Ciaran J. McLarnon is a writer from Ballymena, Co.Antrim. His published work as covered many different topics, he is currently in Nature writing and Fantastic tales. More of his work is available on his website ciaranjmclarnon.blog.
By Ciaran J. McLarnon
Darwin trotted along the shore, looking at the ripples washing over the pebbles. She walked into the water, until it almost covered her long, hard legs. Darwin lowered her head to the surface, her muzzle forming a meniscus as she sniffed, considering taking a drink. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth; she had galloped since first light to get here. Darwin knew it wasn’t clean, but she was tempted by the water nevertheless. I am almost a Queen, she thought, why isn’t water clean before me?
Mist clung to the land that morning, she could only just see to the other side of the lake, to the land that wasn’t part of Atlanta. I have reached the limit, she said to herself, and it has taken me days to get here. How can one deer rule such a vast expanse?
She looked down the beach and saw another following in her footsteps. She waded back to the shore to get a better look. The shape was still some distance away, but the animal was big enough to see a few details. She could saw long antlers, branched to many points. The animal had seen her and was now approaching fast, galloping in a way only a hooved animal could. He drew nearer, she could clearly see the fur on his haunches and flanks; it was another deer.
And an animal she knew. His Sandy Brown coat grew darker around the head and haunches; it could only be Leon, once her father’s most trusted advisor.
‘You need to go back to the court,’ he said, ‘I didn’t want to shout to get your attention; it didn’t seem right to intrude on such a peaceful morning.’
‘You could never intrude Leon,’ smiled Darwin, ‘it’s so good to see you. Have you been following me since I left the Palace?’
‘Yes, you’ve been on quite a journey….’
‘I just wanted to survey all of Atlanta before I became ruler.’
‘…but I did promise your father I’d guide you as he would’ve done. You must hurry back for your coronation before it’s too late; your father never wanted Conrad to succeed him.’
‘I’ve been distracted by my countryside, I never counted the days,’ said Darwin, ‘Will we make it in time if we gallop? Will you accompany me?’
‘Of course,’ replied Leon, ‘but I think we need to go now, I saw large herd of bison as I travelled. The herds have become so much bigger since the new hunters arrived, all they want is grassland for bison. This herd stretches beyond the horizon. We must cross the pass before they arrive there, otherwise it could be days before we can do so safely.’
Conrad had an excellent view of the pass from this hill-top, no more than a day from the city of Atlanta. He could see the bison in his middle distance, a black cloud moving across the grassland and kicking up a dust-cloud in their wake that could be mistaken for a storm. An elk, Corey, clambered up the hill, panting as he announced to Conrad that Darwin had been observed approaching from the other side. It was time to put the plan into action.
‘Are the boulders ready?’
‘Ready and waiting Sir. The elk are ready to butt down the stones at your command.’
Conrad smiled, ‘Excellent! Give the signal.’
Darwin and Leon had covered a lot of ground; it was getting near noon when they decided to rest. They relaxed in the shade of a large Beech. The small oval leaves were still largely green, although a yellowing at the edges of some gave them a rusted and worn appearance. Leon looked down upon the pass; the months of dry weather had created a golden grassland that shimmered in the heat. The herd were approaching, but slowly. Leon felt confident that they would have enough time to move through the grassland before the herd arrived.
‘Just think,’ he said to Darwin, ‘in just a few days all this will be yours! Aren’t you excited?’
‘Of course, I’ve been waiting for this my whole life! It will be strange at first though, having so much to command.’
‘Don’t worry, your father was greatly confident you would rise to the occasion, as am I. And if you do feel the responsibility is too much sometimes you have many people you can ask for advice… that’s strange, the bison herd are starting to gallop …they’re starting to Stampede!’
The dust cloud around the bison was starting to rise higher; the animals were beginning to surge forward.
‘What could be making them do that?’ asked Darwin.
Behind the bison, though it was a little unclear because of the size of the dust cloud, elk where pushing rocks and stones down the side of the valley. Bison were running, they didn’t want to get injured. Thousands upon thousands of giant animals all running to secure their own safety, no one could get in their way.
‘We will never cross the path in time now, Conrad could be crowned!’
Another elk held of the looking glass in his mouth, Conrad focused on the floor of the valley, ‘A brilliantly simple plan, a work of genius.’
‘Thank you, Sir! I’m glad that my idea pleased you,’ the voice came from Corey, a soldier prancing up the hill to greet them.
‘Your idea?’ Conrad laughed. ‘You are my soldier, so your ideas are mine. Don’t take credit for my work!’
‘Of course, Sir. I just wanted to inform you that … your plan …has been fully executed and there are no problems to report.’
‘Excellent! How long will they be delayed by?’
‘Scouts have suggested as much as several days, Sir.’
‘That should be enough time to ensure my Coronation, but it’s a shame my sister will miss it! Signal the troops and give the order to fall back, we don’t want to be delayed returning to the city too!’
Darwin and Leon were climbing down from the hill, picking their way through nettles, thorns, and stones. The red earth was loose and crumbling, the pair struggled to keep balance on steeper parts of the descent.
