UKArchive ID: 36594mitch
Originally published on June 6, 2016 in Fiction
Chapter 16 of the Light-Father: With Ferals lurking nearby another Tally-man patrol catches Harold off-guard. He opens a wagon door to find a spear-tip at his throat and a Tally-man with a strange message and a stark warning...
“Light-Father, there’s nothing wrong with my bandages,” Peter protested. He frowned at the bickering and clatter of crockery as Fierce, Fria, Bas and Ibrahim set about washing up the breakfast dishes and drying them. “Did we have to bring those sinks over?” he grumbled. “It’s crowded in here! We don’t need…”
Whatever he said was drowned out by loud thuds, grunts and curses of exertion as Saul, Amos and Shield hefted a desk onto the front door ledge. They shoved it inside the wagon before heading off through the pouring rain to bring another from the offices.
“We need the sinks to wash our plates and our clothes in rather than use the tub in the next wagon all the time.” Harold explained as he continued to unwind the bandages. “The desks are for you all to study, learn and work upon. I am determined that we will live in a civilised manner with chairs instead of boxes and hot food instead of eating out of tins - and today we are also going to scrub all the caravans clean then we are going to scrub everyone clean.”
Fria shook the suds from her hands and sat at the table next to them. “Our mattresses, sheets and clothes aren’t drying in the wagon, Light-Father,” she complained. “The air is too damp in there and there’s no breeze so they’ll soon smell mouldy again. Besides it will take days to boil enough water to wash us and all our clothes and bedding even if we could dry everything.”
“We’ll use the tin bath today to scrub the four youngest clean,” Harold said. “As for the rest of us, I noticed that the showers in the locker-rooms are fed by a cold-water tank and a gas-heated header-tank which we can fill by diverting rain-water into them. The gas was piped in from one of the propane tanks behind the canteen so the chances are they’re all still full of gas.”
Fria shivered with expectation. “Hosanna! We’re going to have hot showers and finally get clean,” she sighed dreamily.
“See? The bandages were fine,” Peter said as Harold carefully removed the last one. “I’ve kept them dry.”
“No, you haven’t, Peter,” Harold sighed as the heavy rain continued to sweep across the yard in grey veils. Thunder rumbled incessantly in the distance and the daylight was as dark as dusk even though it was now eleven o’clock. He carefully peeled away Peter’s old dressings, placed them in a plastic bag then opened a fresh pack. He handed the bandages to Fria. “Place these in that small pan of water on the stove and boil them. They’re not badly soiled and we need to keep a stock of clean bandages. The supply from the surgery will not last long at this rate.”
“We can store them on our new medicine shelves,” Fria said brightly. “Look, we even have stores of toilet-paper, Light-Father – the Keep is starting to feel like home…”
“A very crowded home,” Peter interjected.
“It just the beginning, Fria,” Harold said. “We have a long way to go yet. It seems even more humid than ever today if that was possible and all you kids really do stink. I have to treat you all for fungal infections, insect bites as well as sores and we need to get rid of these damn things.” He picked a bloated flea from Peter’s collar and squashed it between his fingernails. “We’ll have to dose the rest of the caravans and mattresses then wash and treat your clothes and forage to find new ones tomorrow.”
“I don’t need fresh bandages,” Peter objected. “Those old ones were just damp – Fria doesn’t need to sterilise them.”
“Yes, you do need fresh bandages,” Harold snapped, peeling back a dressing. “Look, your wounds are weeping, Peter - they could become badly infected. I even had to remind you take your antibiotic just now – I shouldn’t have to do that, son.”
Peter apologized then grimaced with pain as Harold treated and dried the sores before applying the fresh dressings and bandages. He watched mystified as Harold took out a small tape measure and laid it along his forearm, upper arm and shoulders. “What are you doing now, Light-Father?” he smiled as Harold scribbled in a small note-book with a pencil. “I know how big I am.”
“A very big baby,” Fria teased as she reseated herself.
“It’s for a harness,” Harold explained, showing him the sketch. “Your original claw has a lever here, see?” He picked up the claw off the table and pulled the lever back to demonstrate how the two hooked ‘fingers’ of the claw opened then snapped together when the lever was released. “You use the lever to clamp onto something but if you attach a cable and run it through leather loops in a harness you can make it open by simply flexing your left shoulder. It will take a while to make but you’ll notice the difference.”
