People had said that their marriage was the reason why The Age of Atrocity ever occurred in the first place. They had fallen in love despite all the hate and in doing so they had saved each other. They had found their soul mates and surely that made all the suffering worthwhile? That’s what people who didn’t know Lilia and Oliver said.
“Bullshit,” Lilia snarled to herself as she furiously tugged up the weeds with her bare hands from Isaac's old abandoned garden. Blood tricked like sweat down her wrists as the thorns and barbs cut into her skin.
She had never wanted to move into the cottage that Isaac had lived in. She had argued that if he came back, which of course he would one day; he would need somewhere to come back to. He would deserve to have somewhere to call home.
“He isn’t coming back,” Peter had reassured her.
“Don’t be stupid, of course he is,” Lilia had snapped in reply. But it had been over seven months now and there was still no sign of him.
The marriage had taken place about a month before. The honeymoon period had lasted all of twenty seconds after they had walked jubilantly from the church, hand in hand. And then it had all spiraled out of control rather quickly.
Oliver was never really to be seen anymore, he spent all of his time in the house on the hill with the rest of the Shepherds. She was left to drift around the tiny cottage like a war widow, waiting at the kitchen window for her husband to come striding down the garden path, knowing deep down that he would not come back. All the same, she made certain that the place was immaculate so that if he did come home, it would be just that, a home.
She white washed the dingy walls, scrubbed the floors, put up the floral patterned curtains that were a wedding present. She varnished the furniture, hung pictures on the walls, the window sills were adorned with flowers, a pair of slippers waited beside the door.
“Bastard,” she hissed. She wiped away a few tears, smearing mud and blood across her face, creating a rather pleasing great mess.
Nora would probably come and visit her soon. Dutifully, his mother came by every day, bringing cake and bread that she knew Lilia wouldn't eat. Her visits were fairly cold and Lilia didn't look forward to them because they never brought the news that she was desperate to hear. But at least they broke up the silence of the day, made her feel annoyance instead of self loathing.
She wanted to look dreadful for when Nora arrived. So she smeared the mess all up her bare legs and into the crevasses of her dress as well. She wanted them all to know that she was not coping. She was losing her mind living there alone, just as Isaac had done.
“Afternoon, Lilia,” Nora smiled, hesitantly from the gateway.
“Afternoon,” she muttered back unenthusiastically.
“I'll just put this in kitchen, shall I?” It was a pie. Lilia would unashamedly feed it to the birds once Nora had gone.
“This has got to stop,” Nora said, coming back out from the kitchen.
“What do you mean?”
“The cupboards are full of food.”
“Am I to apologise for having a well stocked kitchen?” Lilia replied, lowering herself to her bench with a wry smile.
“It's rotting. You're not eating any of it. You look dreadful,” Nora sighed.
“It’s for when he comes back,” Lilia answered.
“He's not coming back,” Nora replied.
“He will. If he could see, if he just came and looked what I’ve done to the house. He’ll be so pleased with it all,” Lilia said, shaking. “If you could just tell him to come and see me.”
“No, he’s not coming back. He can’t forgive you. After what you did. Jane was his sister, you must understand that,” Nora winced.
“She was my sister too,” Lilia gasped.
“He loved her.”
“He loved me!” Lilia snapped.
“It’s not enough, he can’t forgive it.”
“I’m not asking for forgiveness. I just want us to forget and move on.”
“You let us know when you work out how to do that,” Nora sighed, picked up her empty basket and walked away.
The war might have ended but it seemed the suffering would never cease. And she had only made it all worse with what she had decided, in her infinite wisdom, was a good idea.
Standing there, uncomfortably close to the fire in Oliver’s bedroom, wearing that ridiculous wedding dress, being pulled and prodded every which way by Nora, Lilia was feeling completely harassed. The dress had not been her idea. It was at Nora’s insistence that Lilia walk down the aisle in her old dress and Lilia had agreed to wear the beast. The thing had voluminous layers of net and crinoline, a tight and stiff collar made of lace and the whole ensemble rustled loudly when she moved. As well as being cumbersome and old fashioned, it was an entirely impractical garment to be wearing so close to a fireplace. But she didn't have the heart to tell Nora anything other than how wonderful she thought it was and what a sweet gesture it was. Because of course, the dress was being saved for Jane and since Jane was no longer around to wear it, Lilia had to be the substitute. A below standard substitute, she had thought to herself sadly.
“It needs altering a bit,” Nora mused, playing with the layers of horrific ruffles.
Thank God, Lilia thought.
“Do you think so?” was what she actually said though.
“Yes, I'll take it in a bit and try to get rid of some of the volume. Yes, I can see that you're sweating,” she smiled as Lilia attempted to discreetly mop her brow.
