The bird woman had the cage on the bench next to her. She was absent mindedly poking seeds through the bars as the fancy took her. She chuckled as they tittered with glee. Jane had spent the morning rounding up all the chickens she could find in the farmland and bringing them back closer to the house. She wanted to be able to provide whoever it was coming with a proper meal. The process had been quite exhausting and unfruitful however, having only located four featherless and threadbare birds.
She was now resting next to the old woman, the pair sitting in companionable silence. Presently, the woman stood up and walked along the garden path, taking the birds with her. Jane watched as she opened the cage, placed her hand in and allowed a singular bird to hop happily onto her palm, leaving the others ruffled and disgruntled to find they were still captive. She whispered something to the bird, a tiny secret and then she released it, fluttering frantically away into the blue sky above. The woman watched, her body lifting and dropping into a great sigh as it disappeared. And then she turned back to Jane, smiled brightly and said, “Tea?”
Jane followed her to the kitchen, unwilling to let something as odd as this slide.
“What was that all about?”
“Every so often, I take a fancy to letting one go. I send them off with a little secret and when they return they bring me a secret back. Today was the day, that’s all. They get a bit cramped I find sometimes.”
“I see,” Jane said, not seeing anything at all.
“Don’t worry, they always come back to me eventually,” the woman smiled.
“Good,” Jane replied, utterly bemused. Something very fishy indeed. Seeing that Jane was not satisfied, the woman gave a chuckle and continued.
“When I was young I travelled to every corner of The Kingdom with my mother. She was like me, this gift of vision runs through the women in my family. Because of it we have always found it hard to settle anywhere. There are very few things I haven't seen. And every place I went the birds seemed to follow me. They're drawn to me. They know that I'm different. They know that I can see things that other people can’t. I think that makes them feel safer, knowing that I might see any danger before it happens. After a while it became quite the distraction though, being shrouded in birds all the time. So rather than having a great smog of them hanging about me, I collected them up in this cage. Some of them I have had since I was a girl, others will be with me for a few months and then I won’t see them again for several years. I’m always curious as to who will turn up again.”
“One of the things that old age has done to me is capturing me inside this body. I've always moved around, never settled down and this feeling of entrapment I have now is almost more than I care to live with. I have the constant desire to run away but of course, I can't. I am trapped by weak knees and buried under a heavy ribcage. I don't want my birds to meet the same fate. They deserve to be free and this is why they are liberated from time to time. But they come back to me out of loyalty and the desire to be well informed. So you see, it’s quite simple really,” she finished, patting Jane's hand and smiling like this habit were as normal as brushing your teeth twice a day. She resigned herself to the acceptance of it, the woman was a wonder and her birds were a confusing quirk but she decided to leave it there for now.
“Anything yet?” Jane asked. The sun was floating lower in the sky, becoming lazy and eager to set.
“Nothing yet. You'll be the first to know,” she smiled. Two days before the woman had seen the blurred man eating a dead bird. She had not recognised where he was. It had been five days now since her first vision.
Jane had not told the woman about The Crooked and his instructions. She suspected that she had already seen it anyway. If she were happy to pretend it had not happened, Jane was too.
Jane found herself checking the edge of the trees, constantly searching for any trace of them but she never saw even a suggestion of spies. But she knew they were there. Always watching, lurking, menacing, all knowing, all hating. Jane returned to the house, the thought making her anxious to be far away from the trees.
She stepped carefully over the blood. It was fading now, growing less red and angry. It was becoming a part of the tiles themselves. She wondered what she would do on the day when she couldn't see it at all anymore. The woman had also learned not to tread on it, not to ask about it or the biggest cardinal sin, not to clean it up.
Jane was absent mindedly making another round of teas, putting too much sugar in the woman’s cup and not enough in her own and humming a ragged song when the old woman shouted from outside.
“Jane!” she cried. Jane was by her side in an instant.
“What is it?”
“He’s coming. I know the path he is on. A few miles away,” the woman whispered.
“Thank you,” Jane whispered back. It would not be long now.
He did not arrive that evening. Nor the next morning. Jane waited up all night for him, rocking back and forth methodically in her mother’s old chair. The old woman eventually fell asleep by the fire. Her birds were sat on the table next to her. They could feel the anxiety in the air too.
