The Storyteller's Tale
when Keira Baha has to decide her future life
(previous episodes can be found here)
Chapter Twenty Four
How did Ellen bear all those stories she listened to in the libraries of the City? How did she remain sane? When the Ferals told tales of the War somehow it had seemed desperate, fearful and courageous but when small people spoke of the War the terror crashed down. When you were young did you ever find it fun to stir the nest of ants, watch them scurry about trying to rescue themselves, their eggs? Now I saw that these people were like those ants, stirred by the stick, trying to see where the danger, the death, would come from, trying to escape the random stirrings of malignant fate. The pain was obvious in those early pages.
These words were penned so soon after the rings were laid. Alongside the agony of loss were the false hopes those mines represented. How they began to feel secure again. How they could sit and breathe, bury their dead, take stock, make plans for life, until the soldiers returned. Then the dawning realisation that the soldiers were never coming. The despair and desolation of abandonment. The gazing out across that ring of death.
Some tried to escape. They weaved their way out to try and find the help so desperately needed. They perished. Some in the minefields, a careless step off the safe path. Some by bandits still roaming the free lands; and some by the wild animals hunting free from their cages. Then it was forbidden. Then the true heroes of the town rose up. Not soldiers, not dashing young men in shining armour. Weary and already in their middle years, they planned and ordered. Gathered resources and led everyone into their uncertain and lonely future. What else was there to do? Die or survive. Days of certainty were the past, never to be again in their lifetimes. I didn’t weep, but I wanted to. I wondered at Barculo and Old Martha and swore when I returned I would ask about them. Ask how Blaisemill survived back then when the knowledge of a lifetime within the false safety of those mines had dawned upon their hopeful hearts. Tell the story of my birthplace.
I spoke to many people the next day, met other old people, met with the Elders and Council men. Spent time in the sunshine talking to the children. I stared across the fields that Bix and his men were slowly, oh so slowly, clearing. Watching the caution and care as each pair of men edged their way through potential destruction. Thought of those early desperate men trying to break through for help. If they didn’t die immediately I knew they would have lain there many hours. No one could help them out of the mines. Pictured the bandits, themselves desperate; would they have killed swiftly, cleanly or would their natures be twisted by the hunger that drove them, had they tormented and jeered? Tried to imagine what those wild man-eating animals must be like but my imagination faltered here; I would not, could not, think of teeth and claws on flesh.
I thought then of Christina alone, for she surely must be alone by now. Would she try to escape, she had watched our passage in and out, would she try, rather than die alone? I thought of the communities of skeletons, dying within their rings slowly over the years of diminishing hope. Thought of the people of Stocktor who allowed the fat man because, I saw now, there had not been the unassuming heroes at hand when they were needed. In despair people need strength and the fat man was their strength.
Jack stood with me a while as I stared out to the free lands beyond the ring. His hand on my back, silent; just being there. It was enough. During the night he was called by Matt who told him his girl wasn’t sleeping. How did he know that, I had been so quiet and still? Jack hauled me up and away from the sleeping men walking me over to the donkeys. He held my hands and comforted me. Told me I was the best and never to doubt it. Foolish words but they did comfort.
On the third day I slept late, waking only when I felt Jack’s hand on my forehead, smoothing my tangles back. I smiled at him half in sleep still and then heard the silence of the camp. I apologised for the lateness of the hour, Jack was laughing as he pushed me back to the ground. No rush is what he was said, no rush. Take time to wake. He found me some food and as I was eating Bix joined us. He smiled. Asked how it was all coming along. I was quiet for a moment, letting thoughts flood into my brain. I felt the words, they gathered momentum up here inside my head; I saw them then, arrayed in colours. They seemed to have sunshine dancing along their edges. With a smile I announced I had it. The whole story. Somehow it had slipped into my mind while I was asleep, like a wisp of smoke under the door. I listened to my thoughts and was sure. It was there, ready and wanting to be told. I was so happy. I didn’t think it would come for so long. Had thought it would be laboured over. I ignored the small voice telling me, if I gave it over now there would be no reason for me to come back on another trip. Life was too good to listen to voices of gloom.
I told Belacot their new story three times before we left. The first was to the old ones; it was mainly theirs, they should be the first to hear what I had done. I had plundered the men’s story. The life before the War came from there, the Evil and his magic also. Then it was the story of all towns and villages. Then just their story. Their voices, mingled with magic and heroic deeds. There were places where new smaller tales could fit, individual stories if they wanted later. I explained to them, showed how it could be done. Stories, especially ‘Once upon a time’ stories could expand in every direction. There were many people I had met, heard of, read about who could have their own stories; over time, I explained, they could have a hundred tales to refresh and excite the soul.
Did they understand? Not all but certainly there were a few who could see what I tried to explain. They must ask amongst themselves I urged; there must be storytellers in the town. Unused to tales they would have to be encouraged, they were there I was sure. The fact that they had asked for this story showed they hungered for nourishment other than food.
The second time I told the tale was to a gathering of Elders and Council men with the old ones proud on the edges. The Council men started with a feeling they would humour their old ones; they ended with their eyes fixed on my face, palms sweaty from tensions and fear, hope lifting within them.
The last time I told their story was in the market place, to the children of Belacot, and the Ferals and in the end to everyone. Sure they knew it then and could repeat it. Happy they recognised themselves, I swept the tale to its conclusion; my voice only a whisper by the end. Jack sat beside me, it seemed they had stopped work in the fields to hear; they never change these Ferals, any excuse to sit in the sun. I shook my head at him with a smile.
Anya’s husband Gregor it was who took us out to the fields: Bix, Jack and myself. Brion and his mother came with us.
‘You have spoken a little to us of your future plans’ the Mayor started. He knew, it seemed, that Bix planned to start exploring new Trade Routes out to the south and west. Bix had asked if we could camp outside Belacot while they made contact with other communities. That had been allowed. I knew it wouldn’t be for at least a year, we were waiting for the kits to grow more and for Ellen to finish her ambassadorial work. Still, it was nice to hear Bix was planning that new life. Gregor went on to say he had heard about Blaisemill and how we lived in the village with our own land for feeding ourselves.
‘For the story of Belacot we would like to offer you these fields for the same purpose’ he announced waving a hand ahead. I stared at him and then at the fields ahead.
