming as she felt herself swinging down, down, down toward the cliff wall. She braced for a collision. But before she smacked into anything, her arc slowed, paused, and then started swaying backward. She held onto the ropes for dear life and felt herself sway back and forth, back and forth, until she hung vertically underneath the ledge. The bridge now resembled a wide rope ladder.
Aaric looked down at Clara. “You okay?”
Clara nodded with a shudder and clung to the ropes as her literal lifeline.
“I’ll get up first and pull you after me. Hang tight!”
Just breathe, Clara.
Clara shut her eyes and focused on inhaling and exhaling as the rope swayed and twitched with Aaric’s successive steps up the bridge-now-turned-ladder. Less than a degree later, he hauled up the rope with an up-a-yard, down-an-inch, up-a-yard, down-an-inch rhythm. She did not dare look up or open her eyes for fear of spoiling the progress. And when she felt she could not stand the inch-worm journey any longer, she felt Aaric’s strong arms grasp her own and pull her close.
Aaric held her quietly against his heaving chest until she stopped shaking.
After recovering from their dicey crossing over the bridge, Aaric and Clara snuck up to a rocky outcropping near the edge of the crowd and peeked around a boulder to view the scene. Elpis now touched the horizon, sending its last golden rays over the land. But Mars hill shrouded the peoples in shadow. The metal stage and broadcasting screens stood about three hundred yards from their position while the segregated sea of humanity stood elbow to to elbow before it guarded by silent sentries. The soldiers' staffs crackled with blue electricity. Their black visors made them look like soulless machines. Those in the younger crowd whimpered and gazed longingly past the row of guards separating them from their parents and grandparents. By contrast, many of the elderly held their heads high or bowed in prayer as they waited for Her Worship to determine their fate.
While Commander Ballitor droned through an amplifier onstage, Raven sat proudly on Captain Karnak's throne. Clara hardly recognized her. She'd chopped her black braid in favor of a close-cropped jagged cut. She'd also traded her trim business suit for an edgy black ensemble; her top's low neckline prominently displayed the ruby-red Fire Stone. Commander Ballitor handed the amplifier to the new Silexian leader.
Raven rose languidly from her seat and smiled at the younger crowd right before the stage. “My dear subjects,” she cooed from the raised platform, “do not be frightened. Today is a day for celebration! I have not come to enslave you but to set you free! Free from the generational shackles you've worn so long, you no longer see. Tell me, is it right for the old to prey upon the young? For the weak to live off the strong? For those who contribute nothing to society to consume most of its resources?”
An uneasy murmur permeated the younger crowd as the elderly looked on.
The Fire Stone glowed like a hot coal against Raven's breast as she continued, “Things were similar on Earth, once. The old basked in idleness for their last decades by living off the backs of their children and grandchildren, threatening to disinherit them if they refused to honor their wishes. People sacrificed their finances, their careers, and their dreams for menial work without pay as they slaved for the aged.”
Several young people turned and eyed the elderly with suspicion.
Raven smiled, pleased to see her persuasive powers working. “For generations, your elders have drilled into you the importance of family duty and social obligation only to secure their own comfort. On my home planet – your mother planet – we call such creatures parasites. Parasitism is slavery at the most basic level. And today, I am setting you free.”
Clara glanced at the sky. It was twilight, and the northern clouds gathered darkly en mass. But these were not yet sufficient to shield Clara and Aaric from the soldiers' eyes. She shook her head. “We don't have enough cover to reach the younger crowd, but we're running out of time ...”
“Raven Ulric of Earth!” shouted a man who'd climbed onto a flat stone amid the elderly. “You have no authority here!”
“It’s Governor Solidus!” Aaric said to Clara.
Clara watched as the Silexian official stood tall and solemn, his salt and pepper brows knit over his nose. “You may come from our mother planet,” he called to Raven, “but you know nothing of freedom! Instead, you malign our citizens, mock our values, and murdered your predecessor! Those who mistreat the weak forget their Maker and will be held accountable. You have deceived yourself and coerced others through force! You are no liberator – you're a tyrant. And I've read Earth's history – tyrants never endure.”
At this pronouncement, the guards closest to the older crowd drew their staffs into attack position. Their staffs hummed in readiness to strike. Raven smiled, bemused.
Clara feared for the brave governor.
“This is our chance!” Aaric urged in her ear. “No one will notice us if we go slowly!”
Clara rose from her crouched position behind the rock and restrained her desire to dash to the nearest boulder beside the younger crowd. Slow down, Clara! Running will only draw attention! Beads of sweat dotted her forehead despite her measured pace outside the torch-lit perimeter. She stepped carefully past the distracted guards toward the far edge of the younger crowd.