“What about the cup-section of the claw? How will that attach to the end of my arm if it’s too small?”
“I’ll remould and widen the cup in the workshops,” Harold promised. “I’ll add braces to a new
reinforced sheath so that anything striking the blade you screw into the mount won’t damage your stump or dislodge the mount from the sheath.”
“Bless you, Light-Father,” Peter gushed, his eyes shining. “That will make such a difference to my whole life.”
“Don’t get too excited,” Harold cautioned. “As I said - it will all take a while to make as I don’t have much experience in working leather.” He tied off the bandages then hauled himself to his feet. “And you need to heal first. That’s you done – don’t forget to put on the bag to keep them dry when you go outside. I’m going to check on Mouse now then I’m going to get everyone cleaning their caravans and boiling water for the tub!” he announced loudly to a chorus of groans and grumbles.
He knelt down to examine Mouse’s bandages and was relieved to find they were warm and dry and so was her bedding as it was basking in the radiance of the stove fire. She looked dreadfully pale but Fierce had coaxed some breakfast into her and made sure she’d swallowed the antibiotic tablet and painkillers. She protested feebly because of modesty but Fierce assisted him until Harold was satisfied that his stitching wasn’t infected.
“We have got to find a dry place where the Tally-men don’t patrol,” he told Fierce after drawing her to one side. “If her wounds become infected, she won’t stand a chance.”
“I have faith in you, Light-Father,” she said frankly. “What will you be doing while we scrub the caravans?”
He sighed wearily. “I need to make sure our Mother Moss here is waterproof then I’ll cook. After the Tally-men patrol, I want to check on the showers in the canteen building and see how much work is involved. While I do that, I want you, Fria and Shield to get Surl, Peter, Rabbit and Pup scrubbed clean, their clothes washed and hung them up to dry in the laundry wagon.”
“But we can’t dry our clothes in there. When they get too mouldy, the Elders bring us more clothes from the city shops.”
“Why risk so many sorties when we can wash and repair them like you’ve done with this jacket of yours?”
“I love this jacket,” she said defensively, tugging at the interweaving laces that tied the front of the jacket. She wore a short vest or T-shirt that exposed her midriff and had on the forearm-guards and shin-guards she’d liberated from the museum – he’d noticed that she never went anywhere without them or her weapons. “Just as I love this woollen skirt and my breeches,” she added. “I can run and fight without being restricted in any way – they’re perfect for fighting in.”
Harold was startled as she leapt up and drew both knife and sword simultaneously to slash and stab at an imaginary Tally-man. “That’ll do!” he commanded. “As for our laundry problem: there are gas-powered industrial heaters and blowers that I can rig up in the wagon to dry the clothes. Tonight, the young ones can share my mattress next to Mouse and keep warm by the stove until their own bedding and clothes are dry and their mattresses fumigated.”
“So that mattress and those blankets belonged to Mother Moss? Um, what will you sleep on tonight?”
“Oh, I have plenty of cushions and blankets so don’t look so worried, Fierce,” he assured her as she sat down next to him at the table. “You have an amazing older sister to look after you. Last night, she was telling me all about your adventures in the Barnacle up to when you found that old house by the river.”
“We were happy there until… until… no, I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, paling at the memory.
“In your own time,” he said gently. “When you have had a terrible experience, you need to talk about it but only when you’re ready. Ah, wonderful - here’s the second desk.”
He went to help Saul, Shield and Amos drag the heavy desk into the wagon and set it against the end wall. He set two battery lamps upon it and had to admit the long wagon was indeed now crammed to the limit with the shelving units, tables and chairs plus the bedding and mattresses on the floor by the stove. “Well done, you three,” he smiled. “Now get yourselves dry.”
They moved Mouse and her mattress a little to one side to access the stove then Shield propped Mouse up on pillows so that she could watch the rest of the bustle come and go as Harold made sure everyone of them had a job to do before making the stew. He’d spotted bay trees and rosemary bushes in the front gardens of houses close to the gates so he sent Shield, Amos and Saul back out into the torrential downpour gather the herbs which he added to the stew on their return. As they steamed gently by the stove, he noted how they had obeyed his rather trivial request without question despite being soaked to the skin.
The herbs were duly added to the stew and filled the wagon with a mouth-watering aroma. “So much for us getting dry earlier,” Amos muttered as their clothes steamed in the heat from the stove. “Ho! I’m injured too, Light-Father - those bites the dogs gave me are hurting greatly.”
