This will surely not end well, Jane thought to herself as she hurtled, head first, down the dirt track that led into the village. She was a mere blur on the canvas of the landscape. Birds burst, squawking their protests, out of the lustrous hedgerows as she zoomed past. The leaves on the bushes flapped helplessly in her wake. The old couple that lived in the cottage halfway down the hill stared after her, not able to remember if they had actually seen her or not. Nothing could stop her now.
But alas, it was then that her forgetful foot caught itself up in an old tree root that past experience had taught her to avoid (her feet could not be blamed for being so lackadaisical, for today was a very exciting day) and with a lurch the young girl somersaulted head over heels, screaming as she gamboled over and over again down the path. Surely I’ll die, surely my neck will snap and I’ll be done for, she thought. In one clumsy, yet typical move, she had gone from being invincible, the master of gravity to gravities puppet, entirely in the control of its cruel sense of humour.
She bounced to an almighty halt; legs splayed wide apart, palms face down in the dirt.
“Damn it,” she muttered as she surveyed the damage. Her dress had ripped, the hemming her mother had done had burst open and she was utterly filthy; it looked as though she had been groveling around in Billy Owens’ pig pen. A cut on her knee was bleeding copious amounts of red stuff onto the cotton socks that she had only just changed for the special occasion and her back groaned the way it does after she’d been heaving bales of hay about with her father, creaky and wonky.
“Damn it,” she growled again because now she was late as well as hurt and dirty but she had at least found a marvelous opportunity to use the new swear word she had just learnt.
Getting up, she brushed herself down and continued to hobble along the, now accursed, path. Gradually, the gate at the bottom of the hill came into view. Jane could see an elegant figure perched atop it like an exotic bird, a bird named Lilia.
“You’re late!” Lilia called up to her friend, crossing her arms in a disgruntled manner.
“Damn it, I know!” Jane panted. She leapt over the gate with much effort, groaning at fresh aches and pains and together they turned onto a new, less hazardous path that would lead them directly into the heart of the village, where all the excitement was just waiting for them to arrive before it kicked off.
They fell neatly into a jog together, despite the fact that Lilia had much longer legs than Jane. Lilia knew that she would need to take smaller steps in order to stay in line with her friend and it was important that Lilia not be in front of Jane because Jane liked to take the lead and tended to get snappy when she wasn’t doing just that.
Lilia also knew that Jane would not want to talk about her split dress and gashed knee because these things meant that Jane had had an accident and Jane did not have accidents for she was invincible. So she continued to run silently alongside her best friend. After many years of practice, Lilia had learnt that silence was usually the best approach with Jane.
The day in question was a nearly unbearably hot one in the middle of the summer and the sky was a glittering, periwinkle blue. It wasn’t long therefore, until the girls were out of breath and with uncomfortably damp brows. But Jane refused to stop even for a moment, she was late and everyone would be wondering where she was already.
The village square was crammed full of people, all laughing and chatting merrily with each other. This was clearly a special day. Absolutely everybody in the village had turned out for the event, even the odd ones who refused invitations to picnics and such. Someone had hung bunting in grand festoons of green, red, blue and yellow between all the buildings and the memorial statue in the middle of the square. The bell tower was resplendent in garlands of flowers, an enormous banner that read ‘WELCOME’, was hanging from the top of it. The musicians of the village had gotten together and rehearsed a few songs for the special event that they were now blasting out jubilantly, delighted to have an opportunity to perform for once. It was a riot of people and frivolity and for someone as small as Jane it would be impossible to see anything that happened and she cursed them all for their lack of forethought on her behalf. The villagers were so busy enjoying themselves that not one of them even looked round when Jane and Lilia hurtled into their midst. They were all being outrageously selfish.
Furiously, Jane grabbed Lilia’s hand and they snuck under legs and pushed in between tiny gaps which landed them right in the centre of the hubbub, making it much more hot and sticky and even less easy to see. Then all of a sudden, she was grabbed around the waist and placed roughly upon a pair of strong, broad shoulders. This was much better. From up here, she would be able to see everything. Gratefully, she patted the straw like hair of the person below. From this sunshine blonde tone, she could tell she was lodged upon the trunk of her oldest brother, Peter.