Aaric was about to follow her when another figure joined Governor Solidus on the flat rock, her hair dangling down her back in a thick white braid.
“He speaks the truth!” the older woman shouted.
Aaric paled; it was Mother Alden! Her swollen face had recovered, but she looked thinner and more fragile than he'd remembered – especially compared to the tall governor by her side.
“Men and women of Almitas, of Agilis, listen to me!” Mother Alden pleaded with her hands outstretched toward the young people. “Our ancestors emigrated from Earth because they cherished life in all its stages! We on Elpis 7 have always valued our people regardless of their need. Do not forget your heritage! Do not let your hearts grow calloused!”
Raven's eyes glowed red hot. Then she chuckled. “The manipulation continues,” she said with a careless wave of her hand. “Strike him,” she ordered, pointing to the governor, “then bring her to me.”
The guard nearest Governor Solidus walked closer and whacked him across the jaw with the business end of his staff. The blow sent Solidus sprawling to the ground while another guard grabbed Mother Alden by the elbow and marched her roughly through the dividing line of soldiers to the stage.
Aaric reached for the Omnia hatchet when the guard had first touched his grandmother; he gripped the handle like death. He wanted to slay that man. But he knew he only had one shot; he could not allow his wrath to ruin the mission this time.
With the greatest effort of will, Aaric forced himself to tear his eyes away from Mother Alden. He took a deep breath to quiet his thundering pulse and stole silently from behind the boulder to join Clara, keeping himself beyond the ring of torchlight. The blackening sky now provided more cover, and everyone else was watching the guard drag Mother Alden to the stage.
Clara had watched the scene with downright anxiety. What sort of example would Raven make of Mother Alden? She jumped in surprise when Aaric placed his hand on her shoulder.
“It's just me!” he hissed. “We're close now. Only about a hundred yards away from the younger crowd.”
“What about the guards?” Clara asked, nodding toward the half dozen soldiers standing between the torches. “How do we get closer to the stage?”
Aaric bent down and picked up a round stone. “Remember how we got past the guards by the Silvan woods?”
Clara pursed her lips. “You got blasted.”
Aaric's mouth twitched. “We'll try to avoid that this go round. I'll knock the closest guard out. When his buddy comes running to find out what's wrong, you slip in behind him. Got it?”
Clara shook her jitters from her hands. Even the wind seemed nervous; a chill gust tossed her hair in wild directions. “Yes, I think so. And please don't forget your promise – about Raven.”
Aaric frowned, but nodded. “Godspeed, Clara.”
Mother Alden had now reached the stage. Raven spoke again, her face projected onto the towering big screens. “So, old woman, you believe me to be an impostor and a tyrant?”
The screens displayed Mother Alden's wince at twenty times larger than life.
Clara paused her approach toward the younger crowd to watch.
“Don't you know I could have you executed for your treasonous little speech?”
“I don't doubt it,” Mother Alden said quietly.
Raven smirked. “However, to prove I am not what you say – that I am, in fact, merciful – I will not cut you down. But I will trim that ego of yours. Proditor?” she beckoned to a man standing behind her.
Here, the young Almitian Elder who'd conveniently vanished during Mother Alden's trial and betrayed the Eldership to His Eminence now appeared at Raven's side.
Oh no! Clara hazarded a glance back at Aaric behind the boulder. He looked stern, but motioned for her to keep moving.
“Your Worship?” the former Elder said as he knelt. He did not dare meet Mother Alden's gaze.
“As your new Master, Proditor, I require proof of your good faith.” She reached into her bodice, drew out a six inch sheathed dagger, and handed it to the bewildered Elder.
“Your Worship?” he repeated. He looked at her in curiosity … and dread.
“Unsheathe the knife.”
Proditor obeyed though his fingers trembled. The blade glinted white in the stage lights, and the crowd grew restless.
“Cut off her hair,” Raven commanded.
Clara gasped, then covered her mouth. The guards were watching the stage so intently, they did not notice her. For all his faults, Captain Karnak had never given such a base command.
Proditor swallowed hard. “Her hair, Your Worship? Is that absolutely necessary?”
Raven stood tall. “If you swear allegiance to me, you will cut all ties to your former clan by removing the white symbol of oppression from their heads.”
Proditor stared at the tops of his boots, the short knife shaking in his hands. He had no wish to do such an unholy thing.
“Old woman,” Raven directed with a pointed finger, “kneel before me.”
Mother Alden looked at Proditor with tears in her eyes as she slowly descended onto her arthritic knees with a creak and a pop.
“Get on with it!” Raven said to the former Elder.
