I’ve always been ill-fitting in the Village; possibly from the cradle. I cannot remember a time that I didn’t feel constrained by my life here, like a garment a year too small. Outside of the children’s games; irritating the adults. I scowled, not smiled, on my world. I didn’t understand my neighbours and they never understood me. Had I ever tried to fit in? I can’t answer as I don’t know. By the time I was old enough to think, to know, I was already in the side shadows, hating everyone. The fact is I was not born to be of the Village. At the time of my trial that was all I knew but there was nowhere else to go so . . .
I was scared, of course I was; dying was not what I wanted although I knew it would be quick and painless and that I would never see it coming. I was young and life screamed inside me. That was the point that no one could understand, life screamed for release, any life but this slow, suffocating death that was Village life. I wanted something; I never knew what, excitement maybe, variety or change. Maybe it was a faster pace or just a different pace. I never knew what I wanted, only what I didn’t.
I had six months for a final change of heart, six months with no ‘social discourse.’ Instruction only, orders all meant. Life’s just one command after another here. It was a waste of your pity, I would not yield. That night I went to my place in the paddock. It was the furthest I could get from everybody without being in the minefields. I’ve always gone there when I felt I would burst from the anger inside me. I would stare at the low rooflines, watching you all moving around in your steady community spirit. I’d mutter sullenly that I hated you but of course I didn’t really. You’re my family, my neighbours; I’ve lived with you for all my life and you’ve tried so hard to guide me, I know this now. I hated the life not you, but it is so much easier to hate the people. I stayed all night, my back against the fence. I huddled my arms around my knees against the chill and maybe slept a little; I wouldn’t go back to my bed, not after that trial. No one came to fetch me, they knew I wouldn’t come, but still it might have been nice if . . . well, no.
Just as she begins to trust her new companions Keria is savagely mauled by wild dogs, saving the village children.
Then I was lying on a hard surface and faces floated toward and away from me. I could hear Bix’s voice; never ceasing, telling me I was wonderful; cursing the dogs and the Villagers; even Ellen, when they did not do something before he asked. For a while I could hear him and then the dam holding in the pain burst and all I could do was scream. You all say it was dreadful to hear. As Bix examined the mangled remains of my arm, while his fingers gently probed and examined the pieces of crushed bone, cleaned and staunched the ever-flowing blood, I screamed. As he removed small splinters of bone and teeth my head was filled with the sound, my nerve ends joined in as, with increasing ferocity, I continued to scream. You say that in my screams I called for Jack.
When my screams fell silent, that was when I died. You say I died twice that day. You say when I stopped breathing Bix cursed, using words John told me later that they could only guess the meaning of. That he cursed violently and banged me on the chest; that is what I was told. I have seen him since, demonstrate and it was not a bang exactly but more a push.
More than once and I was bruised after but they say it caused my heart to beat again. Why would you lie? But, maybe it was the confusion of the time. I do remember the silence filling my mind for a wonderful moment as all pain fled, and then it was filled with a dreadful low agonised moaning. I wanted noise to stop, then I realized the noise was mine. John said he hadn’t been able to bear the moaning, he had left the room once, but that Ellen and Susana stayed all the time. They held me down as I tried to throw myself away from Bix’s hands.
Bix it was who argued, savagely, to save my arm. Barculo wanted him to take it off, to give me any chance of living. I heard Bix calling me, calling me urgently, insistently. I know I looked at him. I couldn’t see his face clearly and what he was saying I don’t know. Ellen said after that he had asked me if I wanted the arm saved. That he told me I could die either way. He had no promise of life for me. Barculo, it seemed, protested that I could not answer such a question; that I wasn’t in a fit state but Bix told him that only I had the right to answer it. Ellen said that I asked for the arm to be saved. I remember nothing of this you must know.
Barculo salvaged my leg but Bix it was who for hours pieced together the bone; who arranged and sewed the tattered remains of flesh together, where he could. Bix it was who splinted, packed and bandaged what remained of the arm. Bix it was who brought me back to life again the next time I died. Bix it was who had tears on his face at the end as he stared down at me and then across at an ashen-faced Kennet, who had smuggled himself into the room and stood watching me on the table, silently sobbing at my blood-drenched, limp body.
You all said I would die anyway. That Bix had wasted his time. I had lost too much blood. What was left would be infected by the dog’s teeth; infected by the openness of the wound, of the germs that floated and hid everywhere. You all said I would die. Bix refused to believe it; he never gave death a chance.
His men say that he would fight death harder than the enemy. That if his men were wounded they had a better chance with him than with any other commander. He would hurl a challenge at death; dare him to take his man. He rarely lost they told me. I was his man it seemed, and he was not going to let death take me, but he almost lost many times.
Eventually she is well enough to travel and goes with Bix's comrade as he opens up the beseiged settlements and begins the new trade routes which it is hoped will bring some kind of salvation to the population.
The storyteller’s name? Well that was just the mongrels’ idea of a joke. I told them every story I know as we walked and in the evening when we relaxed at a camping, they seemed to like them well enough. They liked the old ones the best: with battles and gods hurling thunderbolts. Throw in a dragon or a medusa and they were quite happy.