She was just becoming uncomfortable and Peter was pinching her legs for fidgeting, when the band came to a squeaking, unrehearsed stop and the crowd hushed and focused their attention on the stone archway that led from the road to the entrance of the village. The air was still and tense; after all it was such a rare occurrence. No newcomers had arrived in years! Certainly not whilst she had been alive and certainly not while Peter had been alive either because he told her so and he was twenty one years old now!
Indeed, everyone was feeling rather unsettled by the arrival. One night a few days before the big event, Jane had overheard her father saying something very curious, “I don’t know what to make of it. I can’t help but feel it’s a bad omen, our people wandering around The Kingdom without a settlement? Why would they even leave their home in the first place if there was nothing wrong?”
“It’s probably nothing. It’s probably just a case of itchy feet. Don’t jump to the worst conclusion. We would have heard if something had started again,” her mother had replied, soothingly.
And it was just as Jane was going over this confusing thought in her head again that they turned up. The group was fronted by a tall, exhausted looking man, whose person was swathed in old bags and sacks. Following him were several pitiful looking teenagers, two girls and a boy and a frail old woman who was so weighed down with baggage it looked as though she sank further into the earth with each step. They gave the general appearance of a walking jumble sale. There then followed a lame donkey, a dog and then the woeful chain of skeletons finally ended with a boy. He was the only member of the family that wasn’t looking at the floor, the only one that was smiling. He looked like he was excited to be there. This boy was tall but very thin, with dark curls that were lank and in need of a wash. His back was bent from carrying a heavy pack and his clothes were torn and in need of a bin. But despite all of this, the boy looked almost cheerful; he looked as though he had joined the rest of the crippled team quite by accident. She wondered if maybe he had lost his marbles. The rest of his family clearly had nothing to smile about, so what was he grinning for?
She considered that he looked around twelve years old because she was eleven and he looked older than her but not older than her brother, Oliver who was twelve, and she knew well what he looked like.
The new family looked around, baffled by all the staring and expectant faces and then Rupert stepped eagerly forward. Rupert, their village Elder and general right hand man who was at least a thousand years old, would sort them out. A few hushed words were exchanged between the tall man and Rupert. They shook hands, Rupert did a lot of smiling, the man did a lot of frowning and then Rupert led them to the house that had been lovingly prepared for their arrival.
None of the houses in the village were particularly splendid; they’d been built in a hurry many years before, as usually happens at the end of some turmoil. Most of them were only one storey high, made of odd assortments of bricks and stones and planks of wood and anything else that had been in arms reach at the time. The roofs were even less sturdy, being thatched together with reeds and branches. It was mostly the healthy layers of vivid green moss and birds’ nests that held them together now.
But the house provided for the new family had an impressive two storey’s. They had dropped lucky; it was the only cottage that the village had going spare. It used to belong to an old gent who had died not too long before when he had sat in a homemade hammock and then not been able to get himself out again. He'd lived alone for a while in the house and not really looked after it very well. But the men had done everything they could to make it comfortable, fixing the leaking roof and painting it a nice fresh white so that it glimmered in the sun. Someone donated an old table and three piece suite that had been going begging. The women had planted fruit trees and vegetables in the garden and made new curtains for the windows. The place looked as good as second hand. Everything everybody owned had once belonged to somebody else in the village anyway. You were lucky if you were only the third or fourth owner of a pair of shoes. So Jane thought the house, with its twice owned sofa, was a veritable palace.
To the shock and disgust of everyone gathered there in the village, the new family did not thank them for the house. Nor did they comment on how thoughtful it was of them to plant fruit trees or how much nicer the curtains made the place seem. They did not make a speech about how grateful they were that the village had decided to trust strangers in this world where every stranger was supposed to be untrustworthy. A fact which was especially relevant in this village, of all the villages, because this was an extraordinary place. This was The Saviour Village. This is where The Hopefuls, people who had suffered through much, had found their hope again. If any place had cause to be suspicious it was this place.
