The Court of Minos
Large wet snowflakes span from the sky as the three walkers descended from the summit. A gentle updraught from the plain below swirled the white flakes in a random dance, obscuring the view and sticking shiny wet clumps of snow to their clothes. Fulgar led them down a steep path that ran along the base of a peak to their right. All around this side of the mountain were signs that others had been in the area recently. Footprints lay in the deep snow, mostly in trails up and down the mountain from the villages below. Some were of treaded boots, some just elongated ovals of homemade sandals, but some showed the distinctive pattern of six skeletal toes.
Out of the swirling snow, a huge metal door leading into the side of the mountain appeared. In front of the door the footprints merged, wearing through the wet snow and bringing mud to the surface.
Fulgar hammered on the door. The sound of muffled voices and light footsteps could just be heard within. David looked round over the valley below. A movement beyond a dark slab of rock some way down the mountain caught his eye. Focussing into the growing gloom, he saw the telltale glint of a polished visor as the lone Cerberite drone stared back up at him. The drone turned and continued its journey down the mountain.
A flap in the middle of the door opened and a small, ancient face appeared.
‘Mr Fulgar!’ a thin voice said. Beady eyes flicked over Sarah and David suspiciously. ‘Why are you here?’
‘We fancied a nice walk, you fool! Let us in!’ He hammered on the door again and the flap snapped shut. More footsteps could be heard, then the door creaked slowly open. Fulgar shoved the door, sending the tiny doorman scurrying down the corridor. He led his two prisoners into a long, high passageway, lit by tall oil lamps on the walls. A series of polished wooden doors stretched out along each wall. Out of one of the doors two more tiny old servants appeared.
‘Tell Minos I’m here!’ Fulgar bellowed.
Two of the servants fussed around the new arrivals, one taking the blankets from David and Sarah, the other tugging at Fulgar’s fur overcoat. Fulgar stopped and brushed him away, then unbuttoned the coat, took the water flask from its shoulder harness and flung them at the man.
‘Shall I take them to the ante-room, sir?’ the man enquired, scooping up Fulgar’s coat and bottle.
‘Yes, I’ve got business to attend to. You two, go with this maggot. I’ll be back for you soon.’
Without even looking at them, he marched down the corridor into a large lobby beyond. David and Sarah followed the two other servants along the passageway and through an open door near the end.
‘Please, wait here. Someone will be back to attend to you shortly.’
The blankets and Fulgar’s cloak were arranged on the floor in one corner with the water bottle on top. Sarah sat down on a high-backed settle, and the servants departed. David paced the room, listened at the door, and watched his travelling companion with barely disguised suspicion. He might not be able to remember why he was here or what he was supposed to be doing, but he was sure it did not include being locked up with someone who might or might not (but probably was) trying to kill him.
‘Sit down,’ Sarah said. ‘Save your energy.’
He did, at the far end of the settle, and turned slightly towards her.
He watched her out of the corner of his eye. She had not made any move on him yet, but he was sure there was a reason the two of them had been left alone together.
What he did not know was that next to him Sarah was thinking exactly the same thing. She had only the vaguest idea who he was too. All the way out of the valley town (whose name she could no longer recall), she had tried to rile Fulgar, tried to get him to lash out. David would either defend her, or stand by. Then she would know whose side he was on. Right now, he was a stranger. She had seen him looking at something on the floor of their sleeping chamber before they left, and the more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that whatever it was it had something to do with why her mind was so blank. He had looked concerned. He had probably dropped some of whatever he and Fulgar had given her to break her mental connection with the outside world.
Problem was, right now, he was all she had.
So they waited. They idled away time which would have afforded them an almost perfect chance for escape by eyeing each other furtively and turning their fear and suspicion inwards rather than outwards. Which, of course, had been Fulgar’s intention.
No one came. Shuffling feet could be heard through the door now and then, but they always passed by. David tried to open the door, thinking they had been forgotten, but it had been locked.
‘Are you hungry?’ Sarah said.
‘Of course. They’ll bring us something eventually.’
