UKArchive ID: 36634mitch
Originally published on June 17, 2016 in Fiction
Chapter 19 of the Light-Father: Amos relates how he and his sister lived in their grandparents' garden as Crawcester died. They met a Feral then Mother Moss and went to Crawthane Street where they met Fria. Suddenly, the story-telling is interrupted by the roar of an Order half-track...
“So that’s when you met Mother Moss,” Harold exclaimed. “And she named you Fria of the Long Knives.”
Amos was staring at Fria in surprise. “All the time we were on the run together, you never said much about the hospital,” he said archly. “And you never told anyone about that Feral.”
“I didn’t say anything because I was convinced it was only a dream when I woke up and Bethwin was gone,” Fria shrugged. “You had your hands full looking after Surl and I…” she paused to look at Harold. “What is it about you, Light-Father? We’ve never been able to talk much about the plague and the Year of the Rats yet here we are telling you everything.”
Harold sighed and wished he had a bottle of whisky to take the edge off the horrors these children had witnessed. He lit another of his dwindling stock of cigars and contemplated the falling curtains of rain. “My mother always said I was a good listener,” he said eventually, puffing the aromatic smoke out of the doorway. “You kids have been through nightmares that would’ve put the toughest soldiers I know into straitjackets yet you survived. It’s essential that you talk about it; accept that what happened to you was not your fault and get rid of any guilt you may have about surviving the plague. Only then can you move on and build a life.”
“How do you know all this?” Amos demanded, intrigued. “You said yourself you’ve never been through what we have.”
“Death is death, son. Finding my precious Naomi dead in her cot almost destroyed me and killed off my marriage,” Harold said distantly. He was reliving the nightmare again; his hand reaching down to touch a tiny cheek as cold as snow. “I still see her in my mind and every day I keep asking myself ‘what if?’ – the most painful and pointless words in any language.”
Fria smiled as a thought struck her: “Do you think Mother Moss brought you here to heal yourself as well as us?”
“That may be true,” Harold nodded. “I thought I might have missed my old life by now but I don’t because I was well on my way to becoming an alcoholic – I see that now. I spent all my time fixing scientific machines, using the ones beyond repair to make pretentious sculptures and crippling my liver. In my dream, the Mothers told me she could see into the future and obviously arranged for you two to meet up in this Crawthane Street. You also saw a Feral take shape right in front of you, Fria, which confirms our – I mean my dream about the Mothers. I think they searched for these ‘Children of Night’ and tried to cure them but six years on, they’ve obviously failed. Magic versus genetic manipulation – no matter how powerful they are, it’s not much of a contest.”
Amos laid his precious sledgehammer on the floor and stood up with his eyes glittering in the lamplight. He put his right fist to his chest and took a deep breath. “I, Amos Crawin, hereby apologise in the presence of God and the Light-Father, for giving Fria Rafson such a hard time in Crawcester and during all our time in the Keep and for thinking she was weak and useless when she clearly was not. I humbly beg her for a forgiveness I do not deserve.”
She stared at him with her mouth open then, heedless of the knives resting across her thighs, she leapt up to embrace him joyfully with the single word: “Brother!”
Harold shook his head in wonder at the two knife blades now deeply embedded into the wooden flooring. He retrieved them while Amos awkwardly comforted Fria who was clinging tightly to him with an ecstatic smile upon her face.
“Well done, Amos,” Harold approved, testing the incredibly sharp edges of her knives. “Um, Fria, you can let him go – he’s come a long way but I think he needs to breathe right now.”
“I’m sorry I’m crying, Light-Father,” she smiled through her tears. “I’ve always thought that he hated and despised me - it was like a knife turning in my heart all this time.”
“Or like a knife across the face,” Amos sighed as she sat down again to wipe her eyes. “I see now that I hated myself more than the Tally-men and the Fathers because I failed to protect my family and my little sister could say a prayer for them when I could not. How is it that you can make me see this so clearly, Light-Father?”
“Sit down,” Harold ordered, indicating the chair. “Above all, you need to grieve, son. My mother-in-law used to say that when you bottle up grief, you’re bottling poison. This is why you tried to hide behind this ‘Scar’ because you hoped that this alter-ego could be the hero you felt you were not but in reality,” he stressed. “What you said to Fria just now makes you more of a hero than anything this ‘Scar’ person would have done.”
“I see that now,” Amos sighed tearfully as he sat down. “I can finally see their faces in my mind. How did you do this?”
“There’s no secret to it. My wife, Andrea, was a well-respected trauma counsellor looking after bereaved families and working with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress. Before our daughter was born, she used to teach me how to reach out to people and open the doors they needed to go through - like this one: it’s time to say goodbye to your family, Amos, it’s time to let them go.”
