Michael Oakes is reborn living two lives. Journeying between his earthly life and a wild and dangerous world of brave warriors, hideous monsters, and highly mysterious wolves, he encounters helpers as well as fearsome enemies. What are the wolves not telling him?
“No, nothing, not a sign … and no next of kin, yes, that’s what I was saying to him, it’ll be down to us.”
There had been light and darkness. Now there was darkness, nothing but darkness … oh, yes, and the voices.
Spinning in the darkness, jumbled memories, a name, Michael. A woman saying the name over and over; a young voice becoming old. ‘Michael, why so sad? Tell Mother what’s wrong.’ But Mother was dead.
“I sense you hear me, Stranger. There is life in you yet, even though Cathal and his thugs would have left you for the scuttling beetles. Yes, there’s life in you, but do you want to live it? That’s the question.”
Making sense of the twisting whirlwind that was his thoughts, took time, he supposed. He was unaware of time outside himself. Within the darkness, order, of a sort, began to form. And within it two things stood out, a returning sense of self,
“There you are, Mr. Oakes, I’ve changed the flowers for you, and let a little light in. That’s an improvement, isn’t it?”
“Dorothy! Matron’s after you for something.”
“Not again. Here finish this bed will you, Shelagh. I’ll be back later, Mr. Oakes.”
“You’re wasting your time with this one, Dorothy.”
“Oh, no, Shelagh, I’m never wasting my time, never.”
He gradually became more attuned to his thoughts. ‘I’m lying down.’ He practiced thinking in short sentences. It gave him focus. ‘I’m lying down. Now; Where? And Why? … and who are those voices I hear?’
“Now. Let’s put you to the test, my friend, let’s see if you want to live. My companion and I have been out in the dark searching for something. Something special, for you, and we found it. Anlithian, the Moon Flower, very rare these days, but very powerful, worth the hunting; well worth it. If this doesn’t call you back, then nothing will.”
Suddenly, where there had been no sense, save for the voices, there was an explosion of sensations. Leading the assault was a smell, an overwhelming, overpowering scent that smashed down the defensive barriers that Michael’s trauma ridden body had erected, like a tidal wave breaking over a wicker fence; a swirling, crashing wave, of perfume and colour, of raw power. It was akin to thick heavy curtains ripped apart by a burst of sunlight, like being beaten about the face with roses and dahlias, pleasure and pain, purest sensation.
And the blaze of colour, the violence of it all, sent shockwaves through every fibre of his being. His mind sprang instantly from numbed stumbling confusion to pulse-racing alertness. If he had been able to move he would have been sitting bolt upright.
He was fully aware now of the choice. He had been dying. He now chose life.
“You see! That’s what I was talking about. There, just after midnight, all the needles must have gone mad. It’s all over the place, look at it.”
“Yes, yes, I can see it, but it still doesn’t prove anything, Dorothy. This could have been an electrical surge, in the monitor. It must have been. I can’t see what else could have done it. I mean, look at it, all the needles have jumped wildly at the same moment. I’ve never seen that happen before.”
“Exactly, Sister, that’s why we have to tell Doctor Etienne, before he discusses Mr. Oakes with the board tomorrow.”
“No, Dorothy, not yet. You know it doesn’t prove anything; one flicker, in six months …”
“Flicker! I don’t call that a flicker! It’s more, I know it is …”
‘Six months! I’ve been lying here for six months! Dying slowly, and I did not know. Six months.’
“Ah, that shook you, didn’t it. What a flower! Blooms in the moonlight, quiet and still. You have to know where she’s hiding; but what a gift of the Powers she is. Speak her true name as you crush her petals into water from the mountains, pure as tears of the Avali themselves, and what power she has. Almost made me feel young again, and that takes some doing. Ha! I heard that growl old friend. I know exactly how old I am, thank you, I don’t need reminding.
As for you, stranger, now we shall see if I was right, or if my six weeks labour have been for nothing.”
‘Six weeks? What was he talking about?’ The woman’s voice, the nurse, he assumed, had said six months. And now, with the new clarity of thought that the scented eruption had brought about, Michael Oakes began to feel a new confusion; not one of darkness and spinning disjointed thoughts, but one of unanswered, unanswerable questions.
