The remaining members of the village looked helplessly around at each other, every one waiting for the bright idea that didn’t exist. Going home didn't feel very safe; if they were at home then they weren't all together. And so here is what they did do. They each returned to their respective houses, gathered up their meager offerings of food that were starting to dwindle, they collected comfortable things to sit on and together they sat in one large circle in the village hall. Brian, right hand man to Jane’s father, had a big bag of boiled sweets which he shared around. Another of the old gentlemen bought his guitar along and sang old folk songs about a woman who got washed away in a river and how a boy fell in love with a girl who belonged to Mother Nature. Jane's mother sat next to Lilia's mother, Helena, who looked as though she couldn’t decide between crying and vomiting and the women grasped onto each other and joined in with the song.
Tim remained at the house on the hill with Sophia who was still in a very bad way. She would not speak to anyone but him and shied away when Jane or Nora tried to dress her or wash her. The disturbance of being dragged away from her home in the night had battered her weak form, so getting up and walking was impossible for her again. And once more she was starving herself, not trusting the broth Nora cooked for her. No matter how Tim begged her, she wouldn't hear of letting it pass her lips.
Nobody else in the village knew about Sophia, it was safer for them if they did not know. They could not be tortured for information that way. The excuse for Timothy’s absence was blamed on a stomach bug and after a while of this response, people stopped asking about him.
A few hours after they had gotten over the shock of being abandoned all talk of The Crookeds vanished; if they were going to die they would die having spent a few happy hours together. They laughed and sang and drank. The wine and liquor was passed around all, numbing their freshly sustained wounds ever so slightly. Every so often though, Peter and Isaac would get up and walk once around the village, checking for signs of anything suspicious, not that they thought it would achieve much but it felt good to be on the safe side.
Just before six o’ clock on that Friday night Peter posed the question, “Ten rings or five?”
“Five,” said Jane. “Because there’s nothing anyone could do to help us now anyway. Not with me here. I’m the problem.”
“You’re the solution,” Nora smiled sadly.
Peter nodded slowly, “Five rings, are we all agreed?”
Consent was murmured around the group and Peter rose from his seat. And a few moments later the bell tolled five times, which was followed by a few more feeble sets of five rings. There were two less villages ringing their bells that day. Only seven remained now where there once were eighteen.
“People must be lying,” Jane whispered. “There’s no way everyone’s alright. Not with two more villages gone in a week. They must be lying, like us. There’s nothing anybody can do for anybody else now. We’re on our own. We might as well stop ringing altogether.”
“Stop it, Jane. There is always hope,” Oliver said, the weight of it all finally sinking in, finally turning his sunny disposition into one of autumn, of falling leaves and darkening skies.
Once her mother had drunk enough wine to forget why she was drinking wine she started to tell the story of how she and Frank had first met. It was a story that most of the villagers knew very well because they had lived through the making of it. But nobody stopped Nora because the story was cheery and they didn’t have anything else to say anyway.
Nora didn’t start her life living in that village. In fact she started out life living in many different villages all over The Kingdom because her family were Undecided. They never stayed anywhere for long, they lived on the kindness of strangers, constantly frightened of their own shadows.
“It was no way to live,” she said, shuddering.
At the time in question, when Frank had stumbled into her life, they had been staying in an enormous settlement, one of the biggest known settlements of Hopefuls, many miles away from Jane’s village. She was seventeen at the time and had been sleeping on the floor of an old woman’s pantry, encrusted with oats and bird seeds.
Frank had shown up one morning with a group of Hopefuls. They had turned up on horseback, gallant and gleeful. They called themselves “Hope Bringers.” They were travelling The Kingdom, spreading words of courage as far and wide as they could. They were trying to convert the population of Undecideds back over to The Hopefuls side and they were trying to rally spirits, should things take a turn for the worst again. Nobody wanted to believe vicious rumours, but they were rife wherever they went and so it was better to be safe than sorry. Better to prepare for the worst.
They were remarkable people, so full of life and so brave considering what they were doing was very dangerous and completely irrational. Nora spoke of how she had turned up to hear him address the village and felt herself fill up with a hope that she had never known she could feel, which she supposed was the point. She had not banked on falling in love with the outspoken man, crying out for solidarity and caressing words of comfort to all these strangers about not being afraid and about fighting for their freedom, something she only now realised how precious it was.