‘I’ve got a few walnuts if you want some.’
David looked at the handful of nuts Sarah offered him and shook his head. Something was wrong with them; he remembered an argument, yesterday, by a fountain.
Sarah cracked a nut under her heel and nibbled on the kernel. She smiled a treacherous smile at him, and soon she was cracking a second, then a third. She piled the shells in a neat circle beside her on the settle.
After half a dozen nuts, she leaned back against the corner of the wooden seat. Her eyelids sank closed, and David thought she was drifting off to sleep. Or was she? Surely she had not poisoned herself just to lull him into eating some of the nuts too? What kind of hold did Fulgar have over her?
From his position by the door he tried to see if she was still breathing. It was difficult to be sure; the material of her cardigan had rucked and folded loosely over her chest. He crept over to her and looked into her face. He couldn’t hear breathing. He leaned in close and moved his ear to her mouth.
‘David! What are you doing?’
He stumbled back, away from her. ‘Nothing. I wasn’t doing anything.’
‘It’s coming back. David, the wood, the pod!’
‘The way we got here. You don’t remember, do you?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘It’s like the fog’s clearing in my brain. I can remember arriving in a wood. Before that we were at the university. You took us to Ronson’s lab. Toby was with us…then he disappeared.’
David frowned. It was a good act, but the intensity of it was maybe rather over-played, too dramatic to be wholly convincing.
‘I know what you’re doing,’ he said. ‘You’re right I don’t remember much, but I’ve still got enough of a brain left to know you’re working with Fulgar. You tricked me.’
‘No, David, don’t you see? It was Fulgar who tricked both of us. He must have drugged us to make us forget. He knew we’d never follow him up into the mountains otherwise. You remember Seyyal? She told us not to leave Orbis.’
‘Oh really? So how come your memory’s coming back now?’
‘Yesterday, Fulgar took us to the Dimeninx Fountains? He seemed very keen that we drank only from one side of it.’
‘That must be it. The water from one side makes you forget.’
There was an echo of memory. Drinking from a pool, Sarah gathering nuts from the ground, Fulgar filling the water bottle… from the other side of the fountain.
‘So how have you suddenly remembered?’
‘The nuts. They were growing on a tree on the other side. If one side makes you forget, it makes sense that the other side makes you remember. The nuts must contain a concentrated form of whatever’s in the water. Here, eat some!’
‘No way. If that was true, why don’t I just drink water from Fulgar’s flask? That was filled from the other side of the fountain.’
‘Because he’d know we’ve drunk it. He obviously brought that with him to revive our memories when he chooses. Come on David, please, eat some. We’ve been friends for a long time. Trust me now.’
David looked into those familiar brown eyes. Something even deeper than memory confirmed that this girl had been a part of his life for a very long time; an indistinct tingle reminded him that she was much more than just an accidental travelling companion. Sarah was… what?
Hesitantly he took a walnut. He cracked it open under his shoe and took a bite out of the kernel. It tasted good. He took another one, and another. Soon he too had a small pile of broken shells in front of him on the floor.
A curious sensation crept through him – like a black veil lifting from his mind. He watched Sarah as his mind surrounded her with a context and she became real to him again. The tiny fleck of a white scar, almost hidden beneath her right eyebrow. An indelible mark of a long-ago past.
His mind became clearer and images of the wood, the time machine, and Toby filtered in. Slowly pictures of their journey through the town of Orbis came into focus, as did the warning words of Seyyal.
‘I thought you’d dumped all the nuts,’ he said. ‘Fulgar was furious.’
‘Of course he was. That’s exactly why I didn’t dump them all. If they were important enough for him to draw attention to, they were important enough to keep. I just didn’t know why until I ate some.’
‘But none of this makes any sense,’ David said. ‘Why’s he doing all this?’
‘Because he knows we wouldn’t go along with whatever he’s got planned. He had to be able to control us. If we only know what he chooses to tell us, then he can do what he wants. Question is, what do we do now?’