‘Which exactly?’ I queried. It was more than generous. Bix looked at me, he didn’t know enough to judge if it would do. ‘A cottage?’ I asked. ‘Could we build a small cottage?’ Of course. They could start it for us while we were away. Animals? Of course. I stared at the long grass. I looked at Bix. It would have to be cleared; did he want to clear it? Of course.
I couldn’t believe the generosity of the gift. It worried me. I took Bix and Jack to one side and whispered my concerns. It was not a just exchange. All that land for one story, it made no sense.
Anya had sharp hearing, or she could read lips because she knew what I said and exclaimed at once. Told me it wasn’t enough for what I had done, to please, please accept the exchange. Told me the whole town had wanted it, they had discussed it while I had been reading the diaries. If the story was all Brion had said it would be, this is what they all decided to do. They had nothing else to offer. I looked at Brion, wondered what he had said about my storytelling that they had decided on this. Jack whispered in my ear.
‘It’s time to be gracious, Ria. To think of others. We’ll worry out your concerns later.’ Damn him.
So then, after we left Belacot, what did the mongrels decide to do? Tell everyone we met that I could offer them stories of their histories! Even the very small hamlets wanted them, it seemed. Some already had the story intact but liked the idea of it being turned into a fable or an epic saga. Embroidered around the edges, lace added to the corners. It seemed all of us like a fairy story to explain horror and fear. Reality is harsh and unforgiving, happy endings are craved.
Some were easy, others not so and a few I had to take away with me to be returned later on the next trail. Gadalia, the town of silver crosses was one such. Although I had their book of stories I still didn’t have the voice of that telling and I thought maybe they would like their story in the same manner as the book they thought so highly of. They were pleased when I told it on the next trail, I matched the voices in their book. It seemed they were worried I would embroider too much.
I spun a special one for Christina. She needed to have a tale of bravery and hope for her ruined family, a sense of pride in their endeavour as she went into her new world alone. She needed a story of her own more than anyone.
Of course I have told some of the tale of Blaisemill. I have left the details to those who can do as well; Susanna for instance, after all it was she who taught me about fairy tales, she and her mother, all those years ago. Others here will be able to continue the story, you all have the Ferals’ story, and you have heard some of the others; you can fill in your parts.
Chapter Twenty Five
After Belacot we were back on the trail heading back to Blaisemill, Ellen and the kits. It was at the next camping that Bix asked me if I liked the life. Well stupid or what? Wasn’t it obvious I liked the life? What did he want cartwheels and cheers? I smiled and said yes. I had learnt how to keep my springs as Ellen would say. He wondered what I liked best. Well that was harder, did I have a best? I thought about it, as I became aware everyone was listening in. I was suspicious; from the tensions I knew Bix had something in mind. I looked closely at him, trying to read his expression. That he knew I was suspicious was clear in the grin he flashed at me.
I told him ‘Everything.’ No best; the mongrels, the trading, seeing new places, talking to new people, told him even the back of the donkey and the hard ground. No best, just everything. He nodded with a smile and then asked if I would consider . . . consider! . . . joining the mob for every trip; be a permanent member. I stared at him.
I had realised a long time ago that his plans had changed. That he was committed for quite a long time to these Trade Routes. Oh, he and Ellen and Jack were going to spearhead the new Routes, Ellen would be concerned with the Child Exchange Programme whenever they reached new towns and villages. As more Riders retired, and joined them, new Routes would be set up. He wasn’t going to be sitting on his rock fishing anytime soon. I was also aware that they knew I had had mixed feelings about them, that I had always been telling myself they were just my way out of the village.
‘You are, of course, free to leave us at any time, try your fortune in any one of the settlements we’ve seen, as you have always wanted. However, we would like you to consider staying with us. Be part of us.’
He was being serious. I had no words. The silence was absolute.
I wouldn’t look around, I stared at Bix only. ‘Why?’ was all I could find to say. It sounds a stupid thing to say but it was important, important to me. I was scared of what he would say but I needed to know.
‘Because, firstly, we love you.’ It didn’t sound so silly when he said it. Sounded natural and easy. ‘Then there is the fact that you seem to be so much a part of us already. You also add a dimension that we were lacking. You are, as it turns out, a natural at trading, surprising I think even you.’ He paused allowing me space to comment but I was silent, listening to him. ‘We want you, Keira, because we want you.’
I needed to control my breathing, looking at the ground I managed it, as I thought about what he had said. ‘Because we want you.’ ‘You add a dimension.’ ‘Because we love you.’ These were words that jumped and frolicked in my brain like the lambs in the paddock. They were words I had never heard in my life. Dared I believe them? Could anyone be so cruel as to say them if they were not meant? Not Bix, he was never cruel. Did I then want them? The mongrel mob I had been so suspicious of for so long. To spend my life with them, in this crazy nomadic existence?
Well of course there was Jack but if I stayed at, say, Belacot I would still get to see him as he wandered up and down the trail. I wouldn’t lose him entirely. I smiled at the ground. Who was I trying to fool with these thoughts? Of course I wanted to be with them all, and I would never be content not to see Jack when I wanted to.
I looked up at Bix’s face as he waited patiently. I saw the hours of love he had already expended on me, on my hurts and mists; no, he would never say what wasn’t true. I smiled and told him I would like that above everything good.
I could have suffered broken ribs if my bones had not been strong. So many held me so tightly. I was passed around from strong arms to strong arms, lifted high and turned around. Only when they had released me was I free to look for Jack who had so obviously kept away while I deliberated. He was waiting with a smile; he, of course, had known I would say yes. We walked to the side of the excited chattering mob, his arm around my shoulder, like a brother. He didn’t have to speak; it was enough in my contentment that his arm was around me.
It was toward the end of our meal that I looked across at Bix and said with seriousness
‘If I’m to join you I need a knife.’
He looked up, finishing chewing his mouthful. No expression. Pits of hellfire, I thought, it was sometimes so hard to read their faces. I kept my gaze on his face and strove for a bland look. No confrontation; I knew I didn’t need any. I felt the expectant silence around me. I heard a low chuckle and a muttered laugh and knew with certainty that all the men knew about the knife incident. From whom, Bix, Jack or, and more likely, the kits. Bix swallowed and ran his tongue around his teeth to take the last of the food. He regarded me a little thoughtfully now.
‘A knife?’ His voice was gentle. I smiled and nodded.
