Abigail heard the loud click of boot heels on polished marble. She helped her aunt up as quickly as she could. Tamara moved slowly, as if she had just been woken from a deep sleep. They slipped out the back door just as Tamara’s master rounded the corner.
There was a biting chill to the air and Abigail wished she had more on than just her flimsy dress, even though it was layered with a petticoat. She felt lost and confused, more so than when she had first arrived, after escaping from New London. Bodies streamed thickly around them, like they were a stone in a human river.
Tamara began tugging her arm free of Abigail’s own. “Aunt, what are you doing?” The thing that used to be Tamara looked at her with foggy eyes, their colour turning milky-white. The look her aunt gave her was alien. “Aunt! Tamara!” she yelled desperately, but her aunt was stronger than her, and pulled her arm free. She shambled away, quickly swallowed up by the mass of people that pushed and shoved around her. The people looked different from down below. Their skin was darker, tanned a healthy copper-brown. Their clothes were the same, though slightly thicker as the season was changing – summer was disappearing and fall was rapidly making itself known.
Abigail had never needed to wear clothes for different weather – it was always the same in New London. She shivered and she pushed her way through the people who cast dark looks at her. “Aunt!” she yelled. Far ahead of her she saw her aunt’s neatly styled hair and her simple navy dress disappear through a final barrier of people. By the time Abigail reached the other side of the street, her aunt was long gone. She was alone in strange city.
All of a sudden her spell had lost its power. The confidence it had given her, the power, slipped away as easily as the warmth of the sun. She was back to being the frightened little girl she was used to being, was told that she was. Constantly.
She pressed herself up against the cold brick wall of a printing shop and wrapped her arms around her waist. “I will not cry, I will not cry,” she repeated in a mantra. A tear threatened to squeeze itself from her eyes but she fought it and won. Suddenly, though the sea of mostly beiges, and browns, something tall and slim and dressed in black was making a bee line directly for her. She stared at the man for a moment. He looked somehow familiar, but she couldn’t place him. And then she noticed his eyes, and saw the determination in them. A look that had no warmth to it. In fact, everything about him had no friendliness.
“Abigail?” The man said. He sounded unsure, and the grin that suddenly pasted itself on his face looked more like a rictus – all teeth. The man seemed to know who she was, but she had the urge not to introduce herself. She pushed away from the safety of the brick wall and propelled herself with stiff legs into a narrow alley. She almost went flying over a stack of crates, filled with rotting fruit and vegetables – a tray of oranges tipped and sent mushy orange–white balls rolling across the ground. She stifled a scream, mostly out of shock. And then a hand grabbed her arm – a hand that was attached to an arm that was layered in scraps of so many different types of fabric that it was three times its actual size. She spun to try and free herself, and a second hand cupped her face, turning it. She was forced to stare into the wizened face of an old woman who was hunched and looked more like a pile of dirty laundry than a person.
“Come with me, girl,” the woman croaked in a voice that was dry and brittle, like dead leaves.
What choice do I have? Abigail thought, before she was pulled down the alley way, trying to dodge mouldy oranges and a multi-coloured pile of peppers.
The woman pushed open a narrow door sunk within the thick wall of a building with her shoulder and dragged Abigail inside.
It was hot, and steamy, and Abigail could barely see in front of her face. But she knew they were in some sort of kitchen – the smell of vegetables and spices rose to meet her and the enticing aroma of some kind of barbequed meat. Her stomach rumbled and she realized that she was starving. She hadn’t had anything to eat besides the cup of tea with her aunt since she’d arrived…how long ago had it been? A few hours? Half a day? Everything had happened so quickly, it was such a blur. The kitchen slipped by in a muggy fog and then she found herself in a small, cramped dining room, and the clink of utensils and the low murmur of voices surrounded them. Abigail had never seen anything like it. They didn’t have restaurants in New London, only market stalls that sold food from large cast iron pots that you took home in bowls.
“Come on, my dear, quickly,” the old woman rasped pulling her onwards. They exited through the front door and came out into another fast moving stream of people. They all seemed to be going the same direction.
“What’s going on?” Abigail asked. “Where is everyone going?”
“To the ocean. It is the Emperor’s birthday and it is the celebrations.”
Ahead of them in the distance, below a snow-white sky, was the ocean. It looked cold, and grey as slate, but the waves were topped with frothy white peaks. “Why is everyone going there? To that big fountain?”
The hunchbacked woman smiled. “That is not a fountain, girl, that is the ocean, the sea. It is much bigger than a fountain. Bigger than you could ever imagine.” They had reached the shore and Abigail saw that the woman spoke the truth. The water stretched out on either side as far as her eye could see. On it ships bobbed. They were as small as the toy ships that she had seen boys play with on the fountains at home. But there were hundreds of them – their sails were red and gold, the Roman colours, and they snapped loudly in the wind, standing out boldly like blood against the pale skin of wintery sky.
‘What’s going to happen?” Abigail asked, her voice soft and full of wonder.
“They’re going to release the wolves onto the roses.”
“What?” The woman wasn’t making any sense.