“Why haven't they said thank you?” Jane whispered to her brother in disgust.
“Shut it,” he hissed as a reply.
Slowly the family filed into the house; all except the donkey who they left unthethered in the garden. The beast then promptly started to eat the new budding apples from the trees with relish. The door was pulled shut behind them with a snap and the house swallowed them up. The band half heartedly finished the song that had been rudely interrupted by their arrival and the crowd started to dispurse.
“Well, what a waste of time that was,” Jane said in her not so quiet voice. Some of the villagers laughed at her but some others shook their heads and tutted at how disgraceful the only daughter of Frank Shepherd, a supposedly noble villager, had turned out to be.
“Frank has no control over that girl,” somebody nearby commented.
“Have some control over your tongue,” Peter retorted loudly.
He tipped Jane roughly off his shoulders, embarrassed by her outburst.
“And it’s time you learned to have some control over yours too,” he snapped at her. “It’ll get you into trouble one day.”
With that he turned and made his way through the crowd, eager to continue his work on the fields with their father and brothers.
And just like that, the exciting day Jane had ever known was over. The elderly headed back to their homes to get their age spotted skin back into the shade whilst others returned to their work or their sun dappled, summer holiday, front gardens where Jane was not invited by anyone.
Thankfully, a small group of her friends were sat at the feet of the old statue, gossiping happily. She flopped down next to Lilia and said, “We worked really hard to get that house ready. They could have said something nice at least.”
“Jane, you did absolutely bugger all to help with that house. I believe I asked you to pass me a tin of paint and instead you and Lilia snuck off down to the river again,” said a boy in her class called Martin who was the busiest busy body Jane had ever known.
“We didn’t go to the river. We all know that we’re not meant to go off down there on our own,” she lied unconvincingly.
“Stop lying, we know that’s where you go and there’s no point denying it,” replied Martin with a satisfied smirk.
“How come you’re always dripping wet when you reappear then?” asked Billy Owens, a cheeky boy with dimples and a pig pen. The boys laughed happily together, winding Jane up was one of their favourite pass times and she always rose marvelously to the occasion.
“Please can we concentrate on what is really important here? What are we going to do?” Jane exclaimed.
“About what?” asked Billy.
“The new family! They have to say thank you and introduce themselves properly or they’ll never be accepted into the village! We’ll have a very awkward situation on our hands!”
“Why are you so worried about them?” Harriet asked, tossing back her long blonde hair and joining the boy’s team. Harriet was joining the boy’s team more and more nowadays. She and her best friend, May, smiled inanely at the boys to let them know that they were there for back up should they need them.
“My mum baked them a loaf of bread and everything!” Jane argued. “We went and put it in the kitchen for them this very morning!”
“They did look tired, Jane. I bet they just wanted a good wash and a sleep or something,” said Lilia. This was a statement typical of Lilia, who liked to look for the good in everyone.
“I don’t care. I’m going to wait right here until they come out and say thank you. I think it’s a disgrace,” Jane said. And once Jane had her mind planted on an idea, there would be no shifting it.
Gradually her friends headed home, an early evening chill descended and banished them away. Even loyal Lilia patted her hand and disappeared after a while. Not that Jane noticed. Her stare would not be torn from that front door.
Admittedly, she did get bored after a while though. Being stubborn can be quite time consuming and eventually she could not help but ponder other things. She started to trace the words of the plaque that belonged to the statue with the tip of her finger.
‘For Evelyn. The best of us. Hopeful beyond compare.’