‘Why would you be needing a knife, surrounded as you are by this fine bunch of strong Riders to protect you?’
I looked around at the grinning bunch of protective Riders and nodded. ‘They are fine and protect me well but they cannot be with me every minute of every day’ I said reasonably.
Bix looked across at Jack with a questioning lift to his eyebrow. I would not look at Jack, I knew what I should see there and my control might waver; I could feel amusement bubbling deep inside. I felt Jack move slightly next to me.
‘Hmm; not sure, boss man’ he drawled.
‘I could defend myself from wild dogs’ I added.
Bix smiled ‘You could, of course; of whatever kind: human, feral or canine.’
I nodded with a smile of appreciation. I sat and, while he regarded me with a smile, I finished eating the food on my wood then placed it carefully to the side of me and, with folded hands on my lap, waited. Bix was laughing at me, I could see in his eyes, but I knew how to play the game now so I just regarded him straight back. The chuckles and comments were washing around the company now and much good advice was being offered. Advice about knife wounds and amputation; advice on the control of one’s men. I waited.
‘Thing is, can you handle a knife safely? They are very dangerous weapons.’
I nodded. ‘If you or Jack teach me, I’m sure I could learn to wield one in the proper manner’ I responded with mock humility. He noticed the omissions and with a grin turned back to Jack.
‘Do you have an opinion? You seem to be the one in most danger here.’
‘She has never to my knowledge declared in public that she hated me’ Jack replied gravely. ‘I think it is you, Bix, who stands in most danger.’
‘No one is any danger from me if they do not raise my anger’ I pointed out reasonably.
‘Well, Jack, your call I think’ Bix said, that made no sense; I did look at Jack then. He was pulling out a package from behind him. Soft leather. He handed it to me with a smile. I held it in surprise. The leather was softer and paler than any I had ever handled. I laid it on my lap and slowly unrolled it; couldn’t help the gasp as its contents were revealed; couldn’t contain my delight as the firelight sparked flame from the blade. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Smaller, lighter than the knives they all carried but I knew, before I touched it, that it was just the right weight and size for me. The hilt was the colour of starlight and there was carving on the join of it, where it met the blade. Wild flowers, holding it up to the fire light I could recognise the flowers. I traced them with my fingertips and, holding it to my nose, fancied I could smell the sweet elusive smell of the violets, so realistically had they been carved. Then the blade: it shone in polished beauty, fooling a first glance into thinking beauty was its purpose, but it was deadly. I could feel the power of it as I carefully ran my fingers down the blade. I heard an indrawn breath from someone watching me but we know how to treat blades in the village, our whole life is determined by them from the fields through the slaughterhouses to the kitchen. I was not going to sully this gift with my blood, oh no.
I heard the silence as they all watched me. I couldn’t help the smile that I bestowed on Bix. ‘Mine?’ I asked but realising I was asking the wrong man I turned to Jack. ‘Mine?’ I repeated and at his nod. ‘Truly? Serious, no laughter?’
‘Serious and no laughter’ he assured me but his eyes were alight with laughter. I didn’t care he had given me the most wonderful gift of my entire life. I raised myself swiftly and threw my arms around him; I felt Bix remove the knife from my hands as Jack with great willingness held me closer. I was only going to give him a thank you kiss but you forget at your peril that Ferals are opportunists and he took great advantage of my kiss. Long and thorough; I didn’t struggle. Then looking down at me with the softest smile.
‘You like then?’
‘Oh yes, Jack. Thank you.’
‘Anything else I can do for the lady?’ he asked so softly his words were barely heard, his eyes never leaving my face despite what was being shouted at him.
‘A walk up a hill please’ I replied as softly.
He laughed quietly, nodding. ‘Already on the agenda’ he promised me.
I sat up and looked around for my knife. Holding my hand out to Bix ‘Please’ I said in my politest voice.
‘Jack said he wasn’t in any danger’ Bix complained mildly as he studied me. ‘Immediately you try and slice him all about.’
I clicked my fingers at him. ‘My knife please’ at his further hesitation added ‘and you know full well he was in no danger whatsoever. When I want to slice, I don’t miss.’
He laughed and handed it back to my jealous hold. I felt it all over once again. It was everything I could have wished for if ever I had known that knives came like this. Where did they get it from? The town of apricots. Of course, I might have known. Looking around I knew all the men had been in on this surprise. I smiled at them all, told everyone they were splendid and wonderful. I smiled, hardly containing my pleasure and I kept so close to Jack I could hear his breathing. I felt his arm holding me and leant back into its strength letting the words wash over me as I stared at the knife on my lap.
I don’t know how long I sat so but eventually Jack took it away from me and wrapped it up, promising me some lessons on how to gut whatever wild dog I fancied. I let him, I had no fears it would leave me; Jack had got it for me. Before I had ever said I would join them, he had known what I would ask for if I ever said yes. Jack discussing it with Bix, telling him that, more than anything else, this would please me. Bix not really believing but trusting Jack, Jack who understood me so well. Jack who could always second guess me, the only person in all my years who had ever been able to do so.
I felt then I belonged, for the first time in my life I felt at home, here with this mongrel mob. My mongrel mob as I thought of them. I cared for them all I decided. Here was a life worth living. I moved among them the following days and weeks with ease and contentment. They joked at me and I didn’t mind. As we travelled back along the trail revisiting communities, sharing information, imparting news telling of the outside world, I felt unease leave me, my back grow straighter. Jack kissed my fingertips as my unchewed nails grew stronger, smiling at my pleasures. I played in their ball games, holding my own in all but the roughest scrums, being rescued from them by Jack before I was trammelled into the ground. I told stories and sang them songs, taught them more of the wooden whistle. Although we were walking back to the winter, I felt the crisp air on my skin with pleasure, rejoiced in the feel of the cold. Life could be good, was good, luck could change, had changed. Sunshine could come to the Keira’s of the world, I confided this thought to Jack. When we camped I stopped carping about doing and relaxed with them.
Chapter Twenty Six
Then we were camping near Stocktor, they were enjoying a day of leisure and I felt no urge to make them work or thought them idle. We lazed around and chatted or dozed; we checked our equipment; we stirred the stew pot and we relaxed as only the Ferals can. I found I could almost do so with them.