They fell silent, listening to the incessant rain and the mutterings of Mouse as she fled from shadows and monsters in her dreams. Fria put a hand on Amos’s shoulder as he buried his ruined face in his hands and for the first time since that terrible day, he was able to mourn his parents, his brother, his sister.
The cigar done, Harold flicked the butt out into the rain and as Fria comforted Amos, he checked on Mouse then Surl, Peter, Pup and Rabbit. The children were fast asleep apart from Surl who was twitching in her dreams and whispering about a battle in the train-yard. He began to wonder if Amos was right about his sister being able to sense impending danger.
He sat back down by the doorway. “Look, I know Shield and her sisters were in the museum at the time when the great storm hit but were you still at the hospital, Fria? And were you and Rebecca at your grandparents’ house, Amos?”
“Yes, they lived in Hollymaiden Street,” Amos said, wiping his eyes. “We didn’t have any trouble getting there because although people were panicking and attacking each other, we were too small to bother with. Gramp and Gram were our father’s parents but they were reclusive so they were free of the plague at first.”
“You sound as if they didn’t make you welcome.”
“No, they did not,” Amos said miserably. “They wouldn’t let us into the house no matter how much Rebecca cried and I begged them. We had to sleep in the garage and they handed us food and bedding through a door connecting the garage to the house.”
“That was callous of them.”
“Yes, but we had nowhere else to go so we lived in the garage and the garden for six weeks. It was surrounded by a huge thorn hedge so we played in the garden; we went to toilet in the garden and we washed our underwear in the water barrels. It was safe enough but we could hear everyone on the other side of the hedges screaming and dying then the city fell quiet except for the aircraft and the half-tracks of the Order. Then we woke up one morning in the sixth week to find a hairy naked boy with a mangled face snoring away next to us on our mattresses!”
“Was he a Feral?” Harold prompted. “How many children out there ended up like Bethwin?”
“Hundreds I guess but I didn’t know he was a Feral then – I just thought he was retarded and had escaped from an institution. He’d wormed his way through the hedge and was friendly like a dog would be. He had five years but he couldn’t talk and his fingers were fused together so Rebecca insisted on washing and feeding him even though we were living on scraps by then.”
“Did your grandparents talk to you?”
“Gram did talk to us through the kitchen window most days but she stopped when Rebecca’s pet appeared then the door into the garage didn’t open. Rebecca knew they were dead for I found her standing at the back door and blessing them through the frosted glass. I didn’t know what to do and I was too afraid to break into their house as I was too scared of Gramp. Later on, I was drinking some water from the outside tap and Rebecca was playing with her pet to take their minds off being hungry when a shadow fell across me. I tried to grab my hammer but I couldn’t move. I still don’t know to this day how she got into our garden.”
“Mother Moss was like that,” Fria sympathised. “When I woke up, the doors were still taped shut but Bethwin was gone.”
“I tried to scream a warning to Rebecca as this strange old woman approached her but she was too busy trying to make the boy wake up. The old woman grabbed her hand, led her into the garage and made her lie down then she came for me. She said something in a strange language and I couldn’t control my body. She made me lie down on my bed and warned me that a terrible storm was coming. She told me that we should go to Crawthane Street once the worst was over and then she laid her hands upon my face.”
“Then what happened?” Harold said, intrigued.
“Nothing. I woke up and there was water and food laid out for us but Rebecca’s pet was gone. She cried about ‘Ruff-Ruff’ as she called him then she made me pack up our belongings into our rucksacks. The sky went a strange black and green colour then the storm broke. I’ll never forget the hail smashing into the metal of the garage roof like cannon balls and shattering the tiles on the houses all around us. We stayed in the garage until it passed but the heavy rain began and we ran out of the food she’d left us.” He touched his cheek. “She’d taken away the pain from the scar but I knew there was no point in staying in that garage and starving to death so we went to Crawthane Street with the rain slamming down onto our heads like a never-ending waterfall.”
“As did I,” Fria said. “I hid in the bathroom as all the hospital windows were blown out by the vortex as it passed. I was out of food as well and the rats and flies were everywhere. I put the last of my water and biscuits and clean clothes into my bag then I took my knives and ran through the corridors. Ugh! The smell and the rats,” she shuddered. “I had to run and run – they were like a carpet and the air was black with blowflies – I swallowed so many… all the bodies were full of maggots… ugh!”
“So we met up in a large department store and lived there for a while as the rain fell and fell,” Amos continued. “Nobody had died there so it was like a giant playground for Fria and Rebecca.”
“We had water and tins of food from the grocery areas though they were crawling with rats and flies too,” Fria added with another shudder of revulsion. “The upper floors were clear so we had real beds to sleep in and bathrooms where we could wash our clothes. We had plenty of clean clothes to choose from of course but Amos was so serious all the time; puffing and tutting at us.”