The memorial was for a woman. The most astonishing woman that had ever lived. The story of this woman was well known to everyone on every edge of The Kingdom. It was because of her that they were alive at all. She was the oldest survivor of that fearful, barbarous time in their history that was known as The Age of Atrocity. Although a tentative peace had reigned across The Kingdom for a hundred years or more now, it was once a place filled with the terror of flames and the muffled cries of slit throats. Jane’s people, The Hopefuls, had been saved by Evelyn all those years ago and now all that remained were the stories that old people whispered by firelight and the still lingering fears that hung like dark capes in the locked wardrobes of their minds. Fears that their hunters, the monsters that they referred to as The Crookeds, might return with hungry fingers, seeking to finish what they started all those years ago.
Jane shuddered and bolstered her resolve to sit there for as long as necessary. Her village was special. This was Evelyn’s village, The Saviour Village, the place that she had built up from the ashes of her old life which had been wickedly set ablaze by The Crookeds. These new people gave her an odd feeling somewhere inside herself. They were suspicious and she needed to protect her neighbours from them. It is what Evelyn would have done.
“It’s not the full story,” Martin had muttered darkly, just a few weeks before when the news of the travelers arrived. “There’s definitely something fishy going on. My brother’s class were given ‘The Talk’ the other day. He says that they were told everything, about what actually happened all those years ago and what’s going on out there even now. He says that he knows things that would make my hair curl. Oh! But he did mention the birds! Apparently, if anything were about to happen, if something bad was coming, the birds would go wild. They act like a sort of warning system. He won’t tell me anything else though; he says we’ll find out when we turn thirteen. Sounds like rubbish to me. Nothing to worry about.”
Jane didn’t know whether to believe Martin. His brother, Freddie, was a notorious tease and prankster but on this occasion his ramblings rang true. It was indeed true that when they turned thirteen they would be given ‘The Talk’ although, the subject of ‘The Talk’ remained unknown.
Amongst all the rumour and speculation, what she was sure of was that Evelyn was the reason she was alive. And it was for Evelyn that she would stand guard and continue to endure a very numb bum.
Staring up into this brave woman’s face, she found that her eyes were developing the burn of brewing tears even though Jane never cried because crying never got anybody anywhere. She sniffed hastily and focused on the lame donkey ripping up tufts of grass in the garden of the new family’s house. The creature was filthy, “They must have walked a very long way,” Jane muttered. She didn’t know where they had come from or why and it bothered her in a way she didn’t know how to explain.
At a few minutes to six o’clock, Turner turned out from his house on the square; it being time to do the bell ringing when he spotted Jane sat at her post on the plinth.
“Jane, I don’t know what you’re up to-,” he started as he made his way over to the bell tower.
“I’m not up to anything!” she replied.
“Pull the other one. Just go home or it will not be long before your father shows up and drags you there,” Turner warned, before unlocking the ancient door of the tower and disappearing inside.
A few minutes later he rang out five slow chimes on the bell, which had been polished for the special day and glistened in the falling twilight. Those five chimes of peace travelled along the wires that connected their village to all of the surrounding villages in a twenty mile radius, letting their neighbours know that all was well. Another week had passed by without incident.
It was a system that had been put in place many, many years ago. Each village that belonged to The Hopefuls, of which there were many that sprawled across The Kingdom, was fitted with a bell tower. From the bell tower came many wires, each of which were connected to a different bell tower in another nearby village. It was a way of communicating that all was calm. Or a way to warn other villages in the area that trouble was coming and in the very worst case scenario, it was a way of appealing for help.
According to the system, every Friday evening at six o’clock, one of the two village Protectors must ring the bell five times to assure the neighbours that all is calm. But if trouble was afoot the bell was to be rung ten times. And if the bell rang out like frantic symphony it meant the person ringing the bell was so worried that they had forgotten that they only needed to ring it ten times. If the bell rang at any time other than six o’ clock on a Friday, desperate times had called for desperate measures and all hands were required to help.
Jane, luckily, had only ever heard their bell being rung five merciful times. And she had only ever heard five placid rings in reply. The Kingdom had lain dreamy and forgotten during her short life.