As Jane stood in the doorway and watched the dawn approaching, arms crossed, foot tapping impatiently on the ground, she wondered who it could be. It could be her father. But Jane thought that was unlikely as he would never leave her mother behind if they were together. Peter? As Protector he was certainly a possibility. Tim? Possible, he would do anything to get back to Sophia whom he would still believe to be in Jane’s care. Oliver? He was not smart enough, brutal but true. She wondered if Oliver even knew the gravity of his position. Perhaps he thought it was a low budget holiday the family had organized? Isaac? Surely it was most likely to be him. Surely he would have fought harder than he had the strength for in order to make it back to her?
“Come on,” she whispered to no one but herself, trying to make sure she didn’t settle on the idea. In the back of her mind though, she knew that once they arrived whoever it turned out to be, she had an impossible plan to calculate. She must find a way to outsmart The Crookeds.
“Anything?” Jane asked, rubbing her aching head.
“No. I'm sorry,” the woman whimpered. She wished something would come, anything, just to try and comfort the girl who was now frantic. The person still hadn't shown themselves that evening. The journey that should have taken them only a few hours had turned into an agonizing day and a half.
“Try harder!” Jane exploded, slamming her fists down onto the kitchen table in fury.
“I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I can’t produce them on demand,” the woman said, huddled up in her chair, frightened of Jane and the anger she housed inside. She was a force that the woman had barely scratched the surface of. What lurked deep inside frightened the old woman. She was capable of anything.
Jane returned to her post in the doorway, stoical and cold, her back turned resolutely on the woman.
“You must be exhausted,” the woman whispered.
“I'm alright,” Jane growled in response.
“I think you should go and get some sleep. You’re hysterical,” she said.
“What will he think if he arrives home and I'm asleep?”
“He'll think that you're being sensible and choosing to look after yourself rather than withering away for no reason whatsoever. That's all any of them want, you know. They want you to be alright, they wanted to keep you alive.”
“Well, they got their wish. I'm alive and kicking,” she hissed sarcastically.
“I know it’s hard. I know that you're suffering. I don't know why The Crookeds left you behind and chose to take everyone else; when all they really want is to be rid of you. You're the biggest threat of them all,” she said. 'But… this is the way things are now,” she finished pathetically. Jane snorted at her feeble attempt to comfort her, the inconsolable girl.
Jane didn't know the time when she woke, stiff and cold and propped up on the doorstep. The woman had disappeared from her post by the fireplace, her old bones must have been complaining for a bed. Jane had put her up in Oliver's room a few nights before. She had decided it was least likely to be him coming home.
Then she heard a noise that must have been the thing that woke her up in the first place. The old garden gate squeaked shut. She heard two measured, heavy footsteps on the gravel but couldn’t see an inch in front of her nose in the blackness.
“Who's there?” Jane asked in a raspy whisper. Whoever it was gave a deep grunt in response. She scrambled to her feet, grabbed the stump of candle that burned low upon the kitchen table and flew back out of the door. Whoever it was had propped himself up against the garden gate, heaving with the effort it must have taken him to climb the up the hill. Jane flung an arm over their shoulder and helped to guide the frail body back into the house. The man tried to sit down on a chair but instead his legs gave way and he fell limply to the floor with an ugly crunching sound, groaning with the effort. Jane set to work.
The old woman arrived downstairs, clad in a floral nightgown, in a flash and she promptly made a quick assessment of the man lying still and moaning on the floor. Deciding the most important thing to do was warm him up she first filled the kettle and set about making a hot meal whilst Jane lit the fire and fetched blankets. He also needed to be cleaned, from what they could make out in the half light his skin was covered in filth and painted red with blood, illustrated with deep wounds that needed attention. She started filling buckets of water at the well and carried them clumsily, slopping water all up the stairs to the bath. Cold water would have to do for now. Jane protested that there was no point heating him to then chuck him in a bath of icy water. The woman had bent down and pulled back an inch of his shirt to show Jane a gash that was swimming in seething maggots and said, “There’s your point.” Looking down on the ripped and disheveled man in terror, she still could not confirm who it was.