With a deep sigh, Proditor stepped toward Mother Alden and reached out to take her long, white braid.
As the reluctant barber slowly brought the edge of the dagger toward the silvered strands, Mother Alden looked up into his face and said, “Elder Proditor of Almitas … I forgive you.”
Proditor stopped. He stared at the old woman kneeling before him, stifled a sob, and dropped the knife. It clattered to the stage as he joined Mother Alden on the stage floor. “I'm so, so sorry, Mother Alden!” he wailed, covering his face with his hands.
Mother Alden reached out her gnarled fingers and brought his head close. His shoulders shuddered as he embraced the old woman.
“You need not be enslaved any longer,” Mother Alden said in his ear.
Proditor nodded, wiped his eyes, got back to his feet, and turned to face Raven. “I cannot do what you ask,” he said. “And furthermore,” he set his jaw resolutely, “I won't.”
Raven shook her head. “In that case,” she said as she bent down to pick up the dagger. “You are nothing but a traitor. And I give you what you deserve.”
Without further warning, Raven plunged the knife deep into Proditor's chest and withdrew it dripping red. His eyes widened in shock and his mouth opened and shut like a beached fish.
Nooo! Clara screamed inside as tears fell down her cheeks. It was too horrible to be real!
“Nooo!” yelled Mother Alden as the Almitian Elder fell to the ground beside her, his arms and legs twitching.
In a move which nearly broke the old woman's neck, Raven yanked Mother Alden's braid taut and sliced it from her head. Then she held up the silvered rope like a trophy to the younger crowd. “Those who would be free, behold the symbol of your liberation! Guards!”
The soldiers stood at attention.
Raven shouted, “Shear the old ones and burn the tresses! We shall destroy their ill-gotten glory in flame!” The Fire Stone writhed red upon her breast as she returned to her throne with an evil smile.
The soldiers separating the young from the old hesitated; they looked to Commander Ballitor onstage for confirmation.
The commander caught Raven's eye and nodded to his troops. These were indeed the orders of their new sovereign, and theirs was not to question but to obey. The soldiers took daggers from their boots and approached the white-haired cohort. Several women screamed as the guards' gloved hands wrenched their heads back to cut off their snowy locks. Old men, helpless to defend their women, stared at the ground in shame as the soldiers sheared off their beards.
Clara felt sick. How can Raven do this? How can she have so much hate? I must get that stone off her before it destroys her soul entirely! In all the commotion, she saw her chance and slipped into the younger crowd as most soldiers joined the others in their brutish task.
For his part, Aaric stood rooted to his place outside the torches. His hatred flared violently. His blood turned to magma in his veins. His arms ached for vengeance; soon his wrath would erupt. He wanted to kill Raven! Kill the guards! Kill all the men in the younger crowd who watched these things and did nothing! The Omnia hatchet handle felt cool in his hot hands. But something in his spirit forbid him from letting it fly:
Aaric grit his teeth. Do You not see this evil?!
Don't let it conquer you. It is mine to repay.
The flames in Aaric's soul died down a tad, though the dehumanizing scene threatened to break his heart. Anguished, he turned away and searched for Clara, but she had already disappeared into the younger crowd.
Back onstage, Mother Alden hovered over Proditor with one hand on his bleeding chest and the other grasping his cold fingers. He spasmed once more gasping for breath, then lay still.
Raven huffed. “Return the old hag to the others,” she ordered. “And someone get that body off my stage.”
“Yes, Your Worship.”
Before she knew what was happening, Mother Alden felt herself hoisted to her feet. The guard from earlier pulled her roughly by the arm down the stage and through the younger crowd. Some adolescents jeered as she hobbled past, pointing at her cropped white hair. Others watched in silence with tear-streaked faces.
Before long, all the senior citizens resembled a ragged flock of rudely-shorn sheep. Their snow-white locks lay in a great pile between the two crowds. Raven ordered the guards to torch the hair. The closest soldier aimed his humming staff at the haybale-sized target. It only took one blue pulse to set the entire thing ablaze. A strong wind blew the stench over the tribes, making people cough and pinch their noses. In less than two degrees, every silvered strand had vanished in smoke, leaving nothing but a blackened patch of smoldering soil behind.
By this time, Clara had wound her way through the younger group until she stood in front of Raven, a mere ten feet or so from the stage. She had no plan, but still hoped against hope Aaric would be able to keep his word – even in the gathering storm.
Raven stood. “And now, my subjects,” she announced through her amplifier, “the moment of your liberation has arrived! We shall purge our land from oppression once and for all! Witness justice for those who would enslave you for their own comfort! Commander Ballitor,” she said, “have your men escort the enemy over the cliff!”
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