Towards the late afternoon Bix started planning the next few days with us all. Outlining what he had in mind, asking our opinions; I listened lazily, I didn’t know enough to contribute to the discussion. However, when the town was mentioned I listened. They were deciding not to bother with them a second time. They hadn’t, it seemed, relished the cheating that had been attempted. I murmured that it might be different the next time around.
‘How?’ Bix asked mildly enough. I should have been warned.
I told him of my conversation with the young men, I told him casually you understand. I thought the young men fools and didn’t really think they would do anything to ease their lot. There was silence around after I told him. I shrugged.
‘They’re losers, they won’t do anything, still . . .’ I let my voice trail into silence as I looked up into Bix’s face. He was angrier than I had ever seen him. It was a cold, closed anger. His eyes were like flint as he regarded me. I was aware of suspended movement around me.
‘What?’ I asked slowly.
‘When exactly did you have this conversation?’ he asked. His voice was very quiet. It felt dangerous. I felt my security turn to quicksand. Fear, so recently banished, stretched delightedly and looked me over. Bix was on his feet now, starting toward me. I jumped up. Always be eye to eye with your enemy, I had learnt that early. Bix the enemy? I felt his anger as a force when he stopped in front of me. ‘When did you decide to meddle in other people’s affairs?’
I remained silent. I wasn’t sure what I had done that was so wrong. I looked swiftly around. Wrong I had done, that was evident on all their faces.
‘What?’ I asked again. I was more defensive now. Bix glowered at me from a few inches away and I could see he wanted to exert violence of some kind. He contained himself and turned away telling Jack to sort me out. Oh no! You don’t do that to me, I thought as he started to walk away. I grabbed his shoulder to swing him around.
‘Don’t turn your back on me’ I hissed at him. ‘Don’t walk away; tell me what I’ve done.’ He was furious but turned away again; I was after him and caught him once more. I hit him as hard as I could.
‘You don’t turn your back on me’ I shouted in his face. ‘Have the guts to face me.’
His hands came up to hold me and I butted my head hard into his chest sending him two steps back. With a roar he came for me. Then Jack was between us holding Bix back and twisting me behind him, yelling at Matt to hold me. Matt took me by the arm and sat me down. I scowled at Jack while he talked to Bix, keeping himself between Bix and me. I was waiting for a relaxation of Matt’s hand on my wrist.
Matt was enjoying himself; at my expense. ‘Little fireball ain’t she, boys’ he crowed, and he did relax his grip he thought so little of the fireball.
I twisted away and he grabbed for me with a startled shout but I was on my feet. He was as quick and was up to grab me again, but I could twist and turn as well as any and was almost away before he caught me hard again around the wrist. I didn’t hesitate as I saw his laughing face and I kicked as hard as I have ever done; my foot connecting with his crutch. He dropped like a slaughtered bull and I was away, heading for Bix. Bix who, watching me free myself, started to laugh himself. Now I was beyond all control as I attempted to reach him. Jack swung me around again as I reached them and snarled at the open-mouthed Ferals.
‘What are you, a pack of City babies you can’t hold one child? Call yourself men; I think you boast too much.’
Leif and Ivor grabbed me, holding me off the ground so I could make no purchase; I was abusing and cursing them as I struggled. I could hear Bix’s laughter floating over Matt’s groans. I heard Jack’s exasperation as he tried to quieten everyone. Finally I was held, Bix was quiet and sitting again. Jack took me from the men and at my motion forward stopped me with a word. Then, telling me to sit down and behave, pushed me to the ground.
‘Behave, brat’ he ordered. I scowled at him but I stayed. I was mortified if truth be told, I was so sure I would do the trip without loss of temper. Had told them I could and here I was behaving worse than ever before, but the fear was still there. What had I done wrong? I looked across at Matt, who was kneeling bent double as he struggled to contain pain, and bit my lip. I wanted to go and say how sorry I was.
Jack sat next to me. He looked around.
‘One thing to remember about Keira is that she hates being laughed at, especially if she’s in a temper. Forget that at your peril’ he said it seriously. He was not mocking. ‘I did warn you all at the beginning of the trip. So, Matt, you asked for what you got.’
He wasn’t wasting sympathy. Did he really warn them? Had he been expecting me to lose control?
‘Bix, you aren’t helping’ he added as he heard Bix chuckling. Bix apologised and turned his head away so that I wouldn’t see his smiles. How did he get from rage to clown so quickly?
Jack took my hand and, with no reassuring smile for me, asked if I was ready to listen. I nodded and pointed out that I had wanted to listen at the beginning but Bix had . . . He stopped me and I subsided into a reluctant silence. Jack explained what I had done wrong. I had done wrong to interfere in the politics of any community we went to. We operated on even-handedness, we were there purely to open the land and Routes, to help with trade in any way we could. How communities conducted their lives was nothing to us, we had to remain neutral. We had to build trust. Ferals were not on the whole trusted. We walked and talked softly and minded our own affairs. How could they trust us if we meddled?
I had done wrong further by not telling anyone of my conversation. The only way we were safe was if everyone knew what was happening. If no one knew of a change we couldn’t be prepared for the unexpected that would come with that change. They had all been in the town, had been negotiating, been accusing the townsfolk of cheating thinking they knew one set of circumstances but unknown to them I had changed the dynamics.
I was silent hearing what I had done wrong. Feeling the fear. I had put them all at risk; all my new friends. Why couldn’t I manage life better? I wondered miserably. The sparkle left me. It had been too good to be true: the Keira’s of the world didn’t get sunshine. It was only much later that I heard the ‘we’.
‘Do you understand’ Jack’s voice came softly.
I nodded, not meeting his eyes. ‘I’m sorry.’ Then more desperately ‘Truly. I never thought . . . I wouldn’t ever put any of you in danger . . .’ I trailed off. Everyone was watching me. ‘I’m sorry’ I finished, looking at my hands now. Then, realising it wasn’t enough, I looked across at Bix. ‘I’m so sorry, Bix.’ It was true, I was as sorry as I had never been before.
He nodded at me and smiled. ‘And the but . . .?’ he asked mildly.
I stiffened, was he laughing?
‘Bix’ Jack warned.
‘Keira always has a ‘but’ . . .’ Bix was explaining to the silent men.
I shook my head. I wasn’t going to play his game, it was enough I had behaved so.
‘I can think of a couple’ Matt offered with a gasp. Leif agreed.
‘Oh, me also’ Bix agreed. ‘I was just wondering what Keira’s was.’