“You can take it off now,” Nora said after taking all the necessary measurements. Lilia couldn't get out of the dress fast enough. In her haste she even forgot to be embarrassed that Nora would see her in her underwear.
Nora groaned as she bent to pick the dress up, clutching her bad back as she did so. It hadn't been the same since...well since what they had done to her in the prison. She masked her pain and the thoughts that lay behind it, giving Lilia an encouraging smile as she turned to leave the room.
“Nora?” Lilia said, covering herself hastily.
“Yes, my love?” she asked, turning back to her.
“I'm sorry. I’m sorry… that it’s me,” Lilia said.
“Well, I'm not sorry, if that’s any consolation. You've made my son a very happy man and for that I am eternally grateful.”
“No, I don't mean that. I mean, I'm sorry that it’s me using your dress. I know this was never the way you imagined it,” Lilia said, staring down at her feet. She heard Nora sigh and the rustle of fabric as she moved towards her. The woman took the young girl’s face in her hands and placed a kiss on her forehead.
“None of us will ever get over it properly, will we?” she said, shutting her eyes. It was the way she had taught herself to hold back the tears.
“No. And I think that’s our punishment. For not being able to save her,” Lilia whispered.
“Have you heard from Isaac?” Nora asked.
“No. I asked Anna and she doesn't know where he is either. It's killing them,” Lilia replied.
“I can sympathise,” Nora said sadly. “I just hope he hasn't done something stupid.” She left then, closing the creaking door behind her.
Oliver replaced her in the room not a moment later.
“Is it awful?” he smiled, kissing her eagerly after the enforced separation. He did not like to be away from her for very long. Despite everything, they were all still afraid of losing track of each other.
When Isaac disappeared Oliver had been named as his replacement. Oliver had always been thought of as too wholesome and sweet to be dragged down with the position of Protector, but he was secretly delighted. It had been a long time since he had been taken seriously; he had never truly been treated as a Shepherd. As one of the brave ones. But now he was considered amongst them, the ones who deserved to share Evelyn’s blood, Peter and his father and Jane.
“Oh, it’s going to be a real treat,” she grinned, not hiding the sarcasm one jot. He chuckled in response and delivered more kisses along her neck.
“Oliver?” she said. Reluctantly he made his eyes meet hers.
“I think we should invite Tim to the wedding,” Lilia said.
“No,” Oliver replied, moving away from her like she had bitten him.
“Would you listen to why I think we should?”
“No, it’s out of the question. Peter and dad would murder him as soon as they set eyes on him. And to be honest I’m not sure I wouldn’t join them. And I’d hate to get my hands all bloody on my wedding day.”
“One day I think you might look back and really regret it if he isn’t there.”
“Think about it. Remind yourself what he did to us. He betrayed us all. He murdered his own sister. She would still be here now. And we wouldn’t all be walking about and pretending we aren’t waiting for her to walk in the door again,” he spluttered. “Out of the question. Besides, none of us know where he is.”
The day they had forced him to leave was one of the last very dark days, the last of the aftershocks that the war left behind. They had travelled the Protectors’ Passage in a confused stupor and returned to the village, more than half dead. There were few that could walk. No one spoke at all. Lilia had been carried for most of the journey by Oliver who placed her in his bed on their return to the village.
She had woken maybe two days later. Oliver was asleep on the floor beside her. He snored lightly, his bare chest covered in scars and bruises, his ribs sticking out like fissures in rock. Lost and disorientated, she found Nora in the kitchen, who was making attempts to bring a meal for her family together. The garden was relatively well kept; Jane had done a surprisingly good job. And the few chickens that remained were underfed but still living at least. The cupboards were empty and the floor was a little dirty but mostly the house had been left in order. There were just some odd bloody stains on the kitchen floor by the door. Nora took to her knees, scrubbing and scrubbing at the mess. But it would not shift, like it had become ingrained into the tiles. Tears of exhaustion streaked down her face.
“It just won't come off,” she cried. Lilia took the brush from her hand and they sat for a while in the wet mess together.
Later that evening Lilia had bravely found her way to Jane’s bedroom. It sat just as it always had, the bed wasn’t made, the wardrobe was open and spitting its contents here and there. A plate was festering on the desk, bearing a brown, furry apple core. Lilia closed the door behind her quietly and allowed herself to absorb some of the life that Jane had left behind in it. Before even that disappeared too.
She woke up on the wooden floor what must have been several hours later. She hadn't wanted to sleep on the bed because she would make it smell of her and not of Jane. Shouting had erupted from downstairs. There was an army of angry voices and profanities and cursing going on. She crept from the room and sat half way down the stairs, where she couldn't be seen. Like a child when their parents were arguing.
“Do you not care that I don’t have anywhere else to go?” Tim’s pitiful voice cried.