He regretted his comments as Harold paused in the cooking to insist that he remove his breeches. Harold checked the bandages meticulously and declared them to be fine. The rain-cloaks and coats that the children used in the heavy rain such as this had kept both his legs and the bandages upon them largely dry. “You’ll live, Amos,” he declared as the red-faced and sulking boy climbed back into his breeches.
The stew was dished out and Mouse sat up to take some food at Fierce’s insistence but she felt too weak to help and chafed a little. “Leave me be, Fierce, I’m not useless,” she huffed.
“No, you are a valiant but sore wounded maiden,” Peter declared. “You have to swoon in your bed until your hero on a white horse arrives to whisk you off to Valhalla.”
As Peter and Mouse teased each other, Harold switched on another lamp as the gloom depressed him along with the constant bass rumble of the thunder and the ceaseless drumming of the rain upon the roof of the wagon and the caravans. “It’s not easing,” he noted irritably. “I can hardly draw breath it’s so humid.”
“These storms can last for a whole week then the yard is at risk of flooding if the rain gets any heavier than this,” Saul noted grimly. “What’s the matter, Bas?” he demanded as she suddenly rushed across the wagon to crouch by the door and sniff the air – she’d released her tail again and it moved from side to side as her ears twitched. “Is it the Tally-men?”
“No, Saul, there’s been a change in wind direction. We’re still being watched by at least three Ferals,” she said angrily, baring her teeth. “Why are they out there watching us like this?”
“I know they took Eliza and Jacob but I don’t think they’re an immediate threat,” Harold said and described the dream he’d had about the Mothers to them again while being careful to leave out the part with Shield being tied to the chair. “If it wasn’t a dream, the Ferals are working for the Mothers which means that they are watching over you all now that Mother Moss has gone.”
“Makes sense,” Ibrahim nodded, glancing at Shield. “Mother Moss brought you to us and now a Feral has brought her staff here to us so it’s no surprise to me that we’re being watched if the Ferals are indeed their eyes and ears. My father did say they could get inside your dreams and leave messages like this but with all due respect, Light-Father, you don’t have any of their powers so that part of your dream might be more wish than reality. Where is that staff now, Shield? And is it magical?”
“No more than the Light-Father is, Ibrahim,” she said, staring meaningfully at Harold. “It’s just a long piece of wood with a swan on the end. It’s ceremonial – it’s no use to us even as a stick to hit Tally-men with so I’ve left in my caravan.”
“It’s a pity it’s not magical,” Amos said in a disappointed tone. “So why did the Ferals bring it here? I mean I never saw her with it, did you, Shield? You spent more time with her than any of us so is it true? Is that staff really hers?”
Bas was still crouched by the door, staring at the buildings opposite. “If the Light-Father’s dream was true,” she said before Shield could reply. “He saw that same staff by an empty chair so we have to presume it was hers. Maybe they’ve sent it to us as a token that they might honour Mother Moss’s desire to look after us Scatterlings and protect us all from the Order.”
“There’s little sign of that,” Saul said angrily, folding his arms. “Maybe the Mothers took the staff away from her and didn’t help her when Schimrian Inquired of her because she was helping us. Who knows what they’re thinking? Maybe this dream was a lie and they want to kill us now. Either way, I hate being watched by these damn Ferals because they took my little cousins and if they harm any of you, I will hunt them down and kill them.”
“No, you won’t!” Mouse said with such force that it startled Saul. “That’s how we lost David to the Tally-men – the only way we’ll survive is if we stay together and you lead us.”
Harold saw that Shield had been made distinctly uncomfortable by the conversation and the way Saul and Ibrahim were gazing suspiciously at her. “Despite what they said in the dream, Ibrahim, I’m not magical,” he said quickly, patting the black tin. “Instead my skills are more technical. Whatever the Mothers did and whatever they’re up to, I’m convinced Mother Moss brought me here because she knew you were facing a highly technical enemy in the Order. However, my primary goal is to get you all fighting fit and healthy - that means working together as a family and making the Keep comfortable as well as safe. In a month or two we’re going to find somewhere drier and safer, I promise.”