I stayed silent and stared across at him, waiting.
‘So,’ he smiled more broadly, ‘I would say the ‘but’ is why did we never tell her, warn her?’
‘That’s what I was going to say’ Matt agreed. Jack smiled at me. He was pleased I hadn’t said it, I knew he was. That gave me some comfort.
‘Keira is the only person in all my years that I have had to apologise to again and again’ Bix complained to his men. ‘The only one who has ever dared to hit me, stab me and fell me to the ground. The only one who will never take an order without demanding a full enquiry as to whether she ought to obey it and whether I even have the right to issue it.’
I heard the ripple of laughter around me and smiled my thanks at Bix. He was happy to ridicule himself to bring me back into the fold. I understood what he was doing. I turned to the men and told them I was sorry I had endangered them; that I hadn’t meant to. They told me not to give it another thought; the ensuring ruckus had been worth it they declared. I looked across at Matt who wasn’t so ready to forgive me. I smiled uncertainly at him, he glowered back at me. It wasn’t maybe the time. Jack had his hand on my shoulder, to stop me going to Matt I thought.
I felt tired and jangled. How much damage had I done I fretted. Had I damaged these Trade Routes the men had worked so hard to bring about? They all discussed it for a while and it was decided I would be kept back from the town until they had the new measure of anything that might have happened in our absence. I felt like a chastised child but there was nothing I could do. We would be there early the next day and Leif was charged with keeping me company while the rest of them went in.
As everyone started to ready for the night I stared across at Matt and then slowly stood and made my way across to him. He stared at me as I approached. I stood there not knowing what to say. I couldn’t make a joke of what I had done as another Feral might have done. Apology would do for the hurt, but I realised I had made a fool of him and I didn’t know what to say about that. He wasn’t going to help, he just stood and stared at me: that Feral closed expression.
‘I’m sorry’ I said then stopped. What to do? I felt like Feral was alien to me. I shook my head, no they were not alien; of all the people I had ever met they were the most human. I raised myself to my toes and slipped my arms around his neck and kissed him lightly on his lips.
‘I’m so sorry. Please forgive me’ I said softly. I felt his hands slip around my waist and he was looking at me from so close. He smiled at me. Answered as softly
‘You ever do that again and, Jack or no Jack, I’ll skin you alive.’
‘What kiss you?’ I asked innocently and he laughed at me, kissing me back.
‘I didn’t realise our Jack was so brave. Taking you on all this time, well he deserves medals.’
I leant against him and hugged him again. Looking up I asked anxiously ‘You and me?’
‘We’re fine’ he answered cheerfully. ‘Like Jack said, I shouldn’t have laughed at you. But, by the gods of atomic hell, you’ve a kick like the donkeys over there, and a temper like I’ve never seen. We all thought Jack and Bix swung off back to village for rest. It seems they had to work harder there then we realised, licking you into some kind of shape.’
He was laughing again and I smiled back, then leant against him again. My leg might have delivered a powerful kick but it was paining now and I was in no hurry to walk back across that space with Jack’s eagle-eye on me. I might have known Jack would know. He was there right next to us, asking if my leg hurt. Did I need a helping hand? Matt was all concern and, before I had a chance to object, swept me up and carried me over to the bedding. Jack, smiling, following.
It was all right again. As we settled for sleep, Bix stopped by to ruffle my hair, Matt massaged my leg and Jack curled up with me and breathed silent words of nonsense in my ear.
Chapter Twenty Seven
They came for me later, I had been fretting and so too, I think, had Leif. What had I done? Jack it was who came smiling at me when I walked over to the end of the safe path to meet him. It was fine, he assured me. The fat man had gone. They weren’t too sure yet how but he had obviously been dealt with and the young men were in charge and wished to discuss trade and farming with me.
Discuss trade and farm . . . I looked at him anxiously but he shrugged and said that was all he knew but I would be safe enough. I hadn’t doubted my safety.
Young Edmund greeted me warmly and said he had been hoping I would come back. The town needed my advice; could I spare them the time and knowledge? I looked uncertainly at Bix who stood listening, he nodded. They might say I would be safe enough but that was because they protected me more than usual.
They were such stupid young men in Stocktor. They knew nothing and, it seemed, had no brains for thinking. They had plans, oh such plans. They would feed the townsfolk, equally and richly, no more would children have soft bones. They saw in their minds waving corn and wheat, contented cows with full udders. They smelt the fresh bread, tasted the cheese, licked the grease from their mouths. I listened as they told me of their plans. Listened as they told me what they thought they needed. Listened while they asked my opinion.
I said we must sit because this would take a while. We convened a Council there in the market place, because Bix wouldn’t allow them to take me indoors. At least the chill air would keep all awake. I thought for a while trying to decide how to tell them they couldn’t do what they wanted, without telling them they were stupid.
I explained the difficulties of waving corn in fields that had not been cultivated for over fifty years. Ploughing without the use of animals was the most back-breaking task known to man I told them. Who would plough the field? Which of them would draw the plough behind them? Through that unbroken grassland. I gave them a moment’s silence then asked gently what were they planning on growing to feed the townsfolk so well? Had they discussed this with their gardeners? Which crops were they planning to plant next spring to provide the good life? Earth had to be prepared for this great burst of food. Seeds collected, had they been collected?
I explained the difficulty of livestock when they had none. Shelters would have to be provided, food would have to be in place, knowledge of care had to be learned. Transport of livestock when young could, with planning, be managed but only if some other village or town had a surplus. To have a surplus they would have to breed more so it would be months yet before piglets or lambs could be brought here, then months before they were productive.
There was a heavy and discontented silence at the end. I had been as kind as I could but you know how fools annoy me. I looked at Bix again; he hadn’t relaxed his vigilance. I knew Jack was behind me, as silent as any of them.
‘In time’ I added ‘you will achieve all this, but time is set, seasons are seasons. You can achieve this, but you can only advance slowly.’
Edmund gripped his lips tight as he looked across at me. Not from anger, I understood, but because he was leader now and couldn’t betray the weakness of tears. I had overthrown his plans. I smiled at him.
‘I think I could help if you would like me to.’ He nodded, still too uncertain to release those lips. I told them their plans were admirable, they deserved to succeed for their generosity of thought. That the way ahead was fraught with difficulty and it was as well they had their youth and vigour because the town would need them. I pretended these were heroes in one of my stories, that they were Young Kennet putting away the lambs at night. They needed to feel proud I guessed, and they had not been such losers,they had dealt with the fat man and his henchmen.
