The very next afternoon, whilst Jane was sat on her thinking spot, atop the fence that perched on top of the highest hill around, she made a rather important decision. Looking down on the dormant village from her vantage point, knowing that there was nothing down there anymore, she decided that she would sit around and wait for things to happen no longer. The old woman’s appearance had made one thing very clear; waiting for somebody to come along and save her was not an option. This time, she was the one who needed to do the saving. She decided that something needed to change or she would die there on her own. And she would not allow that to be the end of this story, a story in which her entire village sacrificed their lives because of her. And now, she had accepted that they must have died because after four months of living at the hands of The Crookeds who could possibly have survived?
So, she would pack up her bag once more and go out there, who knew where, but she would go and she would find something else. Something more. There must be more Hopefuls living somewhere, lost and bereft in the woods. And she would find them and then she could start her life over again. Just as Evelyn had done. She could help them win this after all.
She hopped off the fence and pelted back down the hill because if she was leaving she had to leave now. The day was chilly but fine, there wouldn’t come a better time than this and she feared that if she delayed anymore she would lose her nerve.
“I think this is what they intended me to do all along,” Jane thought out loud.
She dashed around the house, grabbing anything she thought might be useful. A towel, some blankets, boots, a torch, bread, apples. Just as she was chucking this into Oliver’s old backpack, her own being lost in the woods somewhere, the woman with the mysterious cage of birds burst into the house. Her face was ruddy with effort and beads of perspiration were budding on her forehead, like dew on a spider’s web. She had brought her cage along on the trip, the birds chirruping in indignation. She wheezed, “I'd put all that back if I were you,” laughing happily.
Jane stared back at the woman, cold and hostile.
“Oh, take that look off your face! You have an awful lot of attitude for such a young person,” she sighed, pulling out one of the kitchen chairs and flopping down into it.
“Do you not think it’s justified? Do you think I've not endured enough yet, or should I continue to torture myself?” Jane cried, continuing to pack her bag.
“Well, travelling cross country on your own to hunt for them isn't the best way to avoid torture is it? There is a war on, you know,” the woman spat.
“I wasn’t going looking for them. I know that they’re gone. I was just leaving; I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“You were absolutely going looking for them, don’t fool yourself. You would have headed out hoping to find other Hopefuls but eventually all you would have done was hunt for them.”
“Anyway, listen,” she said, shaking out her long silver hair. “You don't want to be going anywhere. Not for a while anyway.”
“Get on with it,” Jane sighed. She was in no mood for games.
“You're going to have a visitor. I've seen him coming. I'm not sure when, but he is definitely headed this way.”
“Him? Who? Who is it?” Jane asked, freezing to the spot.
The woman grabbed Jane's hands and said, “I don't know. The whole thing is a little hazy. His shape is very blurry.”
“What does that mean? What does being blurry mean?” Jane asked.
“It means there is a question whether what I'm seeing will actually happen. I assume it’s because whoever is coming to see you is struggling and might not make it.”
Jane gasped and ripped her hands away from the woman.
“But the chances are they will make it! It was a strong enough possibility for me to see it in the first place. They've gotten this far! Keep heart, love. There is always something,” the woman stroked her cheek lovingly.
“If there's anything you can have learned from this mess, it is that anything is possible.”
Jane rose and filled the kettle. She must wait a bit longer.
The smells that greeted Jane when she awoke were heavenly. Jane had fallen asleep at the kitchen table that afternoon and it appeared she had been moved by the old woman onto the saggy old sofa in the living room. Nobody had entered this room in months. She had closed the door to it an awfully long time before, deciding that it and everything in it were surplus to her requirements.
“Don't move!” the woman cried from the kitchen although Jane had neither moved nor spoken since waking moments before. She was a very peculiar woman. After registering the noise, Jane started to hear other things, like the rain outside and the fizzing of a frying pan. The old home that Evelyn built fidgeted around her.
Lying there quietly, her thoughts drifted into a place that she normally tried to avoid. Though she couldn't think about him anymore, couldn’t even think his name anymore, she often wondered why. Why had The Crookeds reacted that way to him? When he demanded that they leave her alone, why had they done as they were told? Why had they screamed in a frustrated way like they knew something like that was bound to happen? Like they had expected nothing less? Why did they continue to leave her be now, while she was completely alone and unprotected? Why did they take Sophia, but not her when it was Jane that they wanted all along? When it was only Jane that stood in the way between them and taking over completely. The questions haunted her dreams, they haunted her consciousness, and they were hanging around her like a storm filled cloud all the time.
The woman presented Jane with a tray of food which she wolfed down without even assessing what was on the plate.
“Better?” the woman asked, staring at her expectantly from an old and sunken armchair across the room.
“Better,” Jane confirmed and then after a moment said, “You know I won’t stay here, don’t you? I can’t stay here not doing anything anymore.”
“You’ll be glad I stopped you. You would have died. Ten days from now, you would have covered twelve miles and then you would have died,” the woman replied, matter of factly.