‘We’ve got to continue to let Fulgar think we can’t remember anything. It’s only temporary. He wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of bringing that water if he didn’t intend to revive us at some point.’
‘Then we need to make sure he can’t.’
‘Exactly.’ David picked up the water flask and examined it. ‘If we empty it, it’ll buy us more time to figure out how we’re going to get out of here.’
‘Wait: you can’t just pour it away. He’d know.’
David studied the flask for a moment.
‘I’ve got an idea. Have you got anything sharp on you?’ Sarah felt her pockets and shook her head.
‘What about that?’
She put her hand to her head where David was looking and unclipped the butterfly hair slide that was still where she had placed it so many hours earlier.
‘That should do it.’ He bent the metal clasp open as far as it would go and knelt on the floor with the flask. ‘Keep your ear to the door. Tell me if you hear anyone.’
As quickly as he could he began to work on the stitching around the bottom of the flask, all the time keeping it inverted to prevent any water leaking out. He worked the stitching loose, but not completely open, so that when the flask burst it would not look as if it had been sabotaged. Next, he turned his attention to the strap. With some effort he loosened all the stitching where the leather strap wrapped round a metal loop at the neck of the flask. Satisfied that the strap was now so weak it would not hold the weight of the bottle on Fulgar’s shoulder, he returned it to the pile of clothes.
‘Just hope that’s enough,’ he said, handing the hair slide back to Sarah. ‘At least he won’t think we had anything to do with it. For now, we continue to make him think we can’t remember anything. Just see what he does.’
As David sat down the bottle began to slip from its precarious position on the pile. He lunged at it and caught it just before it dropped to the floor. He rearranged the blankets and put the bottle back on top.
He was about to return to the bench when his eyes caught something that was out of place, something that would point to interference with Fulgar’s carefully stashed possessions. Poking from a pocket in their captor’s fur overcoat was a yellowed piece of paper.
He had every intention of just returning the paper to Fulgar’s pocket, but it intrigued him in a way he could not quite put his finger on. It was feint-lined paper, ubiquitous in their own world but something he had not seen anywhere here. There was remarkably little written material anywhere outside of the Council offices in Orbis, and what he had seen there was mostly parchment.
Gently he pulled the paper from Fulgar’s pocket. It was old, yellowed and foxed, spattered with dark brown patches and deeply creased. It had been torn from a book – two of its edges were straight, the other two rounded at the corner as if this note had been torn out in haste.
There was writing on the paper and David’s heart seemed to stop in his chest as he held open this ancient fragment to read it.
Meet me in the walls beside the gate, midnight, November 6, 1910. I won’t wait.
That this message was over a hundred years old was strange enough (it accounted for the fragile state of the paper, though not for why Fulgar was carrying it now), but what choked David’s breath in his throat and blurred his vision momentarily was the handwriting.
The low descender of the final stroke on the m; the high looping final stroke of the n; the way the ts were barely crossed and the 6 that was more a spiral than a figure were unmistakable. This was his writing. And he knew where he had seen this paper before: it had been torn from one of Michael Ronson’s notebooks – the books in which they had worked thorough endless maths problems together.
How could this possibly be? He had never met Fulgar before; he knew nothing of any walls or gate; and 1910 was before even his grandparents were born.
What was Fulgar planning? What trick was he weaving around them?
‘What are you doing?’ Sarah said.
‘Nothing.’ He hastily refolded the paper and pushed it deep into Fulgar’s pocket.
Sarah was about to quiz him further when footsteps approached their door. David scuttled back to the bench just as a key turned in the lock.
‘Your trial is set for midnight.’ Fulgar did not come into the room. ‘Minos won’t take long to realise who you are, then we can get going again. It’s just a formality.’ He grinned. ‘I’ll get one of the maggots to bring you some food.’
He retreated from the doorway and locked it behind him.
‘Trial?’ Sarah said when silence had once again filled the corridor outside. ‘What are we supposed to have done?’
‘My guess is it’s just about this prophecy thing. Minos is only going to decide whether we’re, whatever they call them… Travellers, or not.’