The replies started to come then from the different villages in the area. Many sets of five rings reverberated around the anxious little village. Jane knew that everyone stopped what they were doing at this time on a Friday and listened with pricked ears to hear the news. This Friday was another forgiving one when there was nothing troublesome to report.
“You were warned,” Turner chuckled as he reappeared from the tower, his sense of relief clear from his buoyant step.
“I’ll make sure dad knows you’re doing your job right,” Jane retorted.
‘You are trouble, young lady. Just as everybody says you are,’ Turner muttered under his breath. He returned to his house and his family and she was alone once more.
The air grew heavy around her as the sky continued to fall, normally a sign that she should abandon whatever her project was for that day and return home. “This is much more important just now,” she said.
She shifted, making herself more comfortable for the long stay that she had promised. And in the moment she had been distracted, a ghostly pale face had appeared behind one of the windows. With hollow eyes that bored ominously back into her own. Whoever that face belonged to had grown tired of her spying and wanted for her to go. Which she did at a sprint. She wanted as much distance as possible between herself and that demonic set of eyes that could only have belonged to some kind of monster. In an instant she was careering back up the track that led to her house, with that same frenzied speed that had landed her flat on her backside earlier in the day.
There was a figure coming down the path toward her, she couldn't tell who it was through the dusk and nor did she care much. She just kept running, every step getting heavier and heavier, like she was being sucked down into thick mud.
“Jane!” the figure called. She pressed on, the familiarity of the voice doing nothing to placate her terror.
“Jane!” they cried again. She tipped her head down, concentrating on the ground zipping by below her. It was then that she hurtled straight into something hard and solid. Surely it was a tree or a wall, she thought through her breathlessness. But then as she stumbled backwards the tree or wall or whatever it was reached out and grabbed her, stopping her from rolling back down the hill for the second time that day.
“Steady now,” her father grumbled. He allowed her to gain her ground and her breath before releasing her. Then he looked sternly down into her face, with that magical look of his that instantly returned Jane to that little girl she thought she had grown out of. It was this look that reminded her she was a disappointment to her parents who had hoped for a young lady as a daughter and instead had to cope with this feral child, who was constantly muddy.
“Where on earth have you been?” he asked, the sun bleached lines on his forehead wrinkling in concern. Even then she could not reply, for once Jane was lost for words.
“In the village” she answered meekly.
“They arrived hours ago. What could you possibly have been up to?”
“I was just curious. That's all,” she replied, knowing that is was this curiosity of hers that was usually the cause of some kind of bother.
Her father sighed sadly, scowled briefly in frustration and then to her surprise, put a comforting arm around her shoulders and guided her back towards the house.
“I shall only say this once. These people are very far from their home and they have been through an awful lot. They are lucky to be alive.” He said these words very slowly as if to instill the importance of them to her.
“Why? What happened?” she intruded.
“I asked you to listen. What they need now is peace and quiet; they need to be left alone to recover. And you, if you don't mind me saying so, tend to barrel into things in the same fashion that you just barreled into me. So, I'm telling you, keep your distance from them for a few weeks. Exercise restraint around them, they are fragile.”
“Oh no,” Jane said. “I have never been very good at exercising restraint.”
“I've said my piece. You’ve been warned,” he finished. She kicked up the dust from the dry earth as she walked, sufficiently scuffing up her shoes. This is going to be difficult, she decided. Already she felt an unfathomable urge to run back to the house and wait. She would challenge these newcomers. She would show them that they had met their match with her because she was not afraid of anything. And then if she was lucky, she would get to talk to that strange, smiling boy too. She decided that staying away would be very hard work indeed, for something very suspicious was going on. And it was her business to find out what.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with The Crookeds, does it?” Jane asked, boldly.
Frank blanched at his daughter’s use of their name. Instinctively, he looked over his shoulder, into the trees and ushered Jane faster up the hill.
“The less said about them, the better,” he grimaced. If anybody in the whole Kingdom knew just exactly what might be hiding in those trees, it was Frank. For him, the stories of The Crookeds were not just memories. They were a foreboding reminder of a battle that was not even close to being won.