They relaxed a little from their hurts. Began to see they could still lead the town to the good days, just a change of tactics. They began to expand their chests and to talk to each other. The odd laugh, the determined nod of the head. Edmund smiled then and said they had asked me there for help, knew they were inexperienced, what were they to do?
I told them I was going for a walk, in the meantime they were to find their gardeners; even, I interrupted their objections, if they were very old. They were to find those who could work with wood and brick. They were to find the women who could cook well. Find the best of all those and bring them into the Council Meetings. They were needed. They had knowledge that was needed to save the town. I was summoning more heroes, I thought to myself.
I wandered through Stocktor with my escort, this time I was looking at the old gardens and the deserted parks; I went to the edge where the fat man had had Bix clear the fields. I still wondered what he had wanted them for. I measured the size. Corn would not be waving for some time yet, I thought with a sad smile. How would the young men take that news? Maybe I could avoid telling them for a while. My mind was busy all the time I was walking. Frowning I looked then at the old shops, looking for their salvation. They had the resources I decided, did they have the expertise?
I went back to the market place and found the young men returning with their new Council Members. Some were growing old in looks and stature but, with bad diets behind them, I couldn’t guess their real ages. I spoke with them, not as a Council Meeting you understand, just informally. To plan I needed to know what they knew, what they remembered. I talked with them for many hours. The young men sat listening, not always understanding what we were talking about but, I could see, they were realising they had overlooked the older townsfolk foolishly. Maybe they could do it I thought, watching from the corners of my eyes.
At length I straightened my back and went to Bix asking if I could come back the next day; said I needed to think now. He arranged it and I followed the men down the safe path. I sat unheeding all evening until Jack swept me away to sleep. He lay beside me his hand holding mine, watching as I sleepily struggled with those last few awkward thoughts.
When we went back the next day I could feel slivers of steel slipping into my head. I didn’t need a headache that day, I thought, and dismissed the warnings. We talked and discussed for many hours as I outlined a reasonable timetable of events. So much depended on what other communities had to offer this town, how much goodwill was around for strangers. Much also depended on their hard work because that’s all it would be at the beginning. There wouldn’t be any extra food for months.
The gardeners could fill some of the empty months. It was from those deserted gardens that the food would have to come. They had to be cleared, cultivated and harvested. Leave the fields I said, you’ll need pigs at least on them. Clear the gardens, they were protected from the cold winds of winter, some foodstuff could be produced quickly in them. Pigs could be kept safe in them until the fields could be fenced securely; until that last was done there could be no livestock on the fields, even if I could find any surplus anywhere. Chickens and rabbits could also be kept in the gardens. Build shelters for these animals: they had brick; they had wood, build them in the gardens. Pigs and chickens would help clear gardens and manure the ground. Over the whole town they had acres of land. I showed them how to work their way through the parks and gardens. Always they must plan ahead. Curb impatience and foresee consequences, keeping always the seasons in the front of their minds. The old gardeners knew the seasons, knew their land; they were confident they could increase their present yields. Crops in fields were the same as crops in gardens, it was only the scale that was different.
Explained how to calculate feed for people, feed for livestock. How to prepare bedding for animals. How to keep people and animals healthy. The cooks agreed to try cooking the new crops I was suggesting to them, said they could turn their hands to anything. They were confident. I told the young men they would have to ask the town to put in a lot of work for what would seem little reward at the beginning. That, as leaders, it was their job to encourage and help in this. True leaders, I told them, always led from the front of any battle and this was their battle. I told them of Joel entrapped at Gadalia, forcing rations onto his starving settlement and bringing them through the bad times with their faith intact. Edmund and his friends must lead as Joel.
Steel bands were beginning to tighten as I listened to them discuss, argue and debate endlessly every point I brought up. I reasoned and persuaded those who doubted, praised those who made connections. Talk, talk, so much talk. Oh how I hate Councils and Committees, I thought as I listened. They asked questions, those I could answer I did as clear and plain as I knew how. Those I couldn’t I said I would try to find out for them. I also reminded them of their libraries. I knew, I told them, that there were books which could guide them. Maybe have different ideas from mine. Mine were not set in stone, they would have to adapt to the needs of the town. I said I would try and get back before the spring, it depended on the rest of the Trade Route. I would try and find supplies and arrange trade for them because, of course, they were not a charity, they couldn’t expect all this help for nothing. I said I would do my best.
The young men professed to be grateful; they didn’t want us to leave they were so excited at their future. They wanted me to help them rename the town. I told them it was for them to do. All I wanted was to lay my head down. They said they would like to call the town after me. Maybe I snapped, I tried not to snap, a reply. They must find their own name I insisted and turned away. I wanted to have nothing more to do with them, I wanted out. I knew I had very little time until my head exploded.
I would be clear past the safe path I thought as we set off. I almost was; then the light went out. I stumbled to a halt. I called to Leif who was in front. To help me. Help me, I couldn’t see. They didn’t know of my headaches; there had been no need to tell them, I didn’t have them any more. I was losing my speech. I could only gasp that I couldn’t see. I could feel my knees sagging. Matt, from behind, caught me under my arms and Leif hoisted my legs into his hands and they had me out of the minefield. I knew they lowered me down, were talking to me but the pain was too bad for me to listen to them. I felt Jack’s hands lifting me, holding my head for me. I leant into his hands, he could contain the beasts gnawing in my head I knew. I was aware of urgent enquiries as the men all reached the end of the minefields. Then I heard Bix’s voice coaxing me. I knew he had my medicine and tried to turn toward him. Jack needed to help me. Heard Bix crooning encouragement as I sipped the bitter stuff. I knew nothing more.
Later it was Jack who gave me the next dose and I was aware of a commotion. I felt touches of comfort from many people. Were we striking camp I wondered as I heard the animals moving? Later again, I found the pain receding and sight returning. Looking up I found Jack there as I knew he would be. There were Matt and Leif smiling at my return. We were alone. I tried looking around but the pain gave me a strong nudge and I closed my eyes in submission. Then Bix was there with more medicine. I opened my eyes to see him grin in delight. I opened my mouth meekly to swallow the stuff he offered. He talked with Jack quietly and then spoke to me, asked if I could bear being moved a way down the trail to the camping proper. Jack would carry me, could I bear it? I said I could. If Jack carried me. When we reached the camping the others had prepared a royal bed for me; I was lifted into it and I felt the soft warmth enfold me, felt Jack slide in next to me and I curled up in his arms and slept.