“Hold his head up,” the bird woman said as she knelt down next to the man with a bowl of steaming broth that she had seemingly produced out of thin air. Tenderly, spoonful by spoonful she poured life back into the man which he gasped greedily for, his eyes shut and his lips opening greedily. Holding up his head allowed Jane time to appraise him. What she saw was deeply unsettling. His face was thick with grime and beard. His hair was just longer than the nape of his neck and matted with black grease. His clothes were torn and hung loosely over the bones that were concealed beneath. Tics and insects crawled over his skin and in the welts and gashes that covered him which were also enflamed with bites and infection. He wore nothing on his feet. The smell that omitted from him was of rotten flesh. He was surely inches from death. It occurred to Jane, that maybe she didn't know this man after all. She couldn’t place his hollow face at all. Perhaps he was a Hopeful who had heard of her plight and had journeyed to find her. A stranger maybe. An outsider, just as lost as she was. She now hoped this was the case. She hoped that this was not someone she loved after all.
When the bowl had been scraped clean, the woman brewed some tea with herbs that Jane didn’t recognize and she forced him to drink the entire cup. His face lost some of its concern after that and he swiftly fell asleep where he lay. Jane covered him over with a blanket but the woman refused to leave him to settle. Now he was unconscious was the time to get him cleaned up.
“What did you put in that tea?” Jane asked.
“Special bits of this and that, nothing for you to worry about,” she said, which didn’t fill Jane with confidence.
“Do you know who it is?” Jane asked as they heaved him from the floor.
“You know these people a hundred times better than I do and if you don't know who it is, how am I supposed to know who it is?” she replied. She avoided Jane's eyes after that.
“Right then, bathroom,” she said, clapping her hands. Together they clumsily carried the unconscious man up the stairs and into the bathroom.
She pulled out a pair of scissors and started to cut his clothes free. This, Jane couldn't watch. His soiled clothes fell free of his body, like withered petals falling free from a flower after the summer has died. It was what lay underneath that held the real horror. The bruises and welts upon his skin were too much to take. This man had been beaten and beaten and beaten again. It was worse than anything she had ever seen on Sophia. It was all too much to take.
“Oh my,” the woman said, after appraising the worst of it. Then they placed him in the bath. Instantly the water turned purple with dirt and blood and foul fluids. She let the plug go out on the bath, the water dragging the maggots away with it.
Once Jane had replaced the water they scrubbed his body clean of the dirt and washed away the hell that had plagued it. It was a good job he was unconscious, the embarrassment might have killed him. The woman cut away his matted hair and shaved his face clean. They cut his nails and rubbed soothing oils into all his scars. Though he looked better for being clean, the dirt had at least hidden some extent of the bruising. Now it was clear for all to see.
“Most of these will never go away,” the woman said, looking with a critical eye.
“He’ll be ok,” Jane said, her voice shaking.
“Fetch him some clean clothes,” the woman instructed. Tim's bedroom was the closest to the bathroom. She pulled out a shirt and jumper and loose fitting trousers. Together they dressed him as delicately and tenderly as possible.
It was then that he opened his eyes ever so briefly and shook his head sadly at Jane. Tim's eyes looked back at her. Tim. Timothy, who had been stolen by The Crookeds which was Jane’s fault because of who she was and who she was related to. It was Tim who had returned home to her. But, of course he had not been coming home to her at all; he had been coming home to Sophia. He had battled to get back to where he thought she was. To be with her again, against every odd. And now she was gone too. And that was Jane’s fault as well.
“Tim,” she whispered. And then he closed his eyes and he was gone again.
“He won't stir again now until morning,” the woman said. They moved him into his old bed and covered his cold bones.
“You should go to bed,” she said.
In protest Jane lay down next to her brother and said “If he wakes up…I want to be here.”
“Suit yourself,” the woman said, shrugging and heading back to her room, muttering to herself about the many pit falls of being stubborn.
She fretted all night that he had died there next to her. His breathing was so shallow, she worried that he had stopped altogether and more than once she held her fingers above his chapped lips to check he was still alive. She willed him to keep sleeping because when he woke up she would have to deal with the truth of what had happened and she would have to be the person to break her brother’s heart all over again. She attempted to think up some lies to tell him, anything to make herself sound less guilty. But they all sounded feeble and pathetic and she resolved that the truth could be the only option, the truth that she was indeed feeble and pathetic.