But Nora’s family would not hear of it. When she begged to get them to convert, they laughed at her. She was forbidden for talking about it and she was forbidden from talking to the Hopefuls on horseback. To make matters worse, Nora’s father decided it was time to move on again, lest Nora be bewitched any further.
That night, before they were to move on the following day, she silently left the floor of the old woman’s house and crept out to where she knew the men were camping.
She watched them for a while, they were singing together around a fire. Then she had boldly walked into their midst and sat down next to him. They stared for a moment and then continued to sing. When their song was over she asked if she might be able to join them. And they had said yes. And that was how Nora had run away with The Hopefuls. Not long after, she had married the man who had just become Protector of the village and moved into his house on the hill.
It was a scandalous story in her eyes; every sentence she spoke was accompanied by a giggle.
“That's what love is, I think. It is a ruthless thing. If you are in its clutches, good luck to you, because you will be utterly adrift without the person you love to hold onto. It’s a thing that you accidently trip over when you aren’t looking for it. It is bigger than all of this. And when we are all long gone, love will still remain. It will float somewhere above whatever happens down here on the earth. Like the way I love this man,” she said, taking Frank’s hand. “Like the way my Tim loves Sophia,” she twittered on.
Peter gave his mother a look of warning which she did not see.
“And like the way Isaac loves Jane,” she laughed. Everyone looked at her then like she had blasphemed.
“Too much to drink for you then, Nora,” Frank smiled, trying to smooth over her words. Jane did not dare look at Isaac. Her eyes were fixed on her mother who hiccoughed and grinned at her apologetically.
“Sorry, Jane. Probably wasn't supposed to say that,” she slurred. “Everyone knows though, it was only you that couldn't see.”
“Come on, Nora. Let’s go home. Oliver, give me a hand,” Frank said, taking his wife by her hand.
“Forgive me Jane,” her mother called over her shoulder, giggling as she went. The silence they left behind them seemed to throb; it filled their mouths like sponge. Jane dared to take a quick look at Isaac now. He had his head in his hands, his dark curls folding before them. He was impossible to read. Was he embarrassed, at having lies about him broadcast? Betrayed, because his secret was exposed? But surely not, her mother must have it wrong. She must do.
It appeared now in this silence, that even the topic of The Crookeds would be much welcomed. Jane’s mother had meant no harm by it; it was idle chit chat in her eyes. The romance of a teenage girl was stuff of novels that are easily digested in a single afternoon. It was a nice thought for her to revel in, that her only daughter might have been loved by someone before she had to die. She had meant no harm but Jane could see that she was foolish for believing in something like love, thinking that it at all mattered anymore. Love was one of those pointless things like crying, Jane had always thought. Why bother to involve your heart in anything when it would only be broken in the end? And anyone that forgot that rule was all the more foolish and deserved no sympathy because heartbreak was inevitable.
Now it mattered even less than anything ever had. Life was all that was valuable. And each one of their days were numbered and always had been.
Jane was sure her mother hadn’t meant anything by it. But she had caused irreparable damage. Isaac’s pride would mean that he would never be able to face her again. Just when Jane had dared to think that since everything was coming to an end all too quickly, she and Isaac might be able to make amends. But not now because there were so many unspoken words that they couldn’t possibly have the luxury of enough time left to say.
Lilia grasped her hand briefly for support, before Jane pulled hers away.
“Well, mum has done a brilliant job of embarrassing everyone,” Jane said suddenly. Faces lifted up all around the room. Most notably, Isaac's, whose was covered in confusion and painted red with embarrassment.
“Everyone knows Isaac and I are always at each other’s throats, arguing all the time. He'd say the sky was green if I said it was blue. She's just desperate for some grandchildren, trying to palm me off on anyone. Doesn't know what she's talking about,” Jane muttered nervously. They looked at her, none of them believing a single word she said.
“I think I'll go home now,” Jane whispered, looking at Peter. He nodded, turned to Isaac and said with distaste, “Can you stay here with the others?” to which Isaac nodded grimly.