“It wasn’t safe,” he protested. “Anyone could have got us while we slept in the store but Rebecca did love her new big sister.”
“Poor Surl,” Fria said pointedly, looking at the sleeping girl. “She had such beautiful red hair then. She kept calling me Sara but I didn’t mind because she was to me as Pup is to Bas.”
“She’s Rebecca not Surl anymore,” Amos reminded her. “I should never have given her that stupid name! It was hard when the flood came, Light-Father. It drove the rats up onto the top floors and Rebecca was bitten several times but we had bushels of rat-poison from the gardening section. The water came up to the third floor windows so we retreated to the top floor and that’s when we thought it would drown the whole city and us with it…”
“Then we saw the Barnacle,” Fria said excitedly. “We couldn’t believe that there was somebody alive other than us so we waved and shouted at them but they couldn’t hear us above the terrible noise when the bridge collapsed and they were swept back up the street. We thought they were dead but Rebecca cried all day and said we were wrong. We couldn’t console her…”
“I told her the water was going down and tried to make her smile but I lost my temper and told her to stop being a Surl – a surly person,” Amos said guiltily. “And I never stopped…”
Mouse sat up suddenly and started taking gibberish, staring ahead with unseeing eyes. “Ach, hell, it’s getting worse,” Harold said, going over to her. He roused her and then made her drink some water and swallow antibiotics and fever tablets.
She managed to keep them down but she clung to him in sheer terror. “The old man’s house is trying to eat me,” she whimpered. “The Tally-men are under my bed. The house… the house…”
He rocked her gently until she fell asleep again in his arms. “I’m no doctor but she’s in serious trouble,” he said helplessly, laying her down and removing a sheet. He tugged at his collar. “She’s drenched in sweat and it’s getting even warmer in here.”
He sat back down heavily and took out another cigar. “There’s nothing more I can do for her so you might as tell me how you made your way to the Keep,” he said.
“Do you have to keep smoking those things?” Fria protested. “They smell like burnt socks and tar.”
Harold looked at Fria with a raised eyebrow. “That’s exactly what Andrea used to say. I know it’s a bad habit but I need to think about what we need to do if David’s… whoa!” Bas had suddenly leapt out of the dark to land cat-like in front of him.
“Douse the light!” she hissed. “There’s a vehicle, possibly a half-track, driving down Crawcester Road and that can only mean the Order is coming to Redeem us!”
“So David’s warning is coming true,” Harold muttered as he dimmed the light to a glimmer. “They’re here to lead the Tally-men after us. There’s no way a talking head in a damned tin is going to work on one of them!”
“Calm down - Tally-men don’t function that well in storms like this,” Amos said, hefting his hammer. “I can hear it now. It’s definitely a troop-carrier which means there’s more than one Father on board and maybe a platoon of Brothers.”
“Then they don’t need the Tally-men to attack us right now,” Harold exclaimed as the ominous roar of the engine passed by on the other side of the boundary wall. Then it faded away. “Huh? Where are they headed, Bas?” he demanded. He looked down in surprise to that find he’d unconsciously drawn his sword. “I was convinced they were going to drive straight into this rail-yard.”
“I think they’ve gone to the barracks of the Tally-men set up in the hotel at the far end of Druid’s Lane - about fifteen minutes walk or a hundred chains from the gates,” Bas observed, still listening intently. “I heard one man comment about the storm…” she added, puzzled. “He said it’s going to get worse. I don’t like this weather – there’s ash and dust in the rain and a sharp odour I haven’t smelt before. Shall I wake the Elders, Light-Father?”
“The half-track should have done that but go and make sure they’re up and armed. Thank God the rain is getting heavier,” he said thoughtfully as the heavens were riven with intense flashes. He sniffed at the air. “That sharp smell is ozone, Bas. It’s being made by that lightning display up there. I’m hoping that it’s playing havoc with the radio signals to the Guides controlling the Tally-men. Damn the Order – why did they have to come now?”
“How can we escape?” Fria demanded fearfully as Bas went to get the others. “We can’t use the roads as the Tally-men patrol them all the time and if we used a vehicle to break through, they would radio their rotor-craft to shoot at us.”
“So the Order watches all the roads,” Harold said thoughtfully. “Then why don’t we use the railway lines to escape?”
“We would be exposed on the railway line and vulnerable to ambush,” Saul objected as he clambered aboard. “Bas suggested we should climb over the western wall and hide in the woods but what would we do for food and shelter there? How is Mouse?”
“Not good,” Fria said grimly. “I agree with Bas, Elder - I’d rather take my chances with the Ferals but I won’t leave Mouse behind to be killed by the Order!”