Then at about seven in the morning he awoke. He spluttered and convulsed and his breath rattled dangerously in his throat. Jane forced a glass of water down his neck and then offered him some bread which he swallowed ravenously.
For quite some time then, he sat in catatonic silence, looking over and over at the wounds up his arms and legs, running his fingers over them, like he was trying to knit them up with sheer willpower. She didn’t speak; she wanted him to be the first to break the silence. Which he did not because he could not bring himself to look into her eyes. When Jane could bear to watch him no longer, she walked into the village and put on Isaac’s jumper for an hour.
“Where is she?” Tim asked finally that night. His first words since he had arrived home. He was sat up in bed, he had eaten three square meals, his scars were shining in the firelight. Jane started at the sound of his voice. Thankfully it was one of the few things that had not been altered about him.
“I'm so sorry,” Jane said, reaching up to take his hands but falling short in shame.
“Just tell me she isn't dead. After everything, she can't be dead,” he said thickly, a tear running down his burnt face.
“I don't know, Tim. I don’t know how it all happened. Let me try and explain. It was an accident, I never meant for it to happen. This hurts me as much as it hurts you, please believe me. I loved her too. She was all I had left. After you had left, she was all I had,” Jane whimpered. He turned to look at her like a man at rock bottom, his eyes hollowed deep into his skull from loss.
“We did not leave. We were ambushed, we were attacked and kidnapped. We did not leave. Do not begin to pretend you are the one who has suffered, Jane,” he growled.
She began her tale. She explained all about what happened that night, about Isaac and the words he had spoken and how she had seen him dragged away and how she had been left alone. Then she spoke about how she discovered Sophia a few days later in the ceiling, just as he had wanted her to. She explained that it had been her idea to set out to find the family.
“I should have known you would do something stupid. I suppose when I asked you to look after her I should have been more specific. Like do not drag someone who is dying out on a suicide mission. She wasn't strong enough for that.”
“What was I supposed to do? Sit around and wait for you all to be killed? Would you have been able to stay home if the boot had been on the other foot? I don't think so,” she said.
“That is beside the point. You dragged an extremely weak girl who has seen more than enough for one lifetime, back towards the world she had finally escaped from when all I asked you to do was keep her safe.”
“I couldn't leave you all to die,” she whispered.
She could feel his anger; it was coming off him like heat from flames.
“What happened then?”
“We walked for...for...who knows how many days. Weeks, I think about four maybe. We had no idea where we were going. We found some of mum’s beads,” she showed him her wrist where they sat.
“She'll be delighted you found them. She thought they'd be an encouragement if you did decide to follow us,” he said blankly.
She explained how Sophia had disappeared into thin air one night, how she had searched for her all night. And ended up back at the house, down one more person.
“They were following you and they took her to spite you,” he deduced.
“Yes, I assume that's the case. They won't touch me; none of them will take me. And I've given them plenty of opportunity to take me,” she laughed bitterly.
“Well, they wouldn't would they? They can’t!” he said, frustrated. “I can't believe they've got her again. They've probably killed her this time, as punishment for escaping the first time. She must have been so frightened.”
“You don’t know that, she survived last time,” Jane reasoned.
“I don’t feel her anymore. She’s gone, she must be,” he rattled, voice shaking on the verge of breaking. “I asked one thing of you. One thing.”
Jane saw how irresponsible she had been now. All Tim had needed was for Sophia to be safe, but thanks to her, he had lost her again. She saw the situation reversed, she saw herself through her brothers eyes, cowardly and stupid. And were the situation reversed, were she in his shoes, she would find forgiveness hard. She stood up to leave, knowing there was nothing that could be said now.
“She wanted to save you. Don’t blame me for that,” she said, closing the door behind her with a snap.
Only the bird woman was allowed in and out of the room and only if she was bringing meals, or to change the odd dressing.
“Has he said anything?” Jane would ask, three times each day and each day the woman shook her head and did not meet her eye. This continued for a week. The woman set the occasional bird free, the air turned cooler and Jane waited.