On the cold walk home Peter and Jane did not speak. Jane's head was spinning. It’s just the drink, it’s just the drink, she repeated to herself.
It wasn't until they were a few feet from the house that Peter said, “We have enough terrible things to believe in at the minute. Would it be so awful to let us believe in something else for a while? They’re all rooting for you. It's okay for you to love him, you know.”
“I don't, Peter. I just don't. And he doesn’t love me either. How can he? When he has tried to make my life a misery for the past two years! He just can’t.”
“You'll find out soon, it’s just a matter of time.”
“Stop talking to me in riddles!” she shouted.
“Keep your voice down. You'll draw them to us like flies to muck.” Then he led the rest of the way silently up the hill.
Peter drew forth some memories, stored away in the boxes in the back of his mind whilst his sister tried to sort through some new emotions she hadn’t thought to think about before.
The first memory of Peter’s was of a young Isaac, still new to the village and already besotted. He was sat at their kitchen table, pouring his soul out onto the scarred wood. Jane was dying upstairs in bed and there was seemingly nothing anybody could do about it.
“You can’t have tried everything! She can’t die, she just can’t,” he said, blistering. “Let me talk to her. Please.”
That had been when he saved her life the first time.
His second memory was a few years later when Isaac was about sixteen and had come to see Peter in secret and whispered some worries to him.
“She refuses to even look at me. She’s stopped talking to me completely. She avoids me and pretends she hasn’t seen me when I know that she has. Any ideas? Has she said anything at all to you?” Isaac had asked.
“No, you know her, if there’s something she doesn’t want to talk about she simply won’t mention it,” Peter had replied. “She’ll come round. It’s probably just a phase. She’s still coming to terms with everything that’s going on. The Talk took its toll on her.”
“The Talk was a year ago, Pete. She’s come to terms with it.”
“No, it’s more than that. I think somewhere, deep down, part of her knows who she is, about Evelyn. She’s struggling with herself.”
“I think she needs to know. When will you tell her?” Isaac said.
“Not yet. Dad won’t say anything until he absolutely has to.”
Isaac shook his head in disagreement, wishing he could tell her himself. Knowing this was not an option he simply sighed, “I miss her.”
A third memory was a more recent occasion, on the day that the new Protectors were to be announced. Isaac had burst into the kitchen, breathless with rage.
“Is she here?” he demanded.
“No, we got Oliver to take her over the back fields,” Nora replied.
“Does she know?” he asked.
“Don’t be daft, of course we haven’t told her. She’d be like a dog with a bone. If she thought she was going to be Protector there is no way she’d relinquish the title,” Frank grimaced.
“Rupert can’t do it. He can’t make her a Protector. Have you spoken to him? You have to tell him, she isn’t ready yet. Not yet,” Isaac breathed, anxiously pacing the room.
“We’ve seen him, Isaac. He won’t have it. He thinks it’s the only option,” Peter said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“So that’s it? You’ve given up? Jane can’t be a Protector! She’s sixteen! I know that one day she will be a Protector. She has to. It’s written, it’s foretold. But not now. She isn’t ready, you haven’t prepared her properly. Please,” Isaac begged.
“Isaac, we have pleaded with Rupert. He will not hear of it. He is convinced she will be the one to end all this. Do you think we want this anymore than you do?” Nora winced.
“Frank, I know Rupert used to be a Protector and that is why he can make the decision but so were you! Why can’t you be the one to decide?” Isaac pleaded, clutching at straws.
“Because before they left, Turner and Alistair passed the responsibility of naming the new Protectors on to Rupert. And that means I have no say in the matter,” Frank grunted.
The rule about announcing new Protectors was a fiddly one, only the current Protectors or past Protectors are permitted to select new ones. And as Alistair and Turner picked Rupert to do it, it could be his job alone.
“I have to question your motives. Why do you care so much? You know Jane would love to be Protector. She already thinks she knows best. Are you so desperate to be Protector yourself that you would try and snatch it out from underneath her nose?” Frank said, turning stiff and stern all of a sudden.
Isaac slammed his fist down in fury on the table and hissed, “You know…Frank. You know that is not true.”
“Go away and calm down, Isaac,” Frank said, dismissing him.
