UKArchive ID: 36521mitch
Originally published on May 16, 2016 in Fiction
Chapter 10 of the Light-Father. Harold realises how much these children have seen and endured in a few short years and learns more of Amos and his sister, Rebecca, who call themselves Scar and Surl...
The rain had eased to nothing more than a fine drizzle drifting across the rail-yard but the air was fresh and pure. Harold opened his wagon door and inhaled deeply, relishing the smell of oak, moss and pine. He unwrapped a small cigar, lit it and wondered at how little he missed his old life of a mere twenty-four hours ago… ah, that’s why he was tired! Evening in his world was mid-day here so it was probably thirty-two hours ago that he was getting out of bed in his cluttered flat. He yawned until his jaw cracked – he was jet-lagged or was it plane-lagged?
“I bet the bailiffs will seize all my stuff,” he muttered aloud then he shrugged – he was never one for possessions so they were welcome to the vinyl LP collection and the Catatonia posters. “I wish I had my MCD though – I wonder what these kids would have made of the bands in my world.” Then he suddenly remembered that he still owed the bank eighty grand for his flat. “Heh, even this cloud has a silver lining,” he sighed happily.
He leant against the door frame, wreathed in tobacco smoke, as he thought about what Shield had gone through – in fact, all these children had been through hell; an Armageddon that he couldn’t possibly imagine. They reminded him of all those damaged child-soldiers in Africa he’d seen on a documentary once - just before he’d gone to the pub and forgotten about them...
The front door of the mail-wagon was already open and Mouse and Surl, the silent bald girl, jumped down then carted their slop buckets over to an open manhole next to the car-park. He watched them as they tipped the contents down into the sewer then went to one of the water barrels Saul had placed at the bases of office drain-pipes to flush the buckets out with fresh rain-water.
Water wasn’t a problem, he realised, as the yard was littered with barrels collecting the run-off from the roofs of all the buildings. His biggest concern - apart from the Tally-men, the Ferals and the dogs - were the children’s caravans. The Scatterlings loved their little havens but they were mildewed, hopping with fleas, lice and other insects and stank to high heaven. He had to do something as all the children were showing signs of impending health problems.
Mouse saw him standing at the open doorway and grabbed her companion’s hand to drag her over and say hello. “Thank you for the hot food last night, Light-Father,” she grinned. “We felt all warm and cosy when we went to bed but when we woke up this morning, we were both making giggle-music.”
“What do mean by that, Mouse?” he smiled. “Or should I just call you Ethelind?”
Mouse blinked then pointed to the ears on her head-band. “Mouse is my name, Light-Father. I can’t really remember my real name and I don’t want to. Ethelind means ‘noble snake’ in the old tongue so better a mouse than a snake so Mouse is me!”
He held up his hands in surrender and smiled. “Mouse it is. What about you, Surl? Do you have a proper name?”
She shook her head then stared at her feet and remained silent. He had noted that she never made eye contact with anyone not even Mouse. She was a handsome girl of about nine but she had no hair at all but given what happened to Shield and her sisters, the hair loss had to be due to massive trauma. Like Mouse, she had a large knife strapped to her belt but she preferred longer trousers than Mouse and wore a stout leather jacket with shoulder pads. On her green vest there was a large and beautiful golden cross on a chain that she would often kiss for comfort. She only conversed through Mouse and if Mouse wasn’t there, she wouldn’t talk at all.
Mouse seemed to have enough vitality and enthusiasm for the both of them and put an arm around the shoulders of the younger girl. “Her real name is Rebecca Crawin,” she said proudly.
“I gather that she’s Amos’s sister,” he nodded thoughtfully. “He doesn’t seem to have much time for you, Surl - he’s the total opposite of Ibrahim. Why is he so cold to you?”
Surl stifled a sob then whispered into her friend’s ear.
“He had only nine years when the Fathers slashed his face for defying them,” Mouse explained with a shrug. “She only had three years, Light-Father, but she saw and heard her parents and her brother and sister being killed in their home because they resisted the Fathers and Brothers who came to the house.”
“Sweet Jesus,” he sighed and sat down cross-legged on the doorstep. “This Order makes the Khmer Rouge look like angels.” He puffed on his cigar for a moment and blew a smoke ring which brought a rare smile to Surl’s face. “That’s better,” he said brightly. “I think I prefer Rebecca to Surl any day.”