Her time was running out, she knew that. She could feel the grains of sand in her hourglass becoming fewer and fewer. Surely, she only had a matter of days left to make good on the deal The Crooked had presented to her. They would not wait forever. She considered going to the river on her own that night and attempting another tack of reason but she knew she had no currency that could purchase her more time. What she needed was information. She needed a clearer picture of the situation. And he could pretend all he liked, but Tim knew far more than he let on.
“I need to know,” she said, walking boldly into his room which smelt like antiseptic and sweat.
“Know what?” he snapped, sitting up a little straighter in the bed and trying to cover his bare chest that was more bones than flesh.
“You said, ‘they can’t.’ The other day you said, ‘They wouldn’t touch you, they can’t.’ Or something to that effect. What did you mean?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You have to tell me. No more secrets. I must know.”
“They would kill me if I told you,” he said, dismissing her.
“Who is they?”
“Somebody else will kill you if you don’t tell me. They aren’t here now. I am. And I want to fix this and the only way I can do that is if I know the truth. So tell me. For pity’s sake, tell me,” she pleaded.
“I thought you would have worked it out by now,” he mumbled aggressively.
“Tim, don’t do it for me. Do it for them.”
He considered her for a while. She supposed he was wondering what Jane could possibly have up her sleeve. How could she dream of fixing it? This war that had begun its raging hundreds of years before Jane had appeared on the earth was bigger than everything now. How could Jane be The Saviour, the one who could fix everything? But this was not what he was thinking at all. In fact he had been waiting for her to bite; he had been desperate to tell this secret that was not his to tell. Happy he had succeeded, he began.
“As you know, dad was a Protector of this village for many years. When we were young, we used to bombard dad with questions about being a Protector. Of course, he never really told us anything important but what he did say was that when a person becomes Protector, some vital pieces of information are passed down to them by their predecessors. They are secrets that were first written by Evelyn and Noah and they are only to be spoken about as they are passed from old Protector to new Protector. This information, they must not tell to anyone else. Obviously, Pete and Isaac received the same information when they became Protectors. And one day, not so long ago, Isaac turned up at the house and insisted that he, Peter and dad have a meeting. It was about the Protector secrets that they had been told.”
“Isaac thought it was time that the rest of the family knew, the secret was too important, too vital to the progress of the war to simply ignore it anymore, he thought it might be the answer. He insisted that they bend the rules this time and share it with mum, myself and Oliver. With things getting worse all the time and the stories becoming more frequent and bloodier, Isaac thought it might be our last chance to do something.”
“Dad and Peter agreed after some convincing and they sat us down and told us. But the secret that they passed on to us was so unlikely that none of us ever dared believe it could possibly be true. It was more than we dared believe in. We passed it off as silliness, as the desperation of people who were facing their imminent deaths. Until recently, when Isaac proved that the legend was real after all,” he leant forward and winced with the effort of it.
“You shouldn’t know this; we all agreed that you could not know. But now, the time has come that you have to know. So, here it is,” Tim swallowed and stared hard into her eyes. Jane could barely breathe, she was about to learn the truth.
“It all began with Evelyn. As everything did. As you know, she was our first and original Saviour. And part of the reason why she is so special is because she managed to impose some laws upon The Crookeds. The laws meant that she provided other Hopefuls with some protection. She gained some control over them. How she got The Crookeds to agree to it will forever be a mystery. Again, that’s why she is so special.”
“The law stated that 'Should any Protector give a direct instruction to a Crooked, all of The Crookeds must abide by that instruction for eternity.’ They are not able to over ride the order, there is no way around it and they must adhere to it. And so you can see why we thought it was a load of rubbish. Would any Crooked do anything simply because they had been told to by a Protector? No one had ever lived long enough in the face of a Crooked to try it. So it had always remained a legend, a myth. It seemed completely impossible. They were designed to destroy, why would they listen to an order from one of us?”
“That is, until Isaac got to try it out that night. You'll recall he told them to do something, or not do something as the case may be?”
Jane heard his words in her head like it was yesterday; they were burned into her memory and her mind and her heart. “None of you are to ever touch Jane.” Words that she had tossed around and agonized with for months now.
“Yes, he did,” she winced.
“That was him saving your life. He was a Protector and he gave them a direct instruction and they had no choice but to listen to him. They were so furious because all they wanted was you. To get rid of you as swiftly and efficiently as possible and he stopped them.”