“This can’t happen!” he pleaded.
“By all means, please go and talk to Rupert. See if you can change his mind,” Nora said, with a little more kindness than Frank but still drawing an end to the discussion.
“I will,” Isaac decided, turning to go. Peter had followed him out of the house and asked a simple question full of complicated sentiments.
“Don’t you think it’s time you just told her, Isaac?” Peter had said.
“She wouldn’t listen. And worse still, she wouldn’t care. And I couldn’t handle that,” Isaac breathed, running back down the hill. There was no time for him to waste.
Peter wasn’t sure what Isaac had said to Rupert to make him change his mind after all. But it must have been something powerful, something that sang to Rupert’s romantic old heart.
He kept these memories to himself. She was already confused and these stories would do little to ease her bafflement. Instead he ruffled her hair and kissed the top of her head. This is all coming around far too fast, Peter thought to himself.
The house was quiet when they entered it; Nora had already been posted off to bed. Jane found Tim reading a book by Sophia's bedside.
“How is she?”
“Much the same, talking in her sleep less though.”
She had been calling out Tim's name in her dreams, something he found torturous because he was there next to her but could not reach where her mind was. Jane could see why she would have been described as beautiful. Her eyes were an impossible blue with little flecks of gold and though her hair was thin from stress what was left was sunny blonde. Her body was small and frail but Jane could still see what she would have been had she not been kidnapped, beaten, poisoned, starved, raped and then beaten again.
“Do you wonder if she’ll ever be alright again?” Jane asked.
He looked at her solemnly, “Everyday. But I have to believe that she will be, there’s no other way. To be honest, I don’t think any of us have long left. So, there isn’t much point dwelling on it.”
“I wish you’d all stop saying things like that,” Jane sighed.
“I have been meaning to ask you something, Jane. If anything should happen, to me or the rest of the family and you happen to make it out alive, will you look after her? Will you try your best? For me?”
“Why will I be the one that makes it out?” Jane asked.
“Just in case,” he looked away. “Will you?”
“Just promise me. I need you to say it.”
“Yes. I promise I will, but if you think I’m going to live because I’m going to run away from a fight, you’re wrong.”
“I know. Trust me. I know. You’re the most bloodthirsty of us all and the most ferocious to boot. Which is why if anyone can beat them off it will be you.” Then Sophia started to stir and his attention was diverted.
It wasn't until she was lying alone with the house all quiet around her that she remembered a specific day which she thought she had forgotten about but it turned out she hadn't. She supposed she must have been about twelve years old on this special day, which was right in the middle of the summer. It had been a very hot day, she and Lilia had already been down to the river once and she couldn't make herself stay indoors, the thick white walls of the house were absorbing all the heat of the afternoon. It was just when she was considering going to fetch Isaac that he turned up on her doorstep.
“Let’s go to the tree house,” he had said.
Jane found a big stick which she used to beat back the long grass which was tickling her legs as she marched by. The only drawback with the very strategically placed tree house was that it seemed a good long trek away on a very hot day.
He walked behind her down the track, knowing that she liked to take the lead. Also from here he could protect her from anything trying to sneak up on them. He would be the first thing they met. But he let her think it was the first reason. When they reached the tree she hoisted herself up first, struggling and slipping a bit but kicking him away when he tried to help her. Then he easily lifted himself in after her.
All she had wanted to do all afternoon was play a game which involved landing stones into a birds nest in a neighboring tree. It was a great game with a brilliant reward. The winner got to administer five hard slaps on the stomach of the loser, leaving his or her bright red hand mark on the opponent. But she was getting cross with him because he kept trying to change the subject and distract her with something and she was winning. He was trying to tell her something. He supposed that was the difference between them because she was two years younger than him, her thoughts were still green; she hadn’t yet had The Talk and was still blissfully in the dark. But then after a feeble hour of playing together Jane turned on that fixed look that she wore sometimes and said, “There is something wrong with you today.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
“Maybe you should tell me about it,” Jane smiled.
He hung his long legs over the edge of the tree house so his back was facing her. Perhaps he would be able to look at her later on, but upon starting the tale it would be far too difficult to meet her eyes.