“The woods are an option,” Harold conceded. “We might find sanctuary with the Mothers but we don’t know where their hide-out is and they didn’t exactly want Mother Moss to protect the Children of Exodus, did they? So what about using the Phoenix? That engine looks ready to run and we could take these wagons with us – once we clear all the barbed wire away.”
Saul shook his head. “We can’t. The first wagon is welded to the east gate and the end wagon is welded to the trailer. We’d have to burn through the welds before we could move them and these wagons have been in these sidings for a very long time so the axles may have seized. We’d be better off taking the wagons from the sheds and sidings on the other side of the yard. We need….”
“We need to keep watch, Saul,” Bas interrupted.
“You’re right, Bas,” Saul agreed as Ibrahim, Shield and Fierce joined them with their weapons at the ready. “I’ll do first watch. The rain is warm so I don’t mind getting wet again.”
“I’ll take over at second hour, Saul,” Amos offered as the four youngest began to wake up and rub the sleep from their eyes. “I don’t think I could rest with the Fathers this close to us again.”
“If they went past us, I don’t think they will attack us in the dark. With all due respect, Elder,” Bas said to Saul as she adjusted her bow and quiver of arrows. “I’ll do first watch – my night vision is better than anyone’s here.” With that she leapt onto the caravan roof from the doorway and vanished into the rainswept night.
Harold shook his head in wonder “She’s something else, isn’t she?” he whispered. “I’ve never seen anyone so agile.”
“Of course she’s something else,” Fria chuckled. “She was designed by her father - she’s our sister but she’s not human.”
“I heard that!” Bas said from the rainswept darkness.
Fria went to the door. “You know I meant no disrespect!” she called out. “You’re as dear to me as any sister could be!” There was no reply so she sat down again and laid the knives across her thighs. “She’s right though - they’ll be coming for us at first light whether it rains or not,” she said fearfully. “We’re going to have to fight them here in the yard without Mother Moss.”
“We won’t be able to hide away like last time,” Amos agreed. “We’ve killed many Tally-men, Light-Father. We practice every day with our weapons and we did well against the dogs but we won’t stand a chance against Fathers, Brothers and Tally-men if they attack us in numbers. Don’t forget – Fathers carry guns.”
“I haven’t killed anyone,” Harold said, displaying his sword. “But this is an incredible weapon – it almost swings itself but what can we do if these Fathers come at us with guns? Where can we get hold of guns and rifles at this time of night?”
“There’s a hunting shop in Crawthane Street,” Fria suggested. “It has guns and ammunition in the strong-room at the back.”
Ibrahim scowled at her. “The Eldest can’t make a sortie now. Firstly, it’s pitch black out there and secondly, they could attack and kill the rest of you while we’re gone.”
“Pup is scared!” Pup said as he was comforted by Rabbit.
Surl yawned and pointed at the tables. “Fathers have guns,” she said simply. “The wagon walls are too thin to stop bullets.”
“Good point!” Harold cried. “Reinforce the outer wall!”
They piled up the desks, cupboards, shelves and chairs until Harold was satisfied. “That’s better - it should protect us from a machine gun if we all lie flat on the floor,” he declared. “Now - what other weapons do the Fathers and Brothers carry?”
“We’ve never seen a Brother with a gun,” Shield said, readying a second quiver of bolts. “We’ve noticed that shots draw Tally-men and Order half-tracks from everywhere so we’ve never kept any guns or rifles. A bolt kills as easily as a bullet only quietly.”
“We have to assume they know we’re here,” Harold said decisively. “Pack everything you can carry into bags or rucksacks including bottles of water and medicines and we’ll make a stretcher for Mouse and move across into the main shed before dawn. So what other weapons do they have?”
“Brothers and Tally-men carry spears,” Saul said. “The Tally-men carry electric stun-guns while the Brothers carry swords, dart-guns and many of them have plasma grenades.”
“What the hell are plasma grenades?”
“I’ve only seen them used once, Light-Father,” Saul replied. “My father once told me that they are made of layers of different explosives and one which ionises the reactants making for a huge detonation. They are about the size of a coconut but they can take out a whole building in one explosion.”
“So they have guns and grenades and all we have are swords and bows?” Harold said in exasperation. “Jesus, we have got to get out of here!” Fria and Amos crossed over to the doorway and were silhouetted by the flickering lightning displays as they stared up at the heavens. “What’s the matter now, you two?”
“Didn’t you notice, Light-Father?” Amos said over his shoulder. “The rain just stopped.”
(c) Paul D.E. Mitchell 2012-2013
Archived comments for Chapter 19: Night Watch
Mikeverdi on 17-06-2016
Chapter 19: Night Watch
Excellent, I look forwards to every episode now. Let the battle begin.