Chapter Twenty Eight
Bix came to see me next morning, I knew he would. I had opened my eyes to Jack’s smiling face and, to his enquiries, confirmed my headache had left. He found me food and drink and sat quietly with me until Bix came. He was dismissed to guard duties and I was left eyeing Bix. A lecture was on its way I knew. I deserved it; however that’s not to say I relished it. He sat next to me and put his arm around me. I stiffened. It was just an instinctive movement. He turned my face so he could see me. He frowned at me, not in anger but there was a trace of impatience.
‘Now what are you accusing me of in that mind of yours?’ he asked, trying to conceal the irritation.
I shook my head. ‘No, I’m sorry. Nothing. It’s fine.’ Maybe not my most coherent apology but it did bring a smile back to his eyes. What did I think he was planning when he put his arm around me he was asking me? I considered the options for a moment then decided to tell him.
‘Well, I think it could be one of various reasons. It could be that I was sad and ill yesterday or because you want to tell me that no matter that I made a mistake there is no way, absolutely no way, you were considering throwing me out.’
His arm tightened and he smiled at me.
I smiled back and added ‘Or because you are like all the rest of these damned Ferals and can’t resist an opportunity to cuddle a girl.’
He laughed then, in the way he has, you know? Loud, carefree and such a merry sound. Some of the men looked across in curiosity, grins responding to the laughter.
‘And which, little Keira, do you think it is?’ he demanded.
I told him I thought it was the first and the last. This pleased him he looked at me, his head a little to one side.
‘Well our young Keira has improved, hasn’t she? Know you’re safe do you?’ I nodded with a smile. ‘Well done. I never thought I’d hear you say that.’ He stared at me a little longer then leaned back next to me and directed his remarks to the space before us.
Of course we discussed what had gone on in the town. The fat man and the young men. What plans I had offered them, and the logistics of achieving them. Bix had already been planning, it seemed. Depending on what help I could muster from other places he was ready for a mini trek just to the town and back before the next full trail. The group had already been discussing the transportation of livestock, how easy or hard. Possible ways of managing. All this while I slept.
I knew he would get to the lecture sometime and, of course, he did. Pointed out that I must have known the migraine had been brewing. Told me I should have acted sooner. Dismissed my plea that I thought I had time, that I would make it to safety. He said what was obvious, that a minefield is not a healthy place to lose one’s sight. There was no argument against it and I knew so; knew as the pain had gathered its forces on that path that I had been stupid. I said I was sorry, said I knew better, said I would never repeat the mistake. Stayed silent as he pulled me a little closer.
‘You haven’t had one of these heads for so long, Keira. I’m thinking you were fretting about matters: matters such as our fight; matters such as the trouble you thought you were causing; maybe about the townsfolk also.’ He paused as if to allow me to interrupt but I remained silent. What after all was there to say, these men knew me too well by then.
‘Nothing to say, Keira? Not like you at all.’
I smiled at his attempt to lead me into self-justification; I shook my head at him.
‘Okay, some of these you know to be nonsense but I’ll explain this little band of ours. The men have been remarkably well-behaved this trip, mostly because of you, best behaviour you know. Next time they will be more relaxed and then you’ll see we have disagreements, arguments like any other group of people. We’ve been together a long time most of us, been in some tight places, lived to tell a tale or two. We have our discipline and that helps but we are just a group of people and so we have disagreements. We also have mistakes. They are sorted and then put away. Do you follow?’ I nodded. ‘Well then, our disagreement the other night was not something you should have been fretting about, and you were.’ I nodded again and he grinned his approval at my admittance. ‘You were not causing any great trouble you know; we just had to change tactics a little, nothing major.’
I shifted a little so that I was leaning more toward him. He settled me within his arm more securely and it felt safe and caring. He wasn’t laughing now.
‘So what else was fretting you in that town?’ But he knew, I thought, as I looked at my hands.
‘What happened to the fat man and the others?’ I asked. I did need to know although I was fearful of the answer. ‘They’ve been killed haven’t they? In the minefields?’ I wouldn’t look up I didn’t want to see the answer, only to hear it.
‘Most likely. We couldn’t find out. It was too new for the young men and I think they are not sure of our powers, whether we represent some national law enforcement. I would say yes. They are not in the town and we were told they would not cause trouble anywhere else.’ Bix’s voice was neutral and seemed disinterested in the men’s fate.
‘Because of some words from me?’ I couldn’t raise my voice, I seemed to have lost the power of normal speech. ‘Because I was irritated at what I thought was a stupid complaining boy, eleven men have been murdered?’ I felt a wave of nausea threaten and swallowed fiercely. I would not disgrace myself here. ‘That is the thought that fretted me. I didn’t know the fat man. Was he as bad as Edmund said? Was he good or bad for the town? You are so right about meddling in others affairs, about not thinking. He did try and cheat you all, but was that enough for a killing?’
Bix took hold of my hand in his and held it firmly as he stared ahead. He had no answers that could salve my conscience. We both knew it. My fretted thoughts were the truth. I had unwittingly aided in the destruction of eleven lives. Maybe, as Bix would suggest, it would have been done sometime in the future, when the young men grew desperate enough but that was still a maybe; what had happened in the town was aided by my words. My words, that I would have to learn to live with. There was no going back to before.
He told me how they had all learned this truth over the years. He wanted to help but they were soldiers; they had trained for killing, they had an enemy and their duty to do. I had no such excuses, just the arrogance of youthful years. I held tightly to Bix’s hand. I didn’t seek reassurance from him; we both knew what I had done. That he didn’t judge me harshly in some way made the deed worse. Was no one going to mourn the passing of those men?
I needed the young men to succeed; only if they did would I feel any lifting of the burden of guilt. Only when I saw happy, well fed, contented townsfolk living without fear would I feel any lifting of the guilt. Of course Bix knew this, they all did; it was why they had started planning to get my plans away to as swift a start as possible. Why they were willing to even contemplate moving livestock around the countryside. Later I would be able to smile at the thought.