Surl whispered in Mouse’s ear then looked at the ground with her hands clasped so tightly that her knuckles whitened.
“She was given that name by her brother so she accepted it because she is grateful to him for saving her.”
“Yes, but it’s such a negative name,” he sighed. “Is that what triggered your hair loss, Rebecca?”
“No,” Mouse translated. “They’d met Fria and they were searching for food and medicine in a house on the other side of Crawcester when the Tally-men entered. Fria and Amos hid in a wardrobe but Surl was discovered by a Tally-man hiding under a bed. The other Tally-men left but he remained behind and took her back upstairs into the bedroom to smother her with a pillow. As he held the pillow over her face, Amos burst from the wardrobe and smashed him across the head with a hammer and Fria stabbed him with her long knives. He had only ten years then and Fria eight but together they knocked the Tally-man to the floor. She watched Amos hit the Tally-man….” she paused as Surl mimed the motion, her eyes bulging with the horror as she relived it. “Again and again and again. Her hair fell out after seeing that.”
“Ah, I see – so she saw her brother and Fria kill someone. Trauma like that will cause baldness which can last for six years or more,” he said. “Poor Rebecca, you’ve seen some things no child should ever see.”
Surl whispered again and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
“She said she saw many terrible things in the Year of the Rats as we call it,” Mouse translated whilst still comforting Surl who was trembling in her arms. “Like us, she saw floods and bodies being eaten by dogs and rats and great flocks of crows and ravens until the clouds were black with carrion birds. We thought it could not get any worse but then the Tally-men came.”
“So they weren’t there at the beginning then?”
“No, they came with the Fathers and Brothers about four months after the plague,” Mouse nodded. “Some of the survivors thought they were there to help so many were either killed or taken away to the Great Abbey. Surl, Fria and Amos quickly learnt to fear them and hide from them as we did.” She paused to listen as Surl whispered into her ear and mimed biting actions with her hands.
“She saw many children attacked and killed by dogs but her worst memory – the one that makes her scream in her sleep - is the smile on her brother’s face as he killed the Tally-man.”
“Dear God, Rebecca, it’s no wonder you’re traumatised,” he said sympathetically. He stubbed out his cigar and placed it in the packet then jumped down from the wagon. He knelt to raise Surl’s chin with one hand to try and look her in the eye but she yanked her head away and averted her face.
“She hates being touched,” Mouse explained then paused to listen to another whisper. “She says he kept hitting him long after he was dead.” She halted as Surl mimed the hitting action and her brother’s deranged smile before groaning and burying her face in her hands. “She refuses to call him Scar because she says that if she does, he’ll no longer be her brother – he’ll just be another monster in a world full of monsters.”
“So she won’t talk to anyone because that way she doesn’t have to call him Scar,” he sighed heavily. He placed one hand on Surl’s thin shoulder and one hand on his heart. “On my daughter’s grave, I promise I will help you and Amos work through this. He was taking his revenge on the Tally-man but to carry on like that means that he’s also badly damaged by what happened to your family. You’ll have to forgive him for that just as he has to understand the effect that his revenge has had on you – only then can you both heal and move on with your lives.”
He stood up and worked his shoulders. “Now, girls, we have a lot of work to do today. I have to find some more batteries and rig up a talking head to scare the Tally-men but first, you two are going to help me get a hot breakfast ready. What’s the matter, Surl?” he asked as she whispered urgently to Mouse again. He was startled as the girl broke wind noisily not once but several times.
“She hopes it isn’t that chilli con stuff you made for us last night,” Mouse grinned. “She doesn’t want to explode.”
“Typical – even here, everyone’s a food critic,” he sighed theatrically. “Porridge should sort you out, Rebecca,” he assured her. “You have to eat hot meals at least twice a day if you want to grow your beautiful hair back.”
“Please call her Surl for now as Amos gets angry,” Mouse begged. “Call her Rebecca when he isn’t here.”
“Yes, I promise. So, Surl, your hair - what colour was it?”
“Red,” she whispered and she edged forward with her eyes still firmly locked on the ground. Suddenly, she flung her arms around his neck, knocking his baseball cap off. “Want hair back; want brother back. Please, Light-Father - no more nightmares!”
“That’s the most she’s ever said in one breath and the first hug she’s ever given anybody since she came here,” Mouse gasped in wide-eyed amazement. “You must be an angel.”