“We were so pleased it had worked,” he smiled at her and took her hand. “When we realized that you weren’t with us and Isaac passed the message around about what he had managed to do, we were so happy.”
“It seems impossible,” Jane whispered.
“It’s improbable, not impossible. It works. That’s why you’re still alive, and we are alive because you are still alive. For as long as you live we are their leverage.”
“We had planned it all carefully, what words they should use if they got the chance. We made it so there were no loopholes. The reason Isaac wanted us all to know was so that we could give him and Peter the best chance of giving the order. We were to hold them off as long as possible.”
“He did it for me,” Jane gasped.
“And he was so happy that it worked.”
“But I don’t understand, why didn’t you use the command to end it all? Why didn’t you just tell The Crooked’s to retreat? Surely that would have been more useful than just saving me?”
“Trust me, it was discussed. Over and over again. But dad had felt that it just wouldn’t work. He told us that it was a whisper passed down through his family, that although Protectors had a command, there was a limit to strength of it. They were told that there had only ever been one person with the ability to end it, Evelyn. Why do you think The Crooked’s continue to bother us now? Because Evelyn is long gone and because there has been no other Saviour since her that has had the power to drive them away again. But, Jane, dad is convinced that it is you, that will be able to do it. And that is why we chose to save you. Because it is your job to save everyone,” Tim said, placing a cold hand on her shoulder.
It appeared everyone was convinced of this mystical power that Jane had. Jane just wished she knew where about her person that power happened to be located.
“What did Pete tell them to do?” Jane asked.
“He was unconscious before he could ask. Then he sort of wasted it when he woke up, said something stupid and missed his chance. He was so mad at himself,” Tim said.
“How is everybody?” Jane asked.
“You've seen me haven't you?” he laughed. “A bit like this.”
“Oh no,” Jane whimpered.
“Don't worry, they won't kill any of us until they work out how to get to you,” he sighed. “I think they knew we were planning to use the legend, that’s why they took us all, just in case we managed it and they needed a different plan to get to you.”
“And how do they do that?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Now that, I cannot tell you.”
“Tell me,” she demanded.
“I cannot,” and he would say no more on the matter.
“Who was there? At the prison?” Jane asked.
“All of our family, Isaac and his family and Lilia. Maybe more. We lost quite a few of the villagers early on, Wendy and Vern,” he replied.
She did not want to consider what had happened to the rest of them. “How did you escape?”
“It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t noble. The family isn’t too happy with what I've done. But I needed to get to her. I needed her back,” he sobbed. And Jane understood how he felt and why he had done whatever he had done to get back to her because that was how she felt about Isaac.
“Tim? How is he?” Jane whispered through her fingers, daring to ask the question that had been brewing under her lips.
“What can I tell you? I wish I could say he was safe and he was healthy. He’s dying, like we all are. But the thought that you are safe is all he needs. He spent months considering the best way to keep you out of all this, shutting the school, following you, the searches of the village, and the visits to our house most evenings just to check that you were still ok. He stopped Rupert making you Protector to keep you safe. Rupert wouldn’t even listen to our parents pleas. But for some reason he listened to Isaac. When he became a Protector and heard about the legend he was overjoyed. We tried to tell him it might not work but he believed in it and it did.”
“They push him the most for information about you. They understand the way you feel about each other and they are prepared to take full advantage of it. But he has never spoken a word about you. All he needs to know is that you're alive. He made us promise that if any of us managed to escape and come back to you that we wouldn’t try to take you back to the prison. He doesn’t want you anywhere near that place,” he shuddered. “He loves you.” He had confirmed all Jane needed to know. He was alive and that was enough.
“What are we going to do?” Tim asked, with hopelessness breathing out of him, aching to hear Jane’s great plan that she surely must have cooked up after months of solitude.
“I haven’t a clue,” she whispered.
Jane sat at Tim’s window all night whilst he snored gently from the bed behind her. She sat all night, gazing out of the panes before her because she didn’t want to miss him if he came back to her. Like Tim had missed Sophia all those years ago. But he did not come and it was then that the hope that she clung onto like a raft started to bleed from her and seep away into the floorboards below.