Pinpricks of awareness creep in, clustering together in nodes, their tendrils stretching out to form a web of half-consciousness. Tarn is neither asleep nor awake but is in the place in-between, his mind caressed by a guiding hand which massages the pathways down which his thoughts travel. He cannot remember when he began having these dreams, much as a child cannot recall the moment they were able to use language, or to walk unaided.
He floats in the nothingness of the void, wondering what it will bring him this time. A part of his memory recalls that his body lies in a cell, that he is captured and imprisoned once more, the escape having been for nought. He thinks that staying asleep would be best, so that he never needed to return to the harshness of reality.
Then the hand reaches out, slender, long-fingered, delicate, and beckons him. The mottled skin hints at ages having passed, but as always it remains disembodied, a hand floating in space with no bearer.
The words come, his understanding of them sudden and inexplicable.
He would wake, later, able to use those words. The guards in the machine rooms never understood his capacity for language; they tried to suppress it and punished him for his ability to speak, but Tarn had practised on his own, in his head, and while laying in his sleeping hole. Sometimes he'd shared a word with one of the other workers, but had to be careful as he didn't want to get them into trouble.
He finds himself standing in snow. A staircase rises from the ground, spiralling up and up into the clouds. It seems normal, as such things do in a dreamscape. Tarn takes the rail in one hand and begins to climb.
"Our connection is stronger now," comes her voice, reverberating on the wind. "You are becoming aware of me. We are no longer separated by rock and earth."
Tarn continues to climb the winding stairs.
"Our link was only intended to grant me your sight," she speaks, "but something unexpected occurred. There was a feedback loop. The source acts as a conduit. I did not predict this."
He passes into cloud, shifting patterns of mist drifting past as he ascends.
"Look around you, Tarn, and learn."
The clouds disperse, revealing a landscape laid out below, a huge, oval valley ringed by mountains with rivers dividing the land into quarters, converging on the centre where a city rose up, the towers of a palace stretching towards the sky. Though masked by natural undulations of the land, and by the obfuscations of lakes and rivers and forests, from this height it is clear to see that the entire valley is gently concave, save for the prominence at its centre.
His attention is drawn to the northern mountains, beyond which is thick, rolling, low-level cloud, sitting gently above the world like a comforting blanket. There is an illumination and a shadow within the clouds, indistinct, as if something huge lay crouched and slumbering out of sight.
"Find me," she says. "I must go now, so that we are not detected."
The vision disperses, disappearing line-by-line, and he feels drawn back into the void, his senses shutting off one-by-one, until he is once more, quite simply, asleep.
It was impossible for Tarn to know how much time had passed, or indeed how much sleep he had managed before his eyes opened and he found himself still within the confines of the cell. As he blinked and his sight came into focus, he discovered the man, Fenris he'd called himself, sat on a stool on the other side of the bars.
As Tarn sat up, he was only distantly aware of the buzzing in his head. It was the same every time after he saw her, and he had become used to the irritation, which faded after no more than an hour. By the time the distraction subsided, he would know new words and places and ideas. That was how it always worked.
"Welcome back," the old man said.
Tarn couldn't understand what the man wanted. At first he'd thought he was the same as the others, the ones who had murdered his new family back at the tavern, but since then the man had softened and even been kind - at least when nobody else was nearby. He became harder, meaner, when the killer girl returned, as if he was trying to impress her. When they were alone, the man sat outside the cage and asked questions. Perhaps he'd let Tarn stay, rather than taking him back to the machine rooms. Living in the cell wasn't quite what he'd imagined but it was still better than working the machines. The cell was warm, if damp, and seemed safe.
"What do you want?" the man asked.
It felt like a trick. Tarn said nothing and stared back at the man, making sure his face was neither sad or happy or anything in-between.
"It's just you and me in here today," the man said. "I'm asking you a genuine question. What do you want?"
"To stay here," Tarn said, after a pause.
The man frowned, then smiled and shook his head slightly. "Why would you want to stay in this dirty jail cell?"
"There are safer places."
"And not safer places."
Nodding, the man smiled again. "That is true."
"Talk," Tarn said, pointing a finger first at himself, then at Fenris.
"You want us to talk?"
Tarn stuck his tongue out, licked his lips thoughtfully, then tried again. "We always talk."
Faint realisation spread across the man's face. "You want to stay because we talk?"
Grinning, Tarn nodded. He was used to being punished for speaking. That's what had been so exciting about Wide Riley and the others - they'd wanted him to talk, and asked him questions, and wanted to hear what he had to say. Tarn wasn't sure how long ago he had been taken from the tavern but he missed his time there terribly. He would go back, except he knew that nobody was there anymore. None of his friends.
"Let me phrase it another way," the man said. "If you could go anywhere, of your own choice, where would you go?"
"Away from here," Tarn said, without hesitation. "To the north."
That caught the man's interest, clearly. "Why the north? I'm surprised you know what 'north' means."
"That way," Tarn said, pointing a finger towards one of the walls. The other man stared in the indicated direction, then looked around, up and down the corridor, as if getting his bearings, then he laughed quietly. "You think I'm silly," Tarn said.
"No!" Fenris said, more loudly than perhaps he'd intended. "No, of all things, I do not think you silly. What do you think you'll find to the north?"
Tarn shrugged. "She told me to go that way."
Getting up from the stool, Fenris leaned towards the gaps in the bars. "The north beckons to us all, it would seem," he muttered. "Keep up your strength, boy," he said. "I will have someone bring you food."
And with that, he was gone, disappeared down the length of the corridor. Tarn didn't understand, but then that wasn't an unusual state of affairs for him. He looked down at the dust on the floor of the cell, where he must have scrawled a pattern on the floor with his fingers while asleep.
Where the dirt and dust had been moved about, there was a crude drawing of a hand, with two circles surrounding it.
YOU ARE READING
The Mechanical CrownFantasy
An explorer, a princess, a slave and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and romance. When Tranton Seldon becomes the first to cross the mountains in hundreds of years...