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CHAPTER 1

It was not his day. An argument with Diane had ended with his hasty exit from the flat pursued by a number of well-thrown objects. Sitting in the bus shelter, the steadily falling rain mirroring his gloom, Des brooded. He mulled for a while over the mystery that is woman, gave a mental shrug and turned his thoughts to figuring out the most tactful way of convincing Diane that he was right.

Des and Diane had just finished university. They lived in a plush city flat furnished in contemporary fashion. That they could afford to do so was down to Dianeís father, a very successful businessman. He owned several dotcoms and had various other business interests. A powerful figure he was well liked and respected throughout the business community. Diane had never known her mother and didnít know whether she was alive or dead. Her father never talked about it, always skilfully changing the subject when it came up. Des had been found abandoned as a new born and adopted after spending a few years in care.

Reclining on the sofa, Diane was regretting her actions and reflecting on her stance in the massive row they had just had. Thinking over what Des had said, it gradually dawned on her that he was probably right. She wished that he would come home so that she could tell him how sorry she was. For one sickening, fleeting moment she thought he might not come back, but she knew better. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid of me!! she thought bitterly. How she could even have thought of broaching the subject of marriage at a time like this baffled her. Desís adoptive parents heading for the divorce courts, his own professed mistrust of the institute of marriage, the list went on - she could not have chosen a worse time. Then sinking so low as to say that he didnít love her. Her eyes strayed to the clock, 14:45, he had been gone almost six hours. A panic began to grow inside her and she wondered again if he would come back. She jumped at the sudden sound of the doorbell. Composing herself, she smoothed her dress, ran her hands through her mussed hair and went to open the door. Framed in the doorway, soaking wet, water seeping from his kinky black hair and running in rivulets down his face to drip off his chin, stood Des.

"Wasnít sure whether I should use my key or not." he said, "Then I figured there was no chance of you throwing anything at me if you were opening the door." Diane just stared at him for a moment then burst into laughter. She threw her arms around his neck and dragged him into the flat. Des began to apologise, but Diane silenced him by pressing her lips to his. They kissed for a long moment and then she playfully pushed him away.

"Ooough youíre all wet, go and get some dry clothes on!" she exclaimed

"Yes maíam" replied Des with a smile. He moved off to the bathroom, dried off and then to the bedroom for a change of clothes. When he was done he returned to the living room and sat down on the sofa next to her.

"Des," she said, her cool emerald eyes looking straight at him, apologetic. "Iím sorry, you were right. Weíre just not ready for marriage yet." Leaning over to kiss her blond head, he replied.

"Apology accepted on condition that you accept mine...it takes two to argue."

"Okay." she said, comfortable in his arms and basking in the warmth of his presence. She could not understand it, but he exuded an aura of sensitivity, passiveness and understanding, though he could occasionally be very trying. At the same time he possessed a vaguely discernible inner strength; it was this strength that had drawn her to him. The strength manifested itself in his quiet determination to succeed. This was most clearly demonstrated by a burning ambition to one day be as successful a businessman as her father. It also manifested itself in his rare flashes of anger when he could be really frightening. Sheíd found out just how frightening a few years back at a bar.

It had been a warm, balmy autumn evening, and they had just been to visit her father. They had decided to have a quick drink before going home. A lounge lizard had targeted her for a sleazy pickup attempt. So when Des went to fetch the drinks he had sidled over and tried to chat her up. Normally this sort of thing never bothered Des. This was because a mutual trust, born of a respect for the otherís attraction to the opposite sex, had grown between them. However when he had returned with the drinks and was about to offer one to the lizard, with his back to Des, the lizard was saying with venom, "...whatís he got that I havenít? Ah youíre an ugly lesbian anyway and heís probably gay!!" Looking over the lizardís shoulder, Diane had seen a cold fury in Desís brown eyes. His face had remained expressionless. A chill running down her spine, she had been grateful that he would never look at her like that. "Yeah, thatís what you are," the lizard had continued, his face contorted with rage, "a pig-ugly lezzie!!!" She had turned back to the lizard and had looked at him very still, her eyes unblinking. The lizardís features had transformed taking on an expression of sheer terror. He had stumbled back into Des whose fists were clenched in anger. The anger had faded as the lizard mumbled an apology and fled. Des had asked her what she had said or done. She had merely shrugged her shoulders enigmatically and the incident was never really discussed.