‘Now what are we going to do?’ Said Darwin, ‘how can we cross and stay away from the bison?’
‘I think I have an idea,’ Leon’s eyes were fixed on his hooves, placing his legs slowly and precisely to control his momentum. As he pulled up at the bottom of the hill he was just behind Darwin, ‘The herd will have slowed long before they reach the water’s edge, so we can pass them safely there.’
‘The water’s edge is so far! We will lose so much time if we have to take a detour like that.’
‘We need to make a change; I’m sure this was an attempt to stop you returning for your coronation. All other paths will be watched, we could be delayed again. The beavers once built a canal very few people will remember.’
‘That’s not fair! Who would want to stop my coronation?’
‘Conrad, for one. Your elder brother thinks he should be king; if he is behind this attempt he isn’t fit to rule. But he wouldn’t alone, and there are many in the Palace who have grown too used to power and know that if you become ruler, they will lose it. I’ve heard rumours of many who trust Conrad to maintain the status quo.’
‘It’s a mistake to trust Conrad! We will follow the canal, and Atlanta will have the ruler it deserves.’
‘I will take us to the shore of the rising sun to speak to Olive, the leader of the beaver, we need her help. We have no time to waste now!’
They galloped across the plains the orange light of the setting sun at the backs. Occasionally the yellow stalks of grass would become thicker and greener, the two elk would find themselves in the thick of woody saplings and tree-branches, running close to small pools of fresh water where they could have a much-needed drink.
Leon was sure the beavers would help, ‘Beavers always supported your father, helping them to protect their dams; even when the new hunters tried to destroy them all. They don’t trust Conrad; you are your father’s choice. There is a little canal and wharf behind the palace that has fallen into disuse; it was built by the beavers before I was even born!’
‘It must be hundreds of years old,’ commented Darwin.
‘Not quite,’ laughed Leon, inspecting a reflection of grey muzzle. ‘the beavers designed and built that waterway, so who could be better to help us navigate that stagnant, weed-filled passage. It will be difficult, elk like us aren’t designed to spend so much time in water; but I have every confidence that the master builders can help us.’
Leon and Darwin stopped running some distance from the shore, in a marshy area where the ground squelched and sucked at their hooves. With each step the brown water around them filled with bubbles, releasing small amounts of noxious gases, putrid smells of withered vegetation and rotten flesh. They wandered over to group of stunted Willow. As they got closer Darwin realised they were not stunted, they had been clipped. Within the thinned copse were pointed stumps, evidence of whole trees had been gnawed away.
‘Did the beavers do this?’ Darwin said as she looked towards Leon, ‘did they make this swamp?’
‘They didn’t make the swamp, they just use it as a good place get wood, and mud, to build dams. We’ll just wait here until Olive arrives.’
‘How can you be sure she will?’
‘Olive knows we are here; the Beaver track the movements of everyone who comes on their land, using the water makes them particularly good spies.’
Just as Leon had predicted four beavers came out of the water, keeping their distance as they fixed the elk with stern stares. Suddenly the largest one, few grey streaks in the fur around its neck, approached Leon.
‘Leon? Is that you?’ Said Olive, ‘how long has it been?
‘Do you have word of the king? We heard he was ill; I hope it’s nothing too serious’
‘I’m afraid it was serious live, he passed quite recently.’
‘Oh that’s terrible, do let us know if there anything we can do.’
Leon smiled and cleared his throat, ‘well, actually there is something you can do. Do you remember Conrad?’
Olive nodded, ‘yes, I do. Is he going to take over? That’s bad news too; I never did like him; he paid a visit with his father. Always looking at things as if he’d be trying to work out how much they were worth.’
‘Yes, his father didn’t think he was much made out to be King either. Conrad is trying to stop his sister, Darwin, getting to her Coronation.’
‘Darwin, is that pretty doe beside you here? Well pleased to meet you dear! And condolences on losing your father.’
Olive turned back towards Leon. ‘We’ll certainly do what we can how do you think we can help our new Queen?’
‘Do you remember the canal your ancestors built to the city?’
‘Ah, yes; the Atlanta trade canal. I heard tales of how it was built when I was younger. The banks are so overgrown with grass and trees now that few even know where it is!’
‘If we are barred from getting into Atlanta by well-known routes we must think of obscure ways…’
‘The canal is certainly that.’
‘It occurs to me that if we used that canal we might be able to sneak into the palace undetected.’
‘Hmm…I think we can do it; if we can build a raft to carry rocks we can build one to carry you two!’
‘How can we ever repay you?’ gushed Darwin.
‘Just remember us before you start thinking about clearing away dams!’
Darwin studied the raft that was presented to her, taking a few steps backward as Leon stepped on board.
‘Is this really the best we can do?’ Said Darwin, examining the logs floating in the water, held together with the supple branches that had grown this season. ‘I don’t suppose that that thing that will stay together for all of our journey.’
‘It’ll hold, you can be sure,’ replied Olive, ‘we’ve been making rafts this way for a long time and we never made one thought wasn’t strong enough.’
‘Exactly,’ said Leon, ‘the beaver are experts in this matter. The craft may seem flimsy, but we must bow to their superior knowledge. Remember it is in their interests that we complete our task.
