The town meeting that occurred a few weeks later was arranged at very short notice. Rupert had sent the word round to everyone, making sure that everyone was warned. It was imperative that everybody be there.
As the family left their tumbledown house on the hill and headed towards the town for this unscheduled and ominous meeting, Nora spoke in a hushed and urgent voice to her husband, the children hanging behind them attempting to eavesdrop. Jane only caught the words, “we can only hope Rupert listened to him,” amongst her whispers.
Rain threatened far above them as they strode quickly down the path. A sign of upset. The old couple, Wendy and Vern, were just leaving their cottage as the Shepherd’s passed by.
“Evening all,” Vern called to them.
“Frank, have you got any idea what this is all about?” Wendy asked anxiously.
“Not a clue. Rupert knows better than to call a meeting without good reason though,” Frank replied, keeping his eyes to the ground. Vern clutched comfortingly on to Wendy’s hand.
Peter marched quickly on in front of Jane, clearly anxious to get to the village hall. Jane knew that he knew more about the meaning of this meeting than she did. He was always attending secret meetings with the current Protectors, Turner and Alistair. He was often accepting notes that were delivered to their door which he would read once and then throw into the fire. But then, who did not know more about everything than her?
“Peter, what’s going on?” she asked him. But he remained resolutely silent and ignored that she had even spoken.
Oliver walked beside her, serene and seemingly oblivious to anything out of the ordinary as he whistled a tune which he sometimes played on an old guitar on special, demanded occasions. They may as well have been out on a leisurely evening stroll for all the attention he paid. Oliver was a distracted person, his mind wandered easily in and out of tasks; he was usually in trouble for something, frustrations were quick to released on him. True to form though, Oliver never appeared to mind the berating that he received all that much.
Timothy lingered somewhere behind them all, his usual place in the formation. Jane thought it was because he did not enjoy small talk and that walking must be the time he did his best thinking, so not too much thought was given to the habit.
Timothy was now twenty four. It had been a few months since the day that he had come home clutching a letter, a single page of life altering text. In the run up to that day he had been acting very suspiciously. He was even more absent than usual, disappearing early in the morning and not coming back till late at night and sometimes not at all, the reason remaining under cloak and dagger. Jane’s parents did not seem at all worried about the situation so Jane had also decided there was also no reason for panic. She hoped beyond hope that perhaps he had finally found himself a girlfriend.
On the day this puzzling letter arrived, Jane had been sulking on the splintered bench next to the front door. She had had a bad day at school, resulting in two sets of punishments and a terrible bout of stropping. She was cursing under her breath when she saw Tim's head bobbing along above the hedgerow. He was belting up the path, with the kind of urgency it was unwise to raise in non urgent situations.
He bounded up to her and stopped himself abruptly before her. He had simply smiled at her and gasped, hauling back some tears that he wasn't ready to let escape. Nora, sensing the return of her son even from where she was upstairs, flew down into the kitchen, came to a halt and said “Well?”
“What?” Jane asked, beginning to sense she wasn’t in on some secret.
“She’s alive,” he managed to splutter before the tears burst their banks and rolled happily down his cheeks.
Jane was unsure what was meant by this mysterious statement. But her mother appeared to know perfectly for in an instant she was bawling along with her son, Jane shoved aside like overdone carrots.
“What’s going on?” Jane demanded. “Who’s alive?”
Tim let his mother go and grasped Jane in his strong embrace, without answering a single one of her questions. But Jane, hurt that she wasn’t involved in the secret, bitterly shrugged him off. She didn't understand and thus could not share in his delight. And Tim was so flustered that he couldn't breathe, let alone explain. Jane sauntered away. She would come back once she was sure Tim was ready to tell his story.
She returned home later that evening. She sat on the bench outside the kitchen door and waited for him to come out to her. He was by her side a moment and took her hand, a gesture so rare in this brother that it took her aback. He took a breath and launched into the story. It was a story about a girl and a boy. As the tale went on, Jane forgot that this story was about her brother. It sounded as though it had come straight from one of Lilia’s books. He was using ridiculous words that she had never heard him say before, like ‘love.’ She looked at her brother with fresh eyes and said, “Are you being serious?”
“Deadly,” he said with a curt nod.
When Tim was nineteen, he had fallen in love with a girl who had moved into the village. She was called Sophia and she was from a village close not too far away but had moved to live with her grandparents because her parents had been killed.
“The first moment I laid eyes on her I knew that I would love her in a way that would only end in heartbreak, because she would never have been able to return it,” he said.
“I remember her!” Jane cried. “I remember when she came! Wasn’t that when…the bells?” Jane asked cautiously.
“Yes, when her parents died that was the first time that we ever heard the bells ring ten times. Ten times, signaling warning. Danger.”
“Why were her parent’s deaths considered dangerous?”
“The Crookeds, of course. The bells rang ten times and then Sophia arrived the following day,” Tim remembered.
Jane remembered that day with the bells all too well. It was late September and she and Isaac had been well into the process of building the tree house. It had only been a few months since he arrived in the village but already she knew his favourite colours and that he liked to drink lemonade after playing games. They had been sitting together silently, tired after heaving around planks of wood when their own bell had rung five times and they were waiting for responses. Five rings followed five rings which followed another five rings. And then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, five rings turned into ten rings and all of the hearts in that little village in the middle of the country sank into the pits of their stomachs.
“Oh no,” Isaac had whispered, turning to Jane for the briefest of moments.
They had raced down into the village to find absolutely everyone hollering and crying and scaring each other silly in the town square.