She wasn’t just saying this to be cruel or dramatic. She was saying it because it was the truth, she had seen it happen.
“Forgive me. I didn't mean to be so frank. But it is what would have happened,” she shrugged.
“So you lied about the visitor to keep me from going?” Jane asked.
“No. I have not lied to you. Which makes that vision particularly convenient as I knew it would stop you from going,” she said, a pained smile breaking across her cracked lips.
“When will they come?”
“Soon. In a matter of days,” the woman rubbed her cold hands together. Jane could see the chilblains on them.
“What will they say when they see me like this?” Jane laughed sadly, wiping her chin.
“They will just be glad you're alive, that's all that matters,” she shivered.
It was cold in here. The front door had been left open for months now, the weather had been allowed to come in and leave as it saw fit and September was bringing the promise of an early winter with it this year. No wonder it was bleak. Jane got up, left the house and rounded the corner where a stack of logs lay in waiting for such an occasion. Peter had chopped up piles and piles of the stuff before he was taken. Clearly he had done it all for her, so she wouldn’t have to worry about it for a while at least. They had thought she would take better care of herself. She was angry at herself for continuing to let them down. She heaved the largest logs into her arms, the effort making her breathless.
The woman watched with a self satisfied smile as she threw them into the fire and lit them the way she'd seen her father do it a thousand times. It was roaring in moments. She looked proudly at her work and felt primeval and broad backed.
“Thank you,” the woman sighed happily. She let her immense body seep a little lower in the chair and then she started snoring loudly.
Jane returned then to the ever open front door. And closed it behind her.
She locked the same door behind her as she left the house that night. She wanted the woman to be safe after all, even if she took very little care in taking care of herself. She ran quickly down the hill, she was not afraid at all; it had just turned very chilly.
The bird woman had been busy that afternoon. She'd tidied up all the gardens in the square and planted seeds and vegetables in the earth which she had then covered over with sacks against the coming winter’s vicious claws. Undoubtedly for a time when she thought they might return. She was hopeful. And seeing this made it a little easier for Jane to be hopeful too. Isaac’s garden was different though, she had planted no vegetables there but winter bulbs of flowers of deep orange and purple, flowers that were already starting to bloom. They appeared to grow right before her eyes. There was definitely something fishy about this woman. It was nearly October, how had she convinced these plants to take root and bloom so quickly and fruitfully?
She rushed past the flowers and found that the front door was, happily, unlocked. The woman's clothes and books were in the room that had belonged to Posy, one of Isaac’s sisters. Jane gathered up the things she supposed were the most important. She could always come back tomorrow for anything else she wanted.
She left soon after with three books that were on the floor next to her bed, a carpet bag full of clothes and a bone handled hairbrush, tucked under her arms she headed back to the house on the hill.
It was as she was walking back through the village square, giving Evelyn her cursory nod when she saw something peculiar on the base of the statue. There was something roughly hewn onto Evelyn's plinth. She walked over hesitantly, not sure she wanted to know what it said. It was a singular word and that word was, ‘River’.
“River?” Jane whispered to herself. And then it dawned on her.
“Lilia. Lilia!” she called, dropping the paraphernalia and dashing across the square. She ran. She almost thought she had forgotten how to get to the river and for a moment she stood panicking, spinning around on the spot, trying to get her bearings in the darkness. Then she spotted the path that they used to dance along and ran gratefully towards it.
The woods were a vast expanse of gloom, stretching unknowably in front of her, twilight filtered reluctantly through the leaves. The branches whipped her skin as she tripped over wild roots on her race to the river. She barely noticed them ripping at her clothes, pulling on her arms and legs. It felt as though the trees themselves were trying to pull her back, stop her from going any further on this foolish trip through the nighttime. Then she pelted head first through a patch of gorse bushes and there sat her river, unchanged and waiting for her to return to its waters.
Nothing appeared any different than the way she remembered it. She strode confidently to the river bank and looked into its glassy surface. An anemic girl with no colour to her skin and high cheek bones gawped back at her. But her appearance did not come as a shock. What was a shock though was the dark shadow that did not belong to her that had appeared, lurking over her shoulder in the reflection. She tried to pretend she hadn’t seen it. The shadow took her lead and remained stock still behind her. Her heart thumping in her chest was going to give her away. She waited to see what they would do, desperately searching for some kind of plan to formulate. Of course, the time for clever plans had long gone. And so a stupid plan would have to do. Swiftly, hoping for the element of surprise, she kicked her leg out behind her with as much force as she could muster and felt it hit nothing but thin air. She snapped around in an instant, whilst the creature had darted back into the shadows, where it stood chuckling darkly at her.