“Not really. You’ll manage. The dangers passed now,” Peter’s voice grumbled gently.
“You have to understand, it all got out of hand. I didn’t know what to do,” Tim sobbed.
“When you are the sole cause of your own sister’s death, you lose the right to be understood!” that voice was unmistakably Isaac.
“What else do you want? You’ve already beaten the crap out of me, Isaac.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t kill you, you treacherous snake,” Isaac snarled.
“Stop it. Both of you,” that was Frank. Oliver had come stumbling groggily out of his room at that point. He had jumped when he saw her sitting there. She beckoned him down next to her where he promptly wrapped himself around her like a cocoon.
Isaac had indeed pulverised Tim. As soon as they had arrived back in the village, Isaac had turned on him. He summoned every last drop of rage he possessed and poured all of it back into Tim. It was a wonder he hadn’t died. Nobody stopped Isaac for not one of them had the strength to.
“Isaac, what is it that you think we should do then?” Peter had asked, diplomatically.
“He is not part of this family! He shouldn’t be allowed an opinion!” Tim bellowed.
“He is part of this family,” Frank had said bluntly.
“I want him to leave. I want to never have to look at his face again. And I don’t want any of you to have to either,” Isaac hissed. There was a silence.
“Oliver?” Nora called up the stairs, knowing that her son was sat there listening. He took Lilia's hand and brought her downstairs with him. The scene was almost comical, a bitter standoff being fought in such a small room. Nora was stood next to Tim, propping him up. Frank, Peter and Isaac stood together, Peter’s arm resting protectively on Isaac’s hand waiting to nip any attack in the bud.
“Oliver,” his mother said, looking at him in desperation. “What do you think? He's your brother too. What should be done? Can we turn our back on our own family now?”
Oliver knew he was being consulted because he was the gentlest of the Shepherd children, he was the most eager to please. He was the fairest. He knew what it was his mother wanted him to say.
Oliver looked Timothy over, who did not meet his eyes. He was hunched, bruised from head to toe. He was perilously thin and looking so much older than his 26 years. Oliver suspected he had a broken nose, and some broken ribs too, that would explain why he was so hunched. But there was nothing any of them could do about that. They would simply have to heal themselves. The man looked shameful.
Oliver was about to say, “No. How can we throw him out? He is one of our own. We'd be no better than the rest of them if we did that.”
Then he looked around at his family. What was left of them. His mother, father, Peter, Lilia onto whose hand he held, even Isaac who someday would have been his brother too. What was missing was all of a sudden far too clear. The youngest and most precious of all of them, who they couldn't protect in the end, even though they had tried so hard. The one who Tim had chucked willingly into the fire. Rage bubbled up inside of him.
“He needs to go,” Oliver said quietly. Nora stared at him with disbelieving eyes, sure that in asking the most forgiving member of the family, together they might have spared Tim. Then she started to wail like a wounded animal because she knew that if Oliver suggested it, it must be the right thing to do after all.
Tim was granted a few days to recover before he was sent on his way. Nora packed up a bag with all she could spare. As he walked away, the heavens parted and Nora retired to her room where she remained for two weeks.
In the here and now, Lilia decided she wouldn't say anything more on the matter because she didn't like to argue and this was a sore topic to be avoided at all costs. But Oliver was wrong about one thing; Lilia did know where Tim was. Several months before Tim had written to Lilia, telling her that he had found Sophia and they were living together in some tiny far off village that had not sustained too much damage. In response Lilia had already sent the wedding invitation. Oliver would come around to the idea by the time the wedding arrived. They would make amends and the family would be that little bit more complete again. That was all she had wanted.
The day of the wedding dawned bright and formidable. Lilia lay awake in Tim's old room, hearing the frantic organisation going on below her and started to wish that none of it had anything to do with her at all.
“What's this doing here? It should already be at the church!”
“Haven't you finished yet? You've been going for over an hour!”
“You're being incompetent. Get out of my way.” Nora's voice carried very well, Lilia noted.
It wasn’t that she was experiencing cold feet. She loved Oliver. He had saved her life in so many ways and when he had asked her to be his wife there wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation on her part. But in the several months since then, a sensation that she thought was guilt had started to bubble up. At first she had thought it was about Billy. Although she and Billy had exchanged nothing more than kind words and on one occasion a nervous, clumsy kiss, she suspected he was the root of her ill feeling. It took a while to realise that it was about Jane. Because she didn’t know about any of this and because she wouldn’t be there to see her brother get married, because Lilia might never have fallen in love with him had they never been taken into prison to serve as bait for Jane.
She buried her head deep underneath the pillow and wished for it all to evaporate, the ill feeling in her stomach and the day she was about to endure. As a little girl, imagining her wedding day this was not what she had had in mind. No family, no father to give her away and the space where her maid of honour should be, tragically empty.