He was lying in a hospital bed, of that now he was sure.
The voices he had been hearing were those who had him in their care. Dorothy, the nurse, the most familiar of the female voices; although there had been others, he liked her voice. It was deep and rich, a natural carer, honest and probably quick to smile. Shelagh, a harder older voice that spoke of missed opportunity and regret, a hint of Ireland lurked in her tone, along with a tiredness that never left her. There had been others in the background, less easily distinguished. And today the woman with a harsh short-tempered voice, who Dorothy had called “Sister”.
Then there was the male voice – the old man, who spoke of him as “Stranger”. Who was he? he didn’t fit in. He was no doctor. And yet … he had been caring for him too. He had brought the flower, the … what had he called it … the Anlithian … that had brought him back from what must have been the brink of death. His voice was old, very old. It was like crisp leaves rustling in a breeze. There was a dryness, close to desiccation in it, but there was more too; a hint of knowledge of things forgotten, a suggestion of dormant power, old strength that might be summoned at need; a sense of mystery, and also deep down, something that made Michael think unaccountably of candles and incense.
He had said six weeks. The harsh-voiced woman, “Sister”, had said six months! They couldn’t both be right. Nor did he think the old man would be working for the NHS. What was going on?
Michael struggled to fit things together. Bits of his memory seemed to be beginning to function. But much of his life before … whatever had happened was shrouded in fog. The trauma he had suffered was obviously to blame. Well, he would just have to piece his memories together slowly. He knew his name and he knew he was 44 and he knew he was alive, but it appeared that, at present, he was the only one who did.
“Well, how are we today. Your skin looks less pallid, and that’s a good sign. At least the scarids will leave you alone, now. It’s amazing how long they will hang around waiting and hoping for a free meal. Sorry to disappoint you, my friends, he’s on the mend. pretty soon he’ll start to feel his limbs again and that’s when it’s going to get painful for a while. Still, ‘no fresh air for those who don’t climb the mountain’, as they say. Here let’s bathe your arms again; those scars need attention.”
For the first time, in however long it had actually been, Michael felt something other than the pain, which, through constancy, had become so much background noise. A warmth on his right arm, a soothing strength flowing along the length of his forearm. Someone was washing his arm, with a surprising gentleness. A smell there was also, an aromatic richness, mossy, dark, like tree bark.
“This moss will help the scars to heal, and the oil of the Vernat Tree gives warmth to the tired muscles. The bark makes a very palatable drink, if you like a drink that tastes of tree bark that is. I prefer Viggan myself.” A chuckle, crackling like flame amongst the tinder, broke from his lips. “You don’t have to mutter like that, I can hear your thoughts, Sylvan. You think I drink too much of it, don’t you? Well, maybe I do, and maybe I don’t, but it’s not killed me yet, so it’s hardly likely to start doing so now.”
‘Sylvan? Who is Sylvan? Everything about him, everything he says, is so strange. Who is he?’ Michael’s confusion was compounded, even more by the growing realisation that sensation was coming back to his body, along with, as this strange old man had warned, renewed pain.
He was now able to distinguish sleeping from waking, although this did nothing to help his confused state of mind, in fact it made it worse. He had assumed, hoped, that once he could tell consciousness from sleep, that that would solve the mystery. The strange old man, with his growling friend, who spoke of plants with special powers, was obviously a dream. It had to be; a fantasy born of post-traumatic stress and the painkilling drugs; but no, when he slept, he slept. No dreams came as yet. When he was awake? Was he awake? – to Dorothy and Shelagh, to the dry voice of the old man. He seemed to be awake to both of them, but that was not possible.
He tried to put it from his mind for a while and concentrate on trying to move his hand. He had chosen his right to live. It seemed an obvious choice. He wanted someone to see a response for their attentive care, more than just a flicker on a needle. That could be ignored. He wanted to move.
He focused all his attention on his fingers. Sense them, he told himself, picture their length, their joints, their bony awkwardness. He caught himself thinking. ‘What the hell happened to me that I’m so messed up?’ No, he must concentrate, back to those fingers. ‘I am going to curl my fingers, ball my fist. I am going to do it, to show them I’m alive, within this shell of a body’.