I made up a story just for them, outside Apford. I had grown fond of them by then and thought it would be a . . . would be a gift for them, a thank you maybe for all the patience and help they had given me on the trail. They asked for one that night and I hesitated. I had been thinking about it for a few days but I wasn’t sure it was ready, you know.
They were silent, their eyes never leaving me as I thought it out. A ‘Once upon a time’ story must have a certain elements: structure, excitement, danger, love and happiness.
So I told them the new story which, of course, was as old as the hills. ‘Once upon a time, so very long ago before the great wars even’ was how it started and I told them of the world of wonders where men could fly through the sky, even to the stars above. When men could walk on the moon. A magical place where towns were rich and busy places where the cities were so great millions of people could live in the space of our village. Where the farmers could look to the horizon and still see their own fields of wind rippling goodness. I told them of this magical world that existed long, long ago; of the wizards who could burrow tunnels so huge, under the sea, that two Sefuty trains could travel alongside each other. Where magicians could talk to each other from one end of the world to another without moving, could send pictures from the moon to this world by the turn of a few buttons.
I had listened to all Ellen’s discoveries in her books without really thinking what use such knowledge was. Now I know; it was so we could make our own fables, remember our own histories.
The men were all silent not knowing whether to believe me or not but already falling into the tale.
Then, I told them, a creeping evil spread across this wondrous land. No one was sure where it came from. No one noticed until, like a plague, it began to infect many people. Too late they realised that it came from no place on earth, that it came from within humanity itself. Those who did not have the infection tried in vain to turn it back, but still it crept on devouring everyone in its path. I told them the name of this evil was many but the commonest was greed. That it ate into the minds of those who strayed in its way, destroying the brain, leaving the victim unable to judge the difference between the right and the wrong way of living, forcing more evil from every cell in the victim’s body.
I tried to make the sound of the evil feel like a tangible object, a modern dragon. One that could outwit everyone who tried to fight it. Shiny armour would not defeat this monster. I told them how the world itself began to sicken and die from the terrible weight of this sickness. How the very food in the ground withered and died; how animals perished under evil’s onslaught. Many people, I told them, tried to fight it back and perished in its awful presence.
I had complete silence as they watched me. Even Jack and Bix, who knew where I was gleaning my story from, seemed as wrapped in it as the rest of the men.
I told them how, as the sickness spread, people began to fight each other with great ferocity to have what was left, how the world sickened more and more, and then the pace of the sickness gathered speed. Too late, the people of the world saw the sickness for what it was. Evil had the world wrapped within its coils and was squeezing hard, hard, harder.
Although she hated life within her settlement Keria soon finds the death toll and desolation outside the land mines are worse.
Bix showed me a place that had died. It was a poor, sorry, rag tangle of a place. Buildings falling to their sides, pulled down by the weight of the webs which festooned them. It had once, I’m sure, felt safe behind the ring of mines. Now it was empty; desolate, open to the skies. Dark, moist vegetation, released from civilization, rampaged with such exuberance that it was hard to see where inside and out began. I saw bramble and honeysuckle choked around the ivy; nettles growing as high as the rotting gutters. From the bird song I knew no one had lived here for the longest time.
I wandered quietly, searching; they had had livestock here, I found the long, white bones of cattle; they had had a store room, long since emptied, by them or the wildlife that followed? Not a seed remained; empty pots, with not even a smell to give names to long gone substance. With effort I traced the outlines of fields amongst the thickets of wild growth; found the old knotted orchards and then, almost lost in a sapling forest, a well. I sat on the mossy edge of crumbling brick, feeling the dampness, smelling the lush greenness and listening to the safety of never ceasing bird song. It could have been so little: pests in the crops, disease in the cattle. Maybe human: a falling out, no leadership, anything could have killed them.
I found the steps, just flashes of stone among the grey-green and buttercup yellow of lichen. I knew as I ascended them this would be their burial ground.
I found the lady.
Her bones showed how she had lain cheek to the ground, fingers clasping at the earth; had she been weeping for help that never came in the maniacal silence of birdsong? The remnants of her skirt had been bleached of all colour, but her hair had been dark; a wisp still remained, stirring gently in the breeze, giving an air of youth to the skull. I knelt beside her and with an apology and gentleness straightened her stained finger bones, holding them for a moment in my hand.
I looked at the destroyed buildings, had she cared? Tried to keep up standards? Or, with terrified curses, had she abandoned all hope of living and just lain waiting? I hoped madness had robbed her last days of reality. She had died within reach of those who had gone before; indeed, she must have buried the last of them: graveyard and skeleton in such intimate proximity.
Sitting on my heels, my gaze wandering over the reclaimed land, I watched the dizzy spiral of butterflies up into a shaft of sunlight. In the books of my childhood this would be the resting place of a hard-done-by princess awaiting the lifting of a curse.
I stroked the wisp of hair; it came away in my hand. No prince for her; no kiss.
But although she has started to trust the comrades Keria is still beset with demons of her own which leads her to question her own sanity, making her unpredictable, only Jack can control her but although it is clear he cares for her she has no conception of love. As they progress up and down the trail it seems she cannot be truly saved.