Then he softly asked if I had ever considered what food Stocktor had had throughout the years. I shrugged and said the gardens had been growing vegetables, maybe they had downed birds. I didn’t care, was what I didn’t say.
Jimmie Stock had been a large well fed man, Bix continued in a quiet voice, his men also. I looked sideways at him in the silence that followed.
‘He kept food for himself, kept it from the others?’
‘Was there enough food grown to feed so well? Enough for the strength and bulk of those men?’ Bix’s voice was even and almost disinterested. My mind was sluggish and struggled to make sense of what he was saying. He didn’t offer any more, and so we sat.
When the thoughts came I felt the shock of a dropped heart within me. I turned back to him. . to ask. . . to ask the impossible.
I tried and failed to wrap thoughts with words. Bix helped me.
‘We have been considering the possibility since we first came across Stocktor. He had such a hold and the contrasts between him, his men and the rest of the town were vast. Where would such a richness of food come from. We never saw anything except the few vegetables you have mentioned. That town never survived fifty years on those vegetables, Jimmy never grew to such strength on them.’
‘The last of the dead from the unrests would have been years ago.’ I whispered ‘Edmund said there had been no fighting for many years.’ Bix agreed and added that ‘Fresh meat tastes sweeter than old.’
The leap from that comment to my ‘He farmed his people?’ was longer than I say here. Longer and more difficult. It was his turn to shrug. To say, it was just a thought the Comrade had tossed around. There was no answer, just a thought to play with. That we would maybe never know, because if it was so then all in Stocktor had known and they would perhaps not want to confess to allowing it.
I felt my mind shaking away the images, turn to avoid the thoughts. No. No is what my mind said, but . . .
We sat for a while in silence. I would, was even starting to as we spoke, hide my thoughts, to soothe some soft membrane over them. Accommodate them somewhere deep in my mind. To move into the future without them crippling me. It is ever so if one is to live in any kind of inner comfort.
‘Will you be able to manage the knowledge?’ he asked me softly.
I nodded. I could manage anything is what I told him. But my words lacked my usual vigour, they sounded uncertain. I looked at his hand still gripping mine.
‘I have lots of help’ I nodded at the rest of the camp. ‘I’ll manage.’
We sat for a long time, me cuddled in the shelter of his arm; sometimes we spoke of plans, sometimes of getting back to Blaisemill. He missed Ellen and the kits he confessed. We spoke of Christina and her prospects. Other times we just sat. I was spent from the pain and happy to do nothing while strength came back. Men passed and made comment on Bix’s luck to have the power to send Jack out of the way while he, Bix, hugged me. They joined us sometimes and crouching would introduce some comment and idly kick it around for a while before moving on. Then Jack was coming back to us and smiling to see us sitting so.
Before Bix left he turned my face towards his and kissed me, in a manner that I don’t believe brothers would ever do. It was nice. Then Jack was there and it was his arm around me and that was best.
Christina was still alive, stick thin and her icy pale face seemed dazed and her eyes unfocused. She had made a fair attempt to bury the old lady and what she hadn’t managed the men finished for her. We sat to one side and watched. She moved a little closer to me. I asked if she would come with us. I had asked Bix and he had said of course but I knew as I asked she would say no. She would die here she knew, but leave the false security of the ring she couldn’t do. I argued and tried to persuade but she grew more stubborn. All her life she had been told of the dangers out there and she couldn’t. Not on the say-so of complete strangers who might, for all she knew, be the enemy.
I didn’t want her to stay on her own. Why? Did she remind me of myself in any way? She was looking bad luck in the eye. Facing death with a certain courage but . . . but I didn’t want her to die. Did I need to save one to excuse the eleven?
I asked her then what she would say to new people moving in to help her farm the place. She didn’t understand at first and then she grew fearful. Knew she would be murdered as she slept. I talked long and gently. Hour passed hour. The men finished their work and sat away from us talking quietly to themselves. Never looking at us. I explained my plans and thoughts. Told her of Blaisemill. Told her I thought maybe a couple of families would be interested in new land. Told her of the empty farms we had passed, how they were waiting for newcomers to rescue the land. Told her maybe she could do with some company. She was listening, although she pretended not. Told her I could make sure only families came, families with an older woman to help teach her what she needed to know. Families with strength to reclaim the fields. Told her they would be able to bring their pigs and chickens. I talked myself dry and silent. Then we sat and watched the thin winter sunshine move its way toward the evening. Bix it was came to say we had to move down the path before dusk.
Or stay the night I said. I turned to the girl, asking if she would like me to stay the night. Dumbly she nodded but still with a scared eye on the men. Bix didn’t want to leave me there. Jack wandered over, he too was unsettled at the thought. I stood and, walking away with them, I argued for this chance to talk to her without them around. I reminded them I had my knife, I could look after myself. They could be stubborn. They wouldn’t leave me. What harm I argued. They didn’t know that was the point. I almost stamped my feet in frustration then. Jack suggested they leave and he would creep back in a while just before dark. I worried then about him walking through the path in the dark. He would come just before night fell he said, all I had to do was make sure we were inside. He would be invisible for the night. If I was to stay I had to agree. With as good a grace as I could I told them goodbye, arranged for them to come back the next morning, waved as they left. Turned and smiled at my night companion, who for the first time smiled back.
I had been right, without the men, she opened up. We slept not at all, she told me of her life growing up here. How she had been happy, how they all had been. They had little but they managed. Told me how each year the wilderness closed in a little more. How gradually the game of beating back the wilderness had turned to grimness. Explained the plague of insects and the blight. Of the accident that had robbed them at one stroke of her father and the strongest of their group. How happy became squabbles, as the group floundered leaderless. How her brothers had started to attack each other, fighting to lead. How her mother and uncle had tried to restore order.
Then too much rain had washed away their precious seed and cold winters after, had destroyed seedlings. It seemed that from the brightness they walked always in gloom. I held her hand as she told me. Now she was free of restraint I found she was not as stupid as she had always looked.
It was the final tale of woes that had brought her here, the sole survivor of a group too small. They had done well to last so long I didn’t want her to go under. She asked about Blaisemill, about my life. It was strange for me to talk the night away with another girl. I had not had friends to chatter to as I had been growing and, although Ellen and I talked sometimes, it was not as this night was.
She didn’t come with us but she had reluctantly agreed that company might be good. It was all I could get her to agree to. I promised to be back as soon as possible.