‘We never build a craft that couldn’t do the job,’ said Olive, ‘apart from anything else we’ve got a reputation to protect!’
‘Of course,’ Darwin smiled and jumped onto the craft.
The raft the beavers had built was big, perhaps ten or twelve Willow trees intertwined with Moss and rushes from the banks of the lake, but large holes gave an impression of floating just below the surface of the water. After such a long time on the lake they were now about to follow the canal towards Atlanta.
The canal is so overgrown it seems it must be natural, thought Darwin, as the raft floated on a thick layer of green algae and slime, skimmed by branches of Birch and Maple.
‘I do feel a little sad when I see the canal the way it is now,’ admitted Olive, ‘we sacrificed so much to make it, the beaver should still count it as a great achievement.’
The pier that ran to the back of the palace was longer than Darwin expected. How can I have lived my whole life in the Palace and never noticed this? She thought.
‘When I am Queen, I will ensure the canal is returned to its former glory. I will revive it and ensure it doesn’t fall into disuse again.’
‘Will have to get you to your coronation first,’ remarked Leon.
Conrad had posted guards at every vantage point of the palace; he was satisfied that is coronation would not be interrupted. Leon was confident palace that Darwin could approach unnoticed, but one guard hard noticed their approach. The pair galloped up the pier to the grounds of the Palace, but as they run across the garden and towards the spiral gangway they fell into the gaze of an officer in a quandary. High on a palace parapet, Corey was beginning to doubt that Conrad would ever give him the recognition he deserved. Using the avalanche to cause a stampede had been his idea, yet Conrad had assumed the credit without a second thought. How could he progress in Conrad’s army?
He looked down on Conrad from the parapet and saw him laughing on the veranda below with the sycophantic courtiers who would support any move that would preserve their own power. If they all kept their power what would be left for Corey? He hurried down the curved path that led to the veranda, eager to give Conrad the news.
‘Well, I think now is the time to congratulation me on my upcoming coronation. Your loyalty will not be forgotten when I have been crowned, your positions will be assured.’ The group of elk gathered around Conrad tittered when prompted, and he allowed himself a sly smile. ‘Corey!’ He said to the officer, seeing him trotting across the gangway, ‘I hope you have some good news for me!’
‘Yes, Sir. I am pleased to inform you we have detected no evidence of Darwin and her associate.’
‘Excellent! Well, grandstags, I think we should go inside,’ said Conrad, ‘You will be treated to an occasion you will never forget.’
They trotted into the great hall, where the dome held the echoes of a thousand sounds, where droplets gold appeared to slide down pillars of white marble, and banners of richly coloured cloth held tapestries that spun tales of opulence and grandeur. Conrad brushed past many Dukes and Lords of the realm to take position beside a golden throne in the centre of the room, waiting for his moment to take control of the ceremony. He tutted, ‘must we wait forever before we start?’
The bishop mumbled something under her breath as she shuffled towards the throne. The highest judge in the land complained that it wasn’t yet time, but Conrad was in no mood to wait.
Voices chattering, none of them loud or distinct enough to be discernible, filled the air in the room, but all hushed when several loud thumps at the grand double doors. At a nod from the bishop the guards at each side pulled the chords to throw open the doors. In strode Darwin and Leon, snatching at each breath as they tried to fill their tired lungs. Immediately Conrad glared at Corey.
A courtier was nudging the bishop, urging her to start the ceremony, and Conrad tried to wrestle the sceptre from the judge. Someone kicked to golden muzzle towards Darwin’s feet. It rolled to a stop beside Leon, and Darwin helped him to pick it up. As she galloped towards the centre of the room, members of the crowd found their nerve and grabbed the courtier who was accosting the bishop. Knowing Conrad’s struggle was lost; Darwin slid into her brother and pushed him back. ‘Your tricks have failed,’ she said, ‘you cannot stop me from honouring our father and completing his plans!’
‘What do we have on the agenda today?’ Darwin looked across the great hall from her throne, her chief advisor marching in through the double doors.
‘I have some difficult news to relay, your majesty,’ said Leon, ‘but we have located your brother Conrad.’
‘That sounds like good news; he has not been seen since the completion of the purge of the corrupt. What is the matter?’
‘The new hunters, those who walk on hind legs, have attacked our border with a considerable force. No doubt they plan to claim our lands as they have claimed so many others. Your brother has been seen with them, helping them in their fight against you. If the hunters succeed, they will make him a puppet in your place.’
‘We will fight to the very end,’ said Darwin, ‘send more troops to the border; I will travel to inspect them.’
‘Your troops are ready for inspection!’ said General Corey
‘Excellent,’ said Darwin, ‘I see many have joined forces with us.’
Row upon row of elk soldiers stared resolutely into the distance, with a menagerie of beavers, foxes, otters, and badgers ready to take the fight to the hunters. Even a few of hunter’s beloved bison joined the army of the Elk kingdom.
‘Make ready,’ said Darwin to her troops, ‘to fight for the kingdom to the end. Our citizens have withstood many challenges, and we will show the hunters that Atlanta will never answer to them!’