‘And are we? Officially, I mean.’
‘We’ll have to wait and see. If Fulgar tries to revive us before the trail, then obviously he wants Minos to say we are. If he doesn’t, then he wants Minos to think we’re just Outlanders. Either way, whatever Fulgar tries to do, we do the opposite. Once the trial’s over, there’s no changing the decision.’
‘I think I see. I’ll just do what you do.’
David was about to mention the strange note when there was a knock at the door, followed by the sound of the key turning. Why anyone would bother to knock on a door that could only be opened from the outside was a mystery.
The door opened slowly and two servants appeared. Each bore a plate of food, which they set on the floor along with two pewter mugs of clean water. There was no cutlery.
They turned to go but Sarah stopped them.
‘Excuse me, could you tell me something? Fulgar’s been in such a good mood all day, until he got here. What is it about this place he hates so much?’
The servants looked at each other, terrified that they had been called on to comment on their tormentor.
‘It’s OK,’ Sarah reassured them, ‘I won’t tell him. I just want to know.’
‘Well, Miss, it’s like this,’ the larger of the two began, nervously twisting the material of his tunic round and round in his stubby fingers. ‘You see, Mr Fulgar used to work… in… The Big City.’ He pointed vaguely in the direction of Dis. ‘He was a big man back in those days, very important.’
‘Fulgar worked in Dis?’ David said.
‘He worked all over. Long time ago, mind, but he was an engineer.’ The servant pronounced the word with three distinct syllables, as if it was a foreign word he did not understand.
‘So what happened?’ Sarah said.
The two servants looked at each other for encouragement before the first continued: ‘Well, it seems Mr Fulgar had something of a falling out with the Barons. We didn’t know, of course, not at all. They brought him here and he had a bit of a falling out with Minos too. Long and the short of it is, he ended up on the Isle of Fortunates.’
‘That’s when he got that terrible scratch on his face,’ the other added.
‘And since then,’ the first servant continued, ‘he’s been a bit hostile. Not just to us; to everyone. I suppose we deserve it. It’s nothing we don’t get from Minos, anyway.’
‘When was this?’ David said.
‘Long while ago now. Before we came here. But we still get the blame. He says it was all down to our four fathers.’
The servant stopped and looked at the floor. His companion just shook his head slightly, but offered no more detail.
‘Thank you,’ Sarah said. Without another word, both servants hurried back out into the corridor. The door was locked once more.
‘I’d love to know what he was up to in Dis,’ David said. ‘And when.’
‘A long time ago by the sound of it.’
‘Yes, but when exactly?’
‘Why the sudden interest?’
‘Because there’s something going on here, something weird.’
‘Really? You think?’
‘No, I mean Fulgar’s not telling us something. How come he suddenly turned up at the Council? No one was expecting him, but I’m certain now that he was expecting us.’
‘Well don’t ask him. Hopefully we won’t ever need to know.’
They ate their meals, grateful that the food was more or less hot this time. The meat was tough and the sauce in which it had been served was lip-numbingly spicy, but the dahl and hunks of unleavened bread mitigated some of its effect. It was like the food of the gods after what they had eaten in the last twenty-four hours.
Fulgar arrived just as they were finishing their meals.
‘Come on. Your trial is about to begin,’ he said.
He picked the flask up by the strap, which stayed firmly attached. Even when he swung it onto his shoulder the stitching did not give way. Only the slightest trickle of water emerged from the loosened seam at the bottom.
‘Minos is a fair Judge,’ he said. ‘Just tell him the truth and you’ll be fine. He’ll release you into my care again and we can move on. It’s just a formality that no Outlanders can pass through the mountains without being seen by him first.’
Fulgar led them back out into the long corridor towards the court, leaving only a faint trail of water droplets in his wake.
YOU ARE READING
A world ravaged by war; humanity on the brink. A stranger comes from another time. Is he the saviour mankind has been waiting for... or something far darker? When an accident with an experimental Time Machine plunges David Tweed into another dimensi...