Harold grinned and patted Surl’s back. “I’m no angel but my former wife said I do have this effect on children,” he said wryly. “She said I used to remind her of her favourite toy rabbit.” He stood up and lifted the surprisingly light Surl into the air and carried her to the mail-wagon and placed her inside. He hoisted Mouse aboard then handed her the two slop-buckets. “Take these back to your caravan while Surl and I make a start on breakfast. It’ll be good, I promise – we found some powdered milk and honey yesterday so I guarantee there won’t be any ‘giggle-music’ afterwards.”
“I’ll bolt your wagon door for you first.”
“Ah, thanks, Mouse, I forgot.”
The front doors of all three wagons were bolted at night to prevent Ferals and Tally-men sneaking through and catching the Scatterlings off guard amongst the five caravans and one motor-home that housed them. They had been parked in two rows of three on the two innermost sidings between the wagons and the wall and he thought that their parents had done a remarkable job in constructing a fort for their soon-to-be orphaned children. They’d jammed a lorry trailer between the wall and his wagon and stuffed the gaps between the wagons and between the wheels with black razor-sharp barbed wire. The trailer frame and the edge of the main gate had then been welded to the ends of the wagons.
Thus the Keep was defensible enough but the Tally-men could easily scale the wagons or the boundary wall if they were serious or set fire to the wagons and the trailer and smoke them out.
“Okay, Surl, let’s get busy,” he said, going over to the large stove which was still radiating heat. He raked the ashes and added some dry twigs and sticks which crackled noisily into flames then he added a layer of coal taken from the huge stores sited on the northern side of the rail-yard. “Fill that pan with water,” he ordered. She nodded, jumped down and raced across to one of the office water-barrels as he used the bellows to get the fire going.
He set the pan upon the stove to boil and as Mouse clambered aboard, he noticed that she’d used some water, probably scooped from a puddle between the caravans, to wash her hands and face. “See, Surl, I told you there was a pretty girl under all that grime,” he joked and was rewarded with a cheesy grin from Mouse and the faintest of smiles from Surl. “Okay, Assistant Chef Surl,” he announced grandly. “Please set out the bowls and spoons.”
“Yes, Light-Father,” she whispered meekly and once again Mouse regarded him with a mixture of awe and amazement.
“Assistant Chef Mouse, fill the large kettle with water, if you please, for we shall have tea with our feast, fair maiden.”
“As you wish, King Harold,” she curtsied. “Then we shall all go and slay those naughty Normans at Redfields.”
As the thirteen bowls of steaming porridge were set upon the longest table, Fierce’s bleary face appeared above the doorstep of the back door. “Huh? Why all the noise? What’s going on? It’s too early to get up,” she grumbled sleepily.
“Ah, welcome, Goldilocks. Could you go and wake up the rest of the grumpy bears before it gets cold, please?”
Fierce gave him a puzzled look then she hurried off to rouse the others without a word.
He handed a spoon and a tin of honey to Surl. “Add the honey to each bowl but make a spiral shape in each bowl,” he smiled, indicating a spiral with his forefinger pointed downwards. “The sign of a great chef is attention to detail. How’s the tea, Mouse?”
“All done, Light-Father,” she beamed, ferrying the mugs to the table. “Can I be promoted to a real chef now?” she demanded. “Being an assistant chef is hard work.”
“A truly sharp edge is honed by hard work and patience, my father used to say to me when I was little,” he said nostalgically. “We used to have the sharpest saws and knives in the whole city but to be honest, my Dad couldn’t even make a simple cupboard properly yet I could when I was... had six years. I had a gift for building and fixing things. I made my first radio when I was eight and repaired my first computer system at twelve.”
“Why are we getting up so early?” Fierce demanded as she climbed into the wagon. “And who is this ‘Goldilocks’?”
“Ah, just someone you remind me of,” he grinned, spying the others. “Get in here, all of you - the rain’s starting up again.”
The children quickly seated themselves around the table but most of them were dishevelled and barely awake but even so, all of them had placed a weapon on the table in front of them even Pup. It was a sobering thought that these children had learnt from bitter experience that wishing to have a knife to hand was probably the last wish you would ever make in this world…
He sat in the chair at the end of the table and noted how their eyes had lit up at the smell of milk and honey in the porridge. “It’s going to be a long day,” he declared, waving a spoon at them. “I’ve got jobs for all of you so you’d better eat it all – you’ll need your strength.” He was about to take a mouthful when he noticed that they were all looking at him in shocked silence with their hands clasped in their laps. “What’s wrong now?” he demanded. “Why are you waiting? It’s getting cold.”