He grasped his own hand with his mind, and he began to bend his fingers inwards. Nothing, No, wait! – More struggle, more mental manipulation, more … two fingers screamed a message back along his arm … Okay! We give in, we’ll move, a little, but it’ll cost.
He felt them, actually felt them move towards his palm. He hoped the needles would be buzzing, that someone would notice, before he blacked out. The other two fingers began to curl, just enough, to start his heart racing; he was going to do it. But he could feel darkness coming … then he got his reaction. but not from Dorothy.
“Ah, Sylvan, look our guest has chosen. He struggles to move, see, his fingers curl. Yes! Go on, that’s it! Make your body respond. I was right, Sylvan, he has strength, great strength. Yes, and I sense he may need it.”
Just as Michael lost his battle with the darkness, he was sure he felt a hot breath and then a rough tongue on his hand.
A few memories were beginning to come now in the waking between voices. Rooms, large rooms, with paintings on the walls, long white walls. A Gallery! An Art Gallery. Had he worked in an Art gallery or was he visiting? Then a person beside him, a young woman, long black hair, hanging down loose. Her hands came up to sweep back the jet-black veil, but behind it the face was blurred, indistinct … ‘Think! Remember!’ Suddenly another memory. Another room with long walls, not white but painted, Landscapes? an ominous, dark and stormy sky over mountains, and, below this threatening sky, a vast army. Warriors on foot and mounted; banners and trumpets; swords and spears brandished in defiance towards a … what was that? A castle in a cleft on the mountainside, its black stone rising into huge towers like great jagged teeth … ‘Where was this?’ Another person at his shoulder, hair like gold, braided with ribbons of deepest red, but the face …
“Yes, there, you see, Doctor. There are definite signs that something is going on.”
“Mm … yes, I thought at first you were mistaken, Sister Watkins, but there has definitely been activity here and here; quite remarkable, after such a long time with no response at all.” Michael disliked this Doctor. He had an arrogant autocratic air. “We were close to suspending all treatment, you know.” Michael definitely didn’t like him.
“Yes, Doctor, he’s been purely on maintenance for … let’s see …”
Michael could hear other sounds now, papers being rustled. A trolley moving, crashing against something, the driver using it to open a door; a beeper alert. Footsteps, voices, more doors, more footsteps. He drew back into the room around him, now. He would move with them here, he’d show that doctor!
“Here it is, five weeks, low level maintenance, fluids, monitor … oh, and we withdrew the morphine well before that.”
What? Withdrew the morphine. So, he wasn’t getting any drugs. His mind raced again. The scramble, the confusion, was all trauma, not drugs. What had happened to him? He became angry. He wanted to move to show them, to grab them and say, ‘I’m here and I’m getting better – No thanks to you! No thanks to you,’ so how … ?
“Look, Doctor, his hand, he’s moving his hand, look!”
“Yes, yes, I can see; it’s quite amazing. I wonder what sparked this revival. He was barely alive. Well, it seems Nurse Gibson was right after all, Sister. I think we should reinstate a progressive programme, perhaps someone from physiotherapy could come up and we could talk about it this afternoon?”
“Yes, Doctor I’ll put a team together for a meeting …”
Michael’s head was spinning. The hospital staff had thought him beyond hope, except Dorothy, just maintaining basic functions, not trying to heal.
But the old man, he had brought him back; was healing him. How? This made even less sense. If he existed, how was he coming to the hospital, unnoticed, to administer his herbs, bathe his wounds? It made no sense at all.
He must listen carefully behind his voice. Behind the other sounds, he could hear the hospital. Perhaps he came at night. There would be sounds. Hospitals are never quiet and outside he should be able to hear traffic. He had been to the hospital to visit … his mother, there had been traffic noise constantly through the open window … why had he remembered that suddenly?
Activity interrupted his thoughts; the deep rich tones of Dorothy, happy and with just a hint of ‘didn’t I tell them’ in her voice.
“Well, well, Mr. Oakes,” she was busying herself around the bed. “So, we are back with the living. I knew you were there, deep down. I can always tell. Now we can start to help you properly again. It won’t be long before we can have those bandages off and we’ll know if you’re ever going to be able to see my gorgeous face, won’t we.”
