Many of you have contacted me to ask when Book V will be available. Well, I'm delighted to tell you that it's coming along really well and I'm delighted to see what adventures will unfold as the words emerge onto the paper. However, I can't yet give you a date so, to whet your appetite even further, for this blog entry I've posted a sneaky peek from one of the (as yet unedited and unproof-read) chapters. It is a first draft so the final version will probably end up a little different and much more polished. I hope you enjoy it anyway.
The three fugitives huddled together in the narrow cleft in the hillside. It was cold. The gathering storm was pushing before it a brisk, chill wind that cut through to their bones. They had found this shelter, inadequate as it was, only just in time. Overhead, the sky had turned from soft black velvet to a dull, light-sucking slate as the clouds stole over the stars. They had put a good distance between themselves and the ridge. Would it be enough? None of them felt easy. Pharaoh would not give up his search, not when he had come so close. No doubt he would realise that perhaps the Guardians had somehow been forewarned and had made their escape before his troops arrived. As soon as he did, he would throw all his power into the search and the fugitives would be hunted down mercilessly. No doubt too, that there would be a handsome price on their heads. Declared traitors, capture would not lead to a quick merciful death for any of them.
From under half-closed lids Al-Azar studied his companions; they appeared unaffected by the weariness that was claiming him and they had only stopped because of the imminent storm. He had never felt so tired, even after his habitual long hours of servitude in the palace. His legs would not have taken him one step further had all the ghouls of the underworld been at his heels. He had been awake for two full days now, and despite the cold and discomfort, soon his eyelids dropped and he slept restlessly in the rear-most part of their small hideout.
The first flash of lightning pierced the rocky chink to its furthermost point, illuminating the drawn face of the sleeping Al-Azar. He stirred and grunted, the crash of the resultant thunderclap failing to wake him from his deathlike sleep. His companions exchanged glances. He was really only a boy still, fourteen or fifteen years old at the most, and he was no soldier. He would slow them down and greatly reduce their chances of success, and yet they could not – would not – leave him behind, not when he had risked everything to warn them.
The two Guardians took turns to stand watch all through the cold, wet night, leaving Al-Azar to sleep. The better rested he was, the easier the following day would be for all of them. Deep into the darkest hours, Mirek roused Daan from his dreams for his shift, though to be fair Daan had scarcely slept an hour with the chaos of the storm raging around their refuge.
‘All quiet. No sign on Pharaoh’s troops. Not that I’d expect anyone to be out on a night like...’ He tailed off. Daan was staring wide-eyed over his shoulder at the entrance in confusion. Mirek whirled around, expecting to see armed soldiers blocking their escape. Stunned, he stumbled and fell to his knees, his legs refusing to hold him. Terrified by what he saw, he scrabbled backwards until he came up against cold solid rock. Daan was beside him, breathing heavily, his knife in his hand. For at the doorway to the tiny cave, filling it completely stood an enormous male lion. Its shoulder stood as high as Mirek’s and the glowing halo of its thick mane reached more than an arm’s length across. It was watching the two men intently.
Behind them in the cave, Al-Azar stirred and opened his eyes, letting out a cry at the sight he encountered. Abject fear danced with wonder. Never before had he seen a beast such a this. While the lions of the palace menageries were magnificent creatures, the one standing before them now dwarfed them all. And – he blinked, wondering if the night was playing tricks on his eyes – it was white, as pure a white as the marble that graced so much of the palace. Not the rich, tawny gold of those in the royal household. And this beast glowed, as if lit from within.
Mirek’s hand edged slowly towards his sword, only to be stopped by a low growl that rumbled around the cave like the thunder that still reverberated across the hill tops.
‘Lay down your weapons. I do not come to harm you but to guide you.’
Only the deep-throated growl sounded in their ears, and yet, to their astonishment, they all understood. This white lion was speaking to them!
‘W-what do you wish of us?’ After a long silence Daan had managed to stammer out the question they all were asking.
‘Where do you take the skull you carry?’
The Guardians exchanged glances. ‘We have no skull.’ Mirek stated firmly.
‘Do not pretend.’ The lion’s roar shook the ground beneath their feet. ‘You carry with you Muu-Nan, the rose amethyst skull of Regulus. That which was brought back to this place generations ago. I know this to be true, and I ask again. Where do you take it?’
‘We have no plan,’ Daan admitted. ‘Our only objective was – is – to keep it out of Pharaoh’s hands. More than that, we have not yet determined. Events have happened too quickly to allow for considered thought. Perhaps it would be best to take it overseas, to the west.’
‘This time, Muu-Nan must remain here amongst these great monuments he helped to build.’ The rumbling paused. ‘There is a place that awaits him. You must take it there.’ Another pause, longer this time. When the lion spoke again, the men heard a warning in his words. ‘Know this, however. To do so will demand more of you than you have ever given.’
Al-Azar pushed forward, inexplicably no longer afraid of the mighty lion. ‘Who are you? Why should we trust you?’
‘I am Rasalas of Regulus. It was my ancestors who forged the sacred skull Muu-Nan in the temples of their worlds and brought him here. We have watched over him ever since. Many times we have feared for his safety. Never until now though was the danger so pressing.’
‘Their worlds?’ The boy had heard. He studied the night sky above their heads, now star-studded black velvet once more. ‘You are not of this world?’
‘My people travelled a vast distance to bring our gift of Muu-Nan to you.’ Al-Azar had the weird sensation that Rasalas was smiling. ‘But that was long ago. We returned when the great lion was raised on the plateau and Muu-Nan set in its head. We return now to help you to keep him safe and undiscovered for the next thousand generations.’