Extract from The Margrave

The Margrave 2001

This was wrong. Something was wrong. He had controlled the Ride, the first mad headlong flight of his tumbling soul. He had seen, in the misty distance, the Great Tree, rising over the barren plain. For hours, it seemed, he had been stumbling towards it, over this endless scorching desert, where nothing grew, where tiny red lizards ran into holes and the unbearable sands blistered his bare feet. But the Tree was no nearer. If anything it seemed further than when he had started, and the sting of flies was tormenting him, and the pain in his chest hurt so much he had had to stop, crouching, reckless with thirst.

And now, someone was behind him. Standing. A shadow on the sand, long and dark, a cool shade. He wanted to crawl into its darkness. But he kept still, and didn’t look round.

“Are you hot?” a voice asked gently.

He nodded.

“Thirsty?” It was a voice of hisses and crackles; sounds that were dry and scratchy, as if the desert spoke. A croak was all he could make in reply.

“You could go back. Going back would be the wise thing to do.”

“No.” His tongue was swollen. It was hard to swallow. “I have to go on.”

“Then you need this.” A hand reached over his shoulder, a gloved hand, holding a small gilt cup like the one he had drunk from once on Sarres. He grasped after it desperately but as he took the cup the glove came too, and he saw the hand. It had seven fingers. Each was long and clawed, with tiny iridescent scales. He turned, instantly. No one was there.

All around him the desert burned, an emptiness of rock, shimmering. It took him a long time, a bitter struggle, before he pured the cup of clear water away into the sand.

It was raining. The rain came from nowhere; he had barely noticed, as he trudged, how the skies had grown dark with cloud, but now it thundered, and he looked up suddenly, and great drops of water began to fall, plopping into tiny craters in the sand. He laughed, and stumbled into a run, head up, and the rain crashed on him; in an instant it had soaked him and he was drinking it, scooping it up from the flooding streambeds where it ran and gathered in gullies, splashed down rockfalls. Animals came from caves and cracks and holes, all around him; warthogs and nightcats and candorils and zabrays; they crowded the edges of the flooding streams, drinking thirstily, and tiny snakes burrowed out of the mud and launched themselves into the gushing brown water.

Raffi kneeled and drank. This was better. He had passed some test, done something right. Maybe that had been the Plain of Hunger and he had crossed it. He felt so elated he wanted to shout.

And in that moment, he saw Flain.

The Maker was far off, on the opposite side of the stream, standing under the trees at the edge of a great forest. He was tiny in the distance, but Raffi knew him at once, his coat of stars, the darkness of his hair.

“Flain,” he breathed, “Wait for me”

For a second, Flain looked at him. Then he turned and strode in among the trees.

“Wait!” Raffi struggled after him, but the animals were a herd now, mad for water, a gathering host. More and more of every species slithered and galloped down to the flood, and he had to push and shove through the snuffling, yelping, barking, hissing crowd. Great leathery creatures put their heads down and threatened him; he dodged unicorns and pale striped antelopes with twisted horns; snapping avancs menaced him at knee-height. “Flain!” he yelled, and his cry startled birds, flocks of white cranes, into the sky.

The stink and noise were unbearable; he pushed his way out and took one step into the swift, plunging river.