Shield sighed, placed her hands together in prayer and bowed her head as did the others. “O Lord, may your humble servants at break of fast, thank thee for this food before us and for another day of Life that you have granted us to dwell in the Light of your Blessing. Watch over us, O Lord, in our comings and goings, in our struggles and in our victories this day. We beg you, O Lord, have mercy upon us all and upon our Light-Father. Amen.”
“Amen,” the others chorused, leaving Harold feeling somewhat churlish and rustic.
“I didn’t know you said grace here,” he said weakly.
“Only at breakfast,” Shield smiled. “That was the Commoner’s Prayer – us peasants are usually too busy at dinner and too tired at supper to pray so we recite our prayers at dawn before we set off to work and forget about God during our daily toil.”
“Ah, that was a little humour there,” he smiled as the children tore into their food hungrily. “I’ll see about setting up an oven to bake some bread if we can find some uncontaminated flour but first things first,” he added, his mouth watering. “Eat! I can’t boss you around if your stomachs are empty.”
They finished their meal in near total silence but for the scraping of spoons in bowls. Pup made them all laugh by wedging his face into his bowl as he tried to lick it clean.
“Listen up, troops,” Harold said firmly. “Amos, Shield, Saul and Ibrahim – you will go to the nearby houses and bring back as much tinned food and medical supplies as you can. I also want you to look for a bath that you can carry as well.”
“Why do we need a bath?” Amos protested. “We have a vicious pack of dogs out there to contend with.”
“Which is why you need Shield and her cross-bow,” Harold said patiently. “The pack had four big dogs to chew on last night so the chances are they should be still too full to bother with you even if they’re still around. I want that bath to wash clothes and small children in and we’re going to de-louse everybody. You all have weeping sores and fungal infections – it’s only a matter of time before a bacterial infection kills one or more of you.”
“I could go with them,” Fria volunteered, brandishing her long knives. “After all that porridge and honey, I could take on ten dogs and six Tally-men at the same time.”
“Huh! You’d only faint again,” Amos grumbled sourly.
Harold looked at the frail, elf-like 13-year-old with some concern. “How often do you faint, Fria?” he asked.
“Once or twice a week, Light-Father,” she admitted. “It started four years ago and it’s getting worse. I get short of breath and my gums and mouth are sore all the time.”
“Ah, that sounds like anaemia,” Harold nodded. “At least I hope that’s all it is - I’m praying it’s not diabetes. You’re staying but Saul, look for boxes of Vitamin C and iron tablets… Vitamin C comes from fruit,” he said as they looked at him blankly. “Look, just go into all the houses you can and bring back as much medication as you can. Bring everything.”
“There’s a doctor’s surgery on Crawcester Road,” Saul said.
“Good,” Harold nodded. “Break in and strip it of everything then bring it all here along with that bath. Get dressed and get going before these Tally-men show up. I take it they patrol at the same time every day if it’s raining?”
“Yes, they come two or three hours after noon,” Saul replied. “Then they sweep on into the centre and back out again. They never vary unless it’s dry or the Fathers instruct them through the Guides to do something out of the ordinary.”
“I understand. Pup? You, Fierce, Mouse and Surl wash the pots and bowls then bring in more coal for the stove then you’re going to guide me around the yard – I need to take an inventory of what we have here that’s useful.”
“What shall we do?” Bas said indicating Rabbit, Fria and Peter – a pleasant ten-year-old with a simple but functional claw created by his parents after he’d lost his left hand in an accident. He could replace the hand with a blade that slotted into the mount upon his stump within seconds – a move he practiced constantly.
“You four are going to make me the head of Mother Moss,” he grinned. “Get the boxes of paper from my trailer and a bowl of water and some of that flour we found. I’ll make the frame for the face while you soak the paper then you’ll plaster it onto the frame using a paste made from flour and water. It’s called papier mache which is French in my world for ‘chewed paper’.”
“Sounds like fun,” Pup grinned eagerly then hared off to fetch the paper with Surl in hot pursuit.