She laughed, a warm honest laugh. It was a sound that filled Michael with emotion. He was alive and now they knew. He wanted to cry, wanted to laugh with her. He wanted to reach out from the darkness and hold another to him, make contact. He ached with a sudden gaping need. The empty places in him wept for losses he could not remember, he yearned for the darkness to end and the light of that laughter to flood over him. Dorothy was holding his left arm, he felt a needle, then he drifted into sleep.
More activity woke him; a soft thudding, a steady pounding and then grinding. Thud, thud, thud and then grind, and smells again; grass perhaps, newly cut and gathered a scent of meadows, Daisies, Sweet William and a strong smell. It reminded him of pulling dandelions from his Mother’s lawn … and bread, fresh bread. Now, as he concentrated, numerous aromas assailed his nostrils; candles, straw, old clothes, a hint of smoking logs, and a strong musky animal smell that hung in the air. He didn’t recognise it.
‘Sounds. Listen for sounds.’ This was the old man again, ‘concentrate!’ The mysterious healer, if that was what he was, he guessed, was working with his plants; preparing something with a pestle and mortar. He was also, it seemed, preparing food. There was the smell of bread and … vegetables of some kind? He heard a knife cutting onto stone. ‘Listen, beyond. Yes, there, other sounds,’ a fire, old logs crackling quietly. A candle guttered in a breeze.
Further, beyond that, he heard … water? running water, a stream. No, he sensed it was stronger than that. It was louder, a river running rapidly over rocks, splashing into a pool. He heard a piercing cry, a hawk, perhaps, high up; but no traffic, no other background noise. It reminded him of the mountains, where he had walked as a boy, scrambling over rocks, to see the plains from high up … When had he ever done that?
He was suddenly aware of hands near his face. He could feel his face, he realised. He was sure that he hadn’t been able to before. The hands were forcing something between his lips, a liquid. It stung his mouth and burned his throat, but he swallowed instinctively. Had the old man been doing this all the time? Was he at last recovering his senses, due to this man and his medicines?
“I know, I know, tastes pretty foul,” the crackly voice was muttering, “but you won’t be ready for real food for a while yet. Pulped Clawflower leaves have sustained many a wounded man crawling away from a battle, so just forget the taste and feel it doing you good.”
The pulped leaves had slipped down his gullet and reached his stomach. They had tasted bad, the old man was right, bitter and wholly strange, or was it? He felt as if he remembered it from somewhere, and the warmth spreading through every part of him. The mix of memory and returning sensations added doubt to his confusion. None of this could be true. He needed answers. There was no sanity in it, none at all. The spreading effect of the Clawflower reached his brain and he sank into sleep.
And dreamed …
He stood on a path in a forest. Dappled light illuminated a well-used, well-trodden path. The streaks of sunlight floated in the air like streamers of liquid gold, hanging down between the rich dark brown of the bark of the trees; trees of such height and girth, monstrous, towering above him. He sought the tops with his gaze and saw only a great canopy of green slashed with gold. He returned his gaze to the path and followed its way between the trees. It curved gently to the left some thirty metres on. Beyond that he couldn’t see.
He began to walk and realised he was barefoot. He looked down and saw that he wore a robe of green patterned with oak leaves. Around his waist was a belt of plaited green silk. None of this seemed strange to him and he let his feet follow the path between the trees. A little way beyond the curve in the path it reached a clearing, a circular grove. The canopy of leaf and branch reached across from all sides. Despite this, more light reached into the grove than gained the forest floor. This was most true at the centre of the circular clearing, where a woman stood.
Michael had never seen anyone like her before, in dreaming or waking, but he knew instantly that he would never forget this vision. She was tall and slender. Her long glossy nut-brown hair fell loose around her shoulders and across her gown, which was created from living ivy. It grew up and around her, twisting and flowing, continuously following the contours of her body. He sensed that, even though it sprung from the ground, it would move with her should she choose to move. About her head was a crown of white and yellow flowers, similarly alive and twining themselves in and out of the woman’s hair. Her face was beauty and power, stern and terrible, a face to adore, worship, love and fear. Within her eyes of green a fire smouldered. Not a fire to consume, to burn, but a fire to grow, to forge new life in the heat of her will. Michael felt the ground tremble beneath him, the grass, the clover, the soil itself, wanted to burst forth into frantic growth at her presence.