Since then she had learnt that the rage that dwelt within him would never be unleashed upon anyone he loved or cared about. Even so, it was with uneasiness that she remembered the ice-cool, hard anger in his eyes.
"Hello, anyone home?" queried Des.

"Uh....oh! Sorry I was miles away."

"So I noticed. Anyway listen. I have an idea. Why donít we go out to the country tomorrow? They reckon itís going to clear up for a few days and we can go for a walk in the forest."

"Yeah, thatís a great idea; Iíll ask Dad if we can take one of the soft-top Jags and we can take a picnic with us."

The following day they took the short walk to Dianeís fatherís town house. George Sullivan was a big bear of a man. He had had a long distinguished international rugby career at inside centre. Rugby was a passion shared by all three. Des had played for the University 1st XV and shown some promise as a member of the front row union. However, his less than enthusiastic approach to training meant that he would only ever play socially. Diane? She enjoyed the playersí legs! George was busy with paperwork, but took a moment to have a brief chat with them. Presently, they said their goodbyes and took one of the soft-top Jags from Georgeís cavernous underground garage.

After a few hours drive they arrived at their destination. Des turned the car into one of the numerous parking areas dotting the edge of the forest. He pulled their rucksack from the rear seat, put it on his back and locked the car. Holding hands they set off along the path into the forest. Although it was still a little chilly, the sun was shining brightly in a watery blue sky painted with a few wisps of cloud. The forest wore its spring guise, displaying myriad colours dominated by green. Diane squealed in delight as a red fawn bounded into view. It regarded them for a while and then scampered off to find its mother. There was a freshness and purity in the air brought about by the previous dayís rain. Their surroundings were bright and vivid. They walked in silence, content in one anotherís company and in the beauty and peace all around them.

Suddenly they experienced a wrenching sensation as if they had been grabbed and yanked by some unseen force. Unable to keep their feet, they stumbled forward, fell over and got a dreadful shock. The ground was covered in snow and the air seemed to have grown much colder. Rising unsteadily to their feet they reflexively looked up and received a second shock as they saw the bare branches of the trees reaching, bony fingered, for the sky. They looked at one another bewildered, frightened and disorientated.

"Wha...what happened?" whispered Des uneasily.

I..I..I donít know." whispered Diane in reply, "This is scary!" they stood for a while, listening, but the forest was yielding none of itís secrets. They waited in silence for a while longer. Nothing happened. A little calmer now, Des spoke.

"What do we do now?" He asked in a normal voice.

"Well, weíre not going to find anything by standing here all day." replied Diane. Having got over the initial shock, and ever practical, she continued, "Letís go this way." and she took off to the right. Since she had a firm hold on Desís hand, he had no choice but to follow. The light jackets they were wearing were some protection against the freezing weather, but they were still extremely cold. After about ten minutes they emerged from the forest and saw, immediately in front of them, a thatched cottage with smoke coming from its chimney. Its cosy appearance and promise of warmth inside was a welcome sight. Summoning up courage, they walked up to the door and knocked. It was a few moments before the door opened and a tall, lean man, stood in the doorway before them. His hair was a sandy blonde and he was sparsely bearded. Heís probably not much older than us thought Des.

"Yes?" he ventured, his face friendly and his tone warm.

"Er...hi," replied Des, "I wonder if you can help us. We seem to be lost and...." He stopped short, the manís clothes could have been worn unobtrusively during the middle ages. By his side hung a long, slim dagger and he wore leather thongs on his feet. Des was at a loss for words.


------
"There are many worlds other than one we inhabit. Some are like ours others are very different. Nonetheless there is one universal constant, the need for cosmic balance" - Blain Olturan, 1392SDA (Second Dark Age)


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