He quickly fashioned a stiff wire mesh into a frame as the pots and crockery were scrubbed and more water for the glue came to the boil upon the stove. The forage party reappeared and trudged across the wagon as the papier mache team started soaking paper strips in bowls of water. Harold quickly jumped down after them as they set off for the gates. “Wait, Amos,” he called. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“I’d rather you call me Scar not by that stupid Hebrew name,” Amos scowled. “My father told me it meant ‘burdened’ as he and mother didn’t exactly plan for me and Surl. Besides,” he added, tracing his scar with a finger. “This scar is what I am. You don’t protest about Shield or Mouse or Claw not using their real names so why can’t you and the others call me Scar!”
“I know how you got that scar,” Harold said as the others waited patiently by the gates. “You have a sister who is scared of what you’ve become even though she thinks you’re amazing for saving her but she wants her brother back. You’ve had to kill, son. I can’t imagine what that was like…”
Amos’s eyes narrowed. “It’s obvious that you don’t,” he said bluntly. “A Father slashed my face and beat me for trying to stab him with a knife then he threw me into the kitchen where I pretended to be unconscious. My sister only had three years but she had the sense to hide under the kitchen table when they stabbed Eorl and Sara in the hallway before dragging them into the front room where they carried on beating them and our parents.”
Harold stared wide-eyed at the youth who was reciting scenes of utmost brutality in such a matter-of-fact way – almost as if he was describing a trip to the shops. “I can’t understand how a religious order could do this,” he said, shaking his head.
“Neither can I but they did this to me,” Amos shrugged. “That’s why I’d like you to call me Scar - I don’t want to forget.”
“But scarred is what you are,” Harold said desperately. “Shield and Fierce imply resistance whereas taking the name, Scar, means you accept what they did to you. Why not take a battle-name from the Asgard? You already call that hammer of yours, Mjolnir, so why not have Thor as your battle-name?”
“Those stories are for children,” Amos sneered, reaching an arm over his shoulder to pat the head of his sledgehammer. “Mjolnir has killed four Tally-men but my sister, Surl…”
“Why did you give Rebecca that stupid name? Surl is just as bad as Scar - it makes the two of you sound like victims.”
“Who cares what you think, Light-Father?” Amos retorted. “Or should I say Harold? Surl… Rebecca thinks I’m more Loki than Thor – she hasn’t said a word to me since we’ve arrived here and I’ve lost interest in her so surly Surl is all she is to me now. I saved her so I named her,” he added with bitter tears. “I don’t believe she has a mote of love for me and that’s the end of it.”
“You’re wrong, Amos! She won’t talk to you or anyone because she refuses to call you Scar. When you killed that first Tally-man, you were smiling – that’s why she’s speechless.”
“Of course I was smiling,” Amos seethed. “He was trying to kill a three-year-old child with a pillow! If someone tried to kill your little sister in front of you, would not you take pleasure from completely destroying him?” he hissed.
Harold was taken aback. “Look, I’m not judging you, Amos, but taking pleasure from beating a dead man is serious…”
“I had ten years! I knew no better. How could I? If you can’t understand what we’ve been through, Light Father, then keep away from us. We don’t need your help or your pity!”
“That’s where you’re wrong, boy!” Harold snapped. “I am not going to let you destroy yourself and your sister, understand? Now get going and don’t come back without those supplies!”
“Don’t fret - you’ll get your accursed tin bath!” Amos snarled and stormed off to join the others.
“Well, that could have gone better,” Harold said aloud as the four teenagers vanished from sight. He jumped on finding Fierce had approached silently to stand next to him.
“We’re all worried about him,” she sighed. “Saul and Shield think he could kill one of us one day which is why he stays with Ibrahim – he knows Ibrahim has the strength to snap him in two if he misbehaves. You are a magician, Light-Father,” she laughed suddenly. “To get Surl and Amos to say more in one day than they’ve said in a whole year has got to be magical.”
“I won’t lose any of you, Fierce, I promise - not even to mental illness,” he said grimly. “I just have to find a way to help him before it’s too late – for him and Rebecca.”
(c) 2012 Paul D. E. Mitchell
Archived comments for Chapter 10: Speechless
Mikeverdi on 17-05-2016
Chapter 10: Speechless
Another great episode mate, life in the war zone for the kids is both horrific and fascinating. Thanks for continuing posting.
Thanks, Mike - the pace picks up from now on! Mitch