He began, a beginning that happened as far away as it was possible to imagine, on the other side of The Kingdom. The side of The Kingdom that there were always rumours about. If any strange news travelled about, it was always strange news that occurred over on that side.
He told her that they were always happy where they used to live. He told her that he was born into a family where there were already nine siblings waiting for him. He had been the youngest of a batch of ten. His father had been a baker and his mother had been a mother and ran herself ragged doing so. His parents adored each other, hence the ten children. The brothers and sisters were violent and hateful towards each other but only in the most affectionate of ways.
And then one day, everything changed. As things have a habit of doing when you are at your happiest. Isaac was nine when The Crookeds took his mother. At least the family assumed it was them, she simply disappeared one day on her way to the village and never came back. The Crookeds were still believed dormant at this time. The Hopefuls were forever hopeful that The Crookeds had finished their work, had gone for good, but every so often an event like this one forced people to acknowledge the truth. The truth that they would never truly be finished until The Kingdom was theirs once more.
Moved by loss, the family packed up, a new start was what they needed. In the next village one of Isaac’s brothers was taken. He told her that they continued to flee, moving from place to place as often as they could. He told her that they spent four years running. Four years in which he lost six of his siblings in total. The Crookeds just happened to turn up anywhere they chose to settle, taking at least one more member of the family each time they met.
Even then, though they were destitute, they considered themselves lucky. He showed her the burns all up his back where The Crookeds had tried to snatch him too, tried to burn him to death. Isaac’s father had saved him before they could finish the job. Jane placed her hand upon his warped patch of skin, felt it burning even then.
“This is the first place that we have stayed that they haven’t touched us,” he said. “It’s like this place is a cocoon and they can’t get to us if we stay here. We came here because it is The Saviour Village. We came because of Evelyn.”
Then he said, “I don’t know why they hated my family. I’m not sure why my family had to be the ones to die, but I do know that if I hadn’t of come here I would never have met you.”
The thought that Jane might never have met Isaac seemed silly to her. They were always supposed to meet; their paths were crossed all the way along the road.
“Put your hand on my heart,” he said.
She did as instructed. It started to rain. “Is there anything there?” he asked her. Touching a part of his body that she had never felt the need to touch before felt strange and intimate. She felt for a beat. It took a while because she wasn't exactly sure where to find it, but it was there.
“Yes, there's definitely something there,” Jane smiled, patting his shoulder reassuringly.
“That’s because of you,” he looked at her earnestly. Jane wasn't sure what it was he was getting at. The whole story seemed far too awful to be true. She hoped he was lying. But then she recalled a photograph in his living room of an enormous colony of children and two smiling parents at the back and she knew then that he wasn’t lying to get attention like some people do sometimes.
They sat like that for an age. The house they had built was water tight, she noted, feeling proud. Storm proof. Thunder cracked as the cold front met the warm. Lightening scarred the sky.
“You and I will always be like this, you know. I just know it.”
“It can't be like this forever,” Jane had replied.
“We'll get too big for the tree house.”
“We'll make it bigger.”
“Dad will wonder where all his wood is disappearing to.”
She stumped him there.
“Well, we will build a proper house. And we won’t even need to worry about splinters then.”
She didn't say anything in reply. Instead she considered what it might feel like to always find herself always sitting next to Isaac. She saw sunshine. A house with vast, climbing, ridiculous plants all over it. A tall man with his arm around a little woman. Four muddy and delighted children were running around on the grass. It turns out if you ask a twelve year old to imagine something, they patch over any possible dark spots or blurs.
Then she grew bored of being quiet and still and proposed a race home in the rain. Which she won. And he had only let her win a little bit.
Isaac and his family had come to the village seeking whatever dubious protection the place still possessed that was left over from Evelyn’s days. That is what he had said. But Jane now knew, with a sinking realization, that it was not Evelyn’s protection that had kept them safe, it was her own. The Crookeds had abandoned their persistent tirade of the Forrester family because Jane had been near. And that meant that The Crookeds knew exactly who she was, they knew exactly how dangerous she might be to them and they were systematically taking out the entire population of Hopefuls, removing the foundations from underneath her, and saving her, teetering alone upon the top of the charred remains, until last. When there would be absolutely no one left to help her.