“Close one there, Jane,” the creature hissed. The voice that issued from it was full of venom, repugnant. She shuddered as it spoke her name and then revealed himself, stepping slowly out from behind the trees. She was not sure what she had imagined a Crooked to look like. The stories were all so mixed, so few people survived once they had looked into the eyes of a Crooked. But what she met that night in the woods came as no surprise. He looked unworldly, dangerous. He was a tiny creature with thin limbs and jutting bones. His cheeks were hollow and he was covered in several inches of dirty, grease laden, matted hair. His eyes were sunken and sparkled menacingly at her through the murk; they looked as though they were frosted over with mildew. You could say he appeared to be a human but you would be reluctant to do so. A rat was more what he reminded her of, something that spends its time underground, vermin, poisonous.
He laughed vaguely at her expression of disgust. She took a few steps back as he inched towards her.
“Don’t be frightened. I won’t touch you,” he said the words mockingly, his long pointed fingers reaching out towards her.
“What do you want?” Jane barked. She would not let him know that she was afraid, this could be her chance. This could be her chance for the battle to really begin. She searched the ground around her briefly, looking for something to use as a weapon. Anything would do at this stage.
He moved closer to her, his gait like liquid, until his face was just inches from hers and she could feel his dirty, hot breath on her face. She did not flinch. It was more than her life was worth to show any weakness now. The shock of her boldness sent a small shiver down his spine and he gasped slightly for breath.
“You are brave. You aren’t afraid of me are you? They said you were brave.”
“You’ve been talking about me?” she said, ironically.
“You’re quite a controversial topic. Just between you and me, we do very little but talk about you. You are a mystery. We’re not entirely sure what to do with you, if you must know. You’ve become quite a problem for us,” he sighed again and sniffed at the air that lay between them as if her scent might hold the answer to said problem.
“Get on with it,” Jane said through gritted teeth.
“You seem to be under the impression that I’m here to kill you. On the contrary, I shan’t lay a finger on you,” he growled. “Now listen. I have a proposition for you.”
“Oh really?” she snorted.
“I have to say it is an honour to finally meet you. We’ve been waiting for such a long time. You’ve become a legend, almost bigger than Evelyn herself. But not quite. You haven’t got quite the same…influence that she had,” he laughed.
“So, down to business! I have a problem. I’m hoping that you will help me to solve it. One of your number has escaped from us. He’s quite the master mind. Very inventive, very sneaky, very conducive to our way of life. Sometimes when someone like him comes along we can’t resist but inviting him into the colony. We’ve offered him a home with us which he has refused, of course.”
“And now, we regret to admit it, but he has outsmarted us. We cannot find him. He has covered his tracks very well. We have every reason to believe he will be coming home to you shortly. When this time comes, I must ask a small favour of you.”
“What makes you think I would ever do anything for you?” Jane asked.
“When you hear the leverage, I think you’ll be much more eager to help. When he comes home, give him ample time to rest and to get his strength up again. Then you are to bring him here, to this stretch of river. I’ll be waiting and I will take him away with me once more.”
“Now, just why would I bring him to you?” Jane growled.
“Because if you don’t, each and every member of your precious family that we have locked away will be tortured and killed. We ask for one of them in return for the lives of all of them. We have them all, they make quite the collection. It could take us days to finish the job. They can all watch whilst we start with the youngest ones,” he seemed to shake with the anticipation.
“They’re alive?” Jane whispered, hardly daring to believe it.
“How else are we supposed to get to you?” he hissed with distaste.
“They’re alive,” Jane repeated, the relief swept through her. “Who is coming? Who has escaped?”
“You over estimate us if you think we know their names. He is a man. That is all I know,” he said flippantly.
“Take me with you. Take me with you instead. Take me to my family, but please leave whoever is coming out of this. Take me now,” Jane said her voice full of conviction.
“I can’t do that,” he said, regretfully.
“You’ll find out soon enough I suppose. We need to come to some sort of compromise, Jane and all this trouble will go away. As soon as we can find a way to get rid of you, no more of your people have to die in your name. It ends with you, that is a promise. That’s all we want. And that is all we don’t know how to do…yet,” he growled.
“I’m sure it’ll all be explained to you sooner or later.”
“How did you know about the river? How did you know I would come here?” Jane asked.
“Your family can be quite accommodating when we give them a little push in the right direction. It didn’t take long for the youngest to tell us all about how you used to come down here as children” he smiled.
It felt like her lungs had turned to lead. They simply refused to fill anymore. She’d been doing so well, containing herself and not showing him how frightened she was. She hadn’t worried for herself at all. But now she had a clear picture of just what they were enduring, what they were enduring because of her, she could not abide it.
“So, I’ll leave you to think about it. It’s an easy choice. Surrender your visitor and we will spare your family. Ignore the request and lose them all,” he smiled wickedly, backing away from her into the mist once more.
“Oh! One last thing, say nothing about this to the woman asleep in your house. Or she’ll be coming on a little trip with us as well.”
With that he turned his back and was lost amongst the trees. It would have been easy to believe he had never been there with the silence that was left behind him. It was only her evermore shattered heart that proved he existed at all.