Ibrahim broke into a rare smile and placed his hands upon Surl’s shoulders. “Mother Moss definitely wanted you to look after us,” he nodded. “You may not have magical powers but you’ve worked miracles: Amos over there is actually smiling; Mouse is our very own saga heroine; Fria has found some confidence; we can see what Rabbit looks like under the dirt and Surl here is talking more than she ever has - even if it is only one word at a time.”
“Sometimes two now,” she said, grinning up at him. She frowned suddenly and counted on her fingers. “I mean three. No, that’s six… ah, kack, that makes ten…”
Ibrahim was distracted by the good-natured laughter at Surl counting comically on her fingers. He threw his hands wide. “We certainly are a family especially with all these chores and caravans to scrub,” he declared in martyred tones, his shoulders drooping. “All this washing and scrubbing – it’s not natural.”
As the children, including Surl, gently poked fun at him, Shield breathed a sigh of relief and went to the back door to study the shifting pall of black cloud overhead. She grabbed a cape from the back of a nearby chair and threw it over her shoulders. “I should get out there and keep watch for the Tally-men,” she declared, half to herself. “They’re due soon - even in this accursed rain.”
“I’ll go,” Ibrahim volunteered eagerly, taking the cape. “You need to dry out and I need a break from all this scrubbing. See, Light-Father?” he added at the step. “All your talk of hot showers and dry clothes is making poor Shield here go all soft.”
Harold raised an eyebrow as he watched the young Egyptian clamber up onto the caravan roofs. “I hope he wasn’t serious, Shield – you going soft is the last thing we need.”
“He’s right to be concerned,” she said grimly, leaning on the door frame with her arms folded. “If you get too comfortable in this world, you let your guard down and that’s when you die.”
“I know Mother Moss did look after you but right now you are all infected to some degree,” Harold pointed out as he connected the battery wires. “Your health is not good - you can only get so much nutrition out of a tin and you’ve all been permanently water-logged. Bas? Are our Feral spies still out there?”
“The wind is carrying their scent away again so there may be more - we only see them because they want us to see them.”
An old tune by Stealer’s Wheel suddenly popped into Harold’s head as he tested the switches and made the mouth of his model head work in time to the melody he was singing: “Yes I'm stuck in the middle with you and I'm wondering what it is I should do. It's so hard to keep this smile from my face. Losing control, yeah, I'm all over the place. Fathers to the left of me, Mothers to the right - here I am, stuck in the middle with you…”
“Nice melody. How many more tunes from your world have you got with you?” Amos demanded curiously.
Harold checked his nose for blood but there was none this time even though the strange headache had briefly returned while he was singing. “Let’s see,” he said as he packed his tools away then fished out his phone from a pouch on his utility-belt. “If I had my digital player, I’d have thousands of songs for you but I do have quite a few on this which you can listen to but once the battery runs out that’s it.” He gave Amos a pair of earphones, set the phone to go through the play-list and watched as the badly-scarred face of the teenager was transformed by an expression of wonder.
“It’s beautiful but I can only understand one or two of the words,” Amos said with a raised voice.
“It’s an ancient band called Pink Floyd,” Harold said loudly getting up. He halted at the front door and cocked an ear. “All the thunder has stopped thank goodness - it was getting annoying.”
Bas went and crouched by the back door next to Shield and gazed up at the sky and sniffed – Harold could now see hints of the inserted feline DNA in the way she moved. “The weather is changing quickly,” she said with an uneasy edge to her voice. “There’s a smell of ash and hot sand on the breeze. Something is happening… the rain is easing off and the clouds are moving faster than I’ve ever seen before and they’re breaking.”
Harold joined them. “Yes, you’re right,” he exclaimed. “I won’t be sorry to see the sun again.”
“I hate the sun!” Fierce said with an intensity that caught him by surprise. “Mother Moss always told us that the rain was our friend; without it we are at the mercy of the Tally-men. If they don’t stick to their regular times, we won’t ever know when to expect them. We’d have to stand guard twenty-four hours a day; we won’t be able to go foraging and if they come for us in the night, we’d be helpless without Mother Moss here to defend us.”
“I appreciate how Mother Moss looked after you,” Harold said gently. “But even she couldn’t put sunshine on your skin. I’m amazed that you haven’t all got rickets or anaemia by now.”
“I know not these ‘vitamin D’ and ‘rickets’,” Saul said, folding his arms as he too gazed at the slackening rain out of the back door. “But Mother Moss did explain to me the causes of brittle-leg and told David and me to make sure that we all ate plenty of tinned fish and meat over the years that she looked after us and yes, she did cook sometimes and she made us wash every day.”