“The wolves. That is the Romans, that is their symbol. Wolves. It was wolves that founded Rome, you know.”
Abigail shuddered. She was all too familiar with wolves, and she wanted to forget them.
The crowd who had been talking quietly in hushed tones, grew suddenly dead quiet. Something red floated up from one of the ships that was bobbing wildly out on the water. It glided closer to the shore as the wind blew inland and Abigail noticed that it was a paper lantern in the shape of a rose. It was the size of a wine barrel, as it got closer and closer, floating above the heads of all the spectators gathered on shore. An appreciative ahhh swept over the crowd. Abigail watched as other ships released other roses so that the sky began to fill with what looked like large drops of blood that dotted virgin snow.
The woman leaned into her and whispered, her face barely reaching Abigail’s shoulder. “Those are the roses. They represent England. England before the Fall.” The old woman seemed nervous, anxious, but Abigail was enthralled, and watched as another massive rose floated overhead, casting a large shadow.
“Come dear, we don’t have much time.”
Abigail glanced at the woman who smiled at her all teeth. She had a sudden thought that she seemed a lot like the wolf in a story book she had read as a child – read only once, because it had a wolf in it, and the wolf reminded her too much of her father, and her father’s work. And she suddenly felt like the little girl in the red cloak. She shook herself and the old woman became just an old woman again. After all she had rescued her from that man, the man in the dark clothes that was heading straight for her.
She looked back out to the ocean and down on the very edge of the water she saw something that made her blood run cold. A sharp, cold wind blew, fluttering her thin, inadequate dress against her body, but she ignored it. She saw her aunt standing at the waters edge, could see the toes of her aunts neat black shoes, the water lapping them. She stood with others, others just like her.
They must be the ones she had made herself. Lucy and Frances and that small boy, Adam, yes, she could see him. They stood, all in a row, all right at the edge. She opened her mouth to call her aunt’s name, but it froze in her throat as she watched, dumbfounded as the row of walking dead, as one, moved unheeding into the ice cold water. They moved without slowing, the water rising higher and higher over them. The boy’s head was the first to go under, and then it looked like Frances, a slim girl with long brown hair, followed by Lucy, an older woman with hair going grey at the edges, slightly more plump. And her aunt last of all. The water rose up, and then over, and then she was gone beneath the waves.
“What’s wrong my dear?” the woman asked, her voice heavy with concern.
Abigail hadn’t realized she had spoken out loud.
“My aunt, the others…”
The woman took her in, looking her up and down and a strange look came over her. Abigail wasn’t really paying attention. The woman followed Abigail’s gaze. “Ah, yes, the forsaken.”
“The forsaken?” Abigail’s voice sounded strange to her. Far away, as if she was speaking from under layers of cotton, or under water. “What do you mean?” She turned to the woman, but she didn’t see her, not really. She looked through her. She was picturing her aunt standing at the edge where the water met the sand, staring out over the water with milky eyes.
“Yes. That is what we call those who have not been allowed to die. Who have been given a second chance. But we do not believe in that. We believe that once you die, you should be allowed to continue on, not to be brought back to continue life here on earth. That is no life.” The woman shook her head. “You do not need to be bored by our beliefs.” She turned to the ocean and looked to where Tamara and the four others, the semi-living, had stood.
“You do not know what happens to them? The sea, it calls to them. And it seems most strongly on the Emperor’s birthday. I do not know why. I am not one of you, but I knew of one, yes. I knew of one a long, long time ago when I was just a young girl like yourself.”
Abigail watched the ocean, counting the waves, waiting, hoping to see her aunt bob up to the surface, but there was no break in their monotony.
The woman tugged on her arm, and goose pimples rose on her flesh. “Here,” the woman had removed one of her many shawls and draped it awkwardly across Abigail’s thin shoulders. “This will keep some of the chill away. You aren’t dressed for our weather.”
“There is no weather where I come from,” Abigail said, unthinking.
The woman looked at her, startled, and then a slow smile spread across her face, causing wrinkles to scatter, and gather in other places, as if they had secrets to share. “Ah,” was all she said.
Abigail watched with wide blue eyes as the roses floated over them, and some seemed to hang still. She realized they were filled with a small flame that allowed them to float. They reminded her of the fireflies she used to watch at home. And then something dark and long rose from the largest ship on the water, the one that was furthest away. It looked like a ribbon of thick, heavy smoke. It was one moment black, then grey, depending on how the wind caught it and twisted it. It floating in an undulating way, strange and hypnotic, it slunk ever closer to the upturned faces of the people watching from the land. And then Abigail realized what it was. It was the wolf. Its mouth hung open wide, white teeth being lit by the flame she could see burning within. Long legs and paws dangled and blew in the breeze and a long tail fluttered out behind it. The crowd oooh’d and aahhh’d and a smattering of applause began and rose until it became as loud as the wind-whipped waves.
Before the wolf reached them, Abigail turned to the woman who still had a hand anxiously on her arm. “Let’s go,” she said. “I’m ready to leave now.”
The woman smiled widely, this time keeping her teeth hidden and they turned and left, leaving hundreds of people behind and the five bodies under the ocean. Abigail didn’t look back.