After she had lain there still for another hour or more she suddenly heard, “Where is Lilia? Why isn't she up yet? No! Don't you go! It's bad luck to see the bride before the wedding. You should already have left! Martin is expecting you to get ready at his house.” Nora got shriller and shriller until she heard the door bang and then tell tale footsteps pounding up the stairs.
“Up. You're getting married. Up,” Nora said as she pulled the covers from her and then whipped open the curtains, allowing the glorious sunlight to flood into the room.
Lilia allowed herself to be fumbled into the dress; she didn’t want to look in the mirror. She already knew she looked absurd. It was only Nora’s smile, the most genuine smile she’d managed in well over a year that told her she could take a look. The dress was unrecognizable. The high neck had gone, the frills had been cut away and what was left fell around Lilia like a well fitted glove.
“Thank you,” Lilia smiled.
Nora coughed briskly and bit her lip. Lilia followed Nora’s tight lipped lead.
“Yes, well. Onwards, onwards,” Nora said, moving from activity to activity with frightful cheerfulness.
Lilia was only vaguely aware of the door at the back of the church, opening at some point in the ceremony. Not a soul turned to look. Nobody wanted to miss a single moment of the wonder taking place before them. It had been such a long time coming, this moment that felt something like moving on, struggling past what had happened before.
Lilia forgot about her guilt for a while, she felt nothing except thankfulness that it was him, that it was Oliver’s hand she held. Because he would never allow her to feel pain again. And for that she was very grateful indeed.
Later, once it was over, she realised that she had not thought about Jane once during the ceremony.
It wasn't until the couple had left the church followed by the rest of the congregation that they saw who it was that had arrived so late to the wedding. There was sudden silence as brother took in brother.
“What are you doing here?” Oliver spat dangerously at Tim. He had been waiting by the church gate, using it to prop himself up. Peter and Frank pushed forward through the crowd, coming to stand next to Oliver.
“I was invited,” Tim replied simply. Whilst the others had managed to recover some of their health, some meat returned to their bones, scars healed over and colour had returned to cheeks, Tim still looked haggard. His hair was starting to fall out, he was thin to the point of starvation and his eyes looked hollowed, haunted.
“By who?” Oliver snapped, moving towards him, Peter and Frank flanking him.
“Oliver, stop,” Lilia said, taking her husband’s hand only to have it snatched away from her. He turned to her and stared in disbelief.
“It was you. Wasn’t it?”
“He’s your brother,” she whispered.
“Why did you do it?” he asked, his rage rolling like waves into her.
“I thought it would fix things.”
“Did you forget what he did?”
Frank and Peter strode forward then, taking Tim by his elbows and directing him away from the scene.
“He murdered her!” Oliver bellowed. Those three words seemed to hurl themselves back and forth off the church walls like bells. Lilia turned to Nora who she had hoped would offer her some support on this matter but she was only greeted with reproach. Frank was already storming away from the village, unable to look at the son he had disowned. Peter was also fleeing but in a different direction to his father, before he did something he regretted.
Oliver waited one moment longer for an explanation from Lilia. When no great idea came to her, he let out a low growl, sprinted towards where Tim had found himself, heaving on the ground and brought back his fist and planted it hard into the centre of Tim’s face. His withered form flopped lifelessly to the ground; he did not attempt to move or cry out or fight back.
Without a backwards glance, Oliver followed his father’s path back up to the house on the hill, his mother following suit.
Slowly, painfully, the crowd had the good sense to disperse with lowered heads, pretending what they had just seen was of no great interest. A few muttered congratulations found their way to Lilia but the sensible ones ignored her entirely.
She waited until the crowd had all but gone and then she moved towards Tim and helped him back to his feet.
“I shouldn’t have come,” he murmured.
“I shouldn’t have asked you. I’m sorry,” she grimaced.
“I hope you’ll be happy. You and Oliver, you are lovely together,” Tim stuttered.
“Thank you,” she said, shrugging, tears threatening her again like rain. “I really did think they’d have been able to forgive by now.”
“They won’t, I don’t deserve it,” he said.
“How is Sophia?”
“Dead. She died about three months back,” he said, rows of tears carving their path over his cheeks the moment the words escaped him.
Lilia had not been expecting that. It made his betrayal seem all the more despicable. That he could not keep her alive, even when he had made Jane pay the greatest price for her life.
“She died giving birth,” he continued. “It’s a boy.”
“Of course it’s a boy,” she smiled. Girls were not prevalent in the Shepherd family. “Will you be alright?”
“I doubt it. But I think after today, you won’t be either. Don’t feel too sorry for me,” he said bitterly before wiping the dirt from his trousers and walking away.
And that was the mess that her good idea had landed her in.