“We stopped looking after ourselves when she died because we lost hope,” Fria said miserably. “We miss her.”
“So do I,” Bas agreed, turning to look pointedly at Harold. “She was the first person who didn’t try to rip my ears off when meeting me for the first time. She treated me as a person not some… some…” she turned her head away to hide the sudden tears.
“Yes, sorry about that, Bas,” Harold sighed as Shield knelt to place a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Yes, tinned fish is good for you but it must be getting scarce by now - I can’t see it lasting forever and one tin of contaminated fish could easily kill you all. The essential chemical that we call ‘vitamin D’ is made by sunlight on your skin but Mother Moss was right: it is found in fish and fresh meat so you should be okay for a while.”
Ibrahim returned, drenched by the rain and looking agitated. “The patrol is coming but there’s something odd about the way they’re moving – it’s as if they seem much more alert and aware than usual and they almost saw me. Put out the fire and get your weapons. Quickly, Light-Father, get that head ready.”
The rain returned with a vengeance to a cheer from Fierce and thunder began to growl once more in the east. Harold was saturated in the short time it took to set the wires and place the tin upon the tracks and he only made it back in the nick of time to close the door as the patrol entered the yard. All too soon the Tally-men halted on the path and began their strange dance in front of the head and once again Shield had to broadcast her dire warnings.
It seemed to go on forever and Pup eventually burst into tears from sheer terror. He was quickly silenced by Bas placing a hand firmly across his mouth. “Shhh, Pup,” she whispered into his ear. “Be brave, little brother. Do not let your fear betray us.”
Finally it was over and the patrol departed leaving them all to breathe a huge sigh of relief except for Saul. “You were right, Ibrahim,” he said. “They were definitely different today. It was as if they didn’t quite believe the head was real - I think they were just pretending to be terrified of it.”
“Maybe but I think you’re over-reacting, Saul,” Harold said as he unlatched and slid open the front door…
…to find David staring up at him with a red light in his eyes. A disturbing smile appeared on the Tally-man’s lips as he placed his spear-tip at Harold’s throat and the Scatterlings froze in horror.
“Await the Inquisitor and cry out in lamentation, Children of Exodus,” he said in a chilling tone of voice. He turned to Harold. “What have we here? An adult male immune to Revelation? They shall enjoy Redeeming this one at the Great Abbey!”
His face suddenly became blank and the fell light in his eyes faded then he turned with a swirl of his coat to rejoin the others who were waiting motionless for him on the main road.
It took a while for Harold to react, grateful that the spear had not been thrust upwards under his chin. “Jesus, that completely freaked me out!” he gasped. “I thought Tally-men couldn’t speak!”
“For Saint Peter’s sake, you never, ever open a door without a weapon!” Shield spat, almost hurling Harold’s sword at him in her fury. “Dear Sweet Mary, we had a Feral outside yesterday and now this – please, we can’t afford to lose you!”
“Sorry, Shield, I let my guard down again,” he apologised, opening the door fully. “Bas was right - there is a change to the weather and this breeze from the south is almost hot. We have to leave - there are too many bad omens,” he shuddered. “Some one or some thing was speaking through David but why warn us about the Order? What the hell was controlling him? One of the Fathers?”
“Light-Father,” Fierce called. She was kneeling by Mouse’s bed with a hand upon her sister’s head. “She’s on fire.”
“I-I-I’m fine,” Mouse protested. “I’m just thirsty.”
Harold exposed the wounds and was shocked to see the flesh about the stitching was red and swelling rapidly. “Oh hell, that was quick,” he groaned, crestfallen. “This is not good, Mouse, you’re infected; you’re developing a fever.”
“I’ll recover,” she said bravely. “Hoi! Why are you all looking at me? Haven’t you got caravans to clean?”
The Scatterlings dispersed to go about their chores in grim silence apart from Shield and Fierce who sat on the floor to comfort Mouse. Only Pup could bring himself to say the obvious as he threw himself into Harold’s arms. “Please, Light-Father,” he whispered tearfully. “Please don’t let her die>.”
(c) Paul D.E. Mitchell 2013 - 2014
Archived comments for Chapter 16: Warning
Mikeverdi on 10-06-2016
Chapter 16: Warning
Back again and still enjoying.