Turner and Alistair, the Protectors, were packing up. They were preparing to travel to the village in question and see what help was needed and if they could do anything.
“We will be back as soon as we can,” Alistair was shouting over the hubbub. “But while we are gone, Frank is in charge. You all know you’re in good hands!”
Jane’s father had shaken their hands, whispered something to them and the pair of them had set off on horseback as fast as the wind. Frank had been their predecessor as Protector. He had served as one of the Protectors for fifteen years, an unusually long term for a Protector. When he had relinquished the title the village had moaned in despair. They had felt safe with him; he was related to Evelyn after all. With the knowledge that they were in his care once more everyone settled down slightly.
“Stay inside!” Frank had called around to everyone. “It’ll probably be nothing. You know where I’ll be if anyone needs me.”
And then Frank had stridden off to the bell tower where he spent the night, watching over the village with terror mounting in his chest. Because he too had never heard the bell ring ten times.
“No one would ever explain to me why the bell rang,” Jane whispered.
“Hardly anybody heard the full story. We didn’t want people to be afraid,” Tim replied. “But this isn’t about that. It’s about Sophia.”
Tim continued to explain that Sophia had been quiet and withdrawn when she arrived. She didn’t often brave venturing out of the house and when she did, her eyes were always fixed on the ground below her. She denied any and all attempts of friendships extended her way. Tim felt he would never even get the chance to say a solitary word to her for as long as he lived.
“Then one day, I was delivering some spare vegetables around the village when I saw her sitting alone on the village green. I think it was the bravest thing I ever did, sitting down next to her. I hadn’t been sat there long when she just opened her mouth and allowed it all to start pouring out. And once she started it didn’t seem like she would ever stop. She talked about how much she missed her parents, about how lonely she felt, about how she wished that she had someone that would listen to her. I was delighted that I got to be that person,” he smiled sadly at the memory.
“And then she told me how her parents had died. Her parents had been the Protectors of their village. One evening after a town meeting that they had held, when they had given their people a particularly rousing speech about continuing to remain Hopeful, no matter what, they disappeared. Never to be seen or heard of again. The war had already begun far away from here. We had thought it wouldn’t reach us for a long time. We had thought we were safe for a while. And then this happened, they murdered her parents, to remind all of us that distance did not exempt us from taking part.”
“She kissed my cheek when I walked her home that night and said, 'Thank you for helping me cry.' From that night on we were inseparable. You were probably too young to notice the change in me. I was giddy,” he paused for the slightest of seconds, wanting to get on with the story. He was whipping through it all at such a rate of knots, revelation after revelation that Jane was just supposed to absorb. It struck her that this could not have been an easy story for him to tell.
“Then one day, she vanished too. I knocked at her grandparent’s house and it was empty. I thought there would be a reason for the disappearance and that she would be back soon. But she didn't come back and neither did they. Do you remember the second time you heard the bells ring ten times?”
“Yes, it was us. We rang ten times. Because that old couple had disappeared,” Jane said.
“Yes, it was her family.”
Since then they had heard the bell ring ten times on several other occasions, each time bringing that sickening sense of dread with it. But never again by their own village. There had been more quiet murders, more disappearances but nothing like the raids that were happening far away where the real war was taking place. Whole villages were being burned to the ground; entire towns of people were killed. But again, their town tucked away under the duvet of trees, never saw any actual evidence of such a war. They knew it had to be true and all they could do was wait for it to reach them.
“Why did I never see you two together?” Jane asked.
“You’re not the only one who likes to sneak off, Jane,” Tim smiled before carrying on.
“After a while I started to break into the old house, I would sleep in her bed because it felt like she was still there. She was still everywhere. Her smell, her laugh bounced through the room, the clothes she had worn the last day I saw her were still strewn over the floor where she had left them. It was quite a dangerous habit that I had started.”
Jane could see how hard this was for him. And suddenly the brother she had never known was making sense at last. His silence, his guardedness, his protective nature over the people he loved. She knew now why he was always at the back of the pack. He was watching to make sure none of them disappeared on him. Jane’s heart was breaking for him, furious with herself for always being somewhere else while her brother dealt with this alone.
“But somewhere, deep inside me I knew that she was still alive. I can’t explain it but it was almost as though I could feel her. So, I took it upon myself to look for her.”
Jane recalled him disappearing one day and her mother going wild with worry. They had known he would come back eventually, but the truth of his leaving had of course been shielded from Jane. As always, she was not trusted with the truth.
“I came home when the thought occurred to me that she didn't want to be found. I told myself she had fallen out of love with me and had left to escape me. I forced myself to carry on, like I knew she would be doing.”
“Then I overheard mum speaking to dad about what they thought had happened to her. She had said that she was convinced that The Crookeds had tracked Sophia down because of who her parents had been in order to punish them further in death and remove the threat of her outspoken genetics to future generations. The deaths of her grandparents would have just been an added bonus. Dad had said, 'That certainly appears to be what has happened. Tim must never know.' But of course I did know. It certainly explained their disappearance, why their things hadn't been taken, why the doors were unlocked.”
“I have spent four years believing she was gone forever. I had never stopped loving the girl that was snatched from me. And then, about a year ago, I heard word from an old school friend that he had met Sophia's cousin in a village not far from here. He gave me her address and I wrote to her. She didn't reply to me or any of the many letters I sent her until today when she sent me this,” he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. It was already well folded and clearly well read.
I'm sorry for this late reply but it hasn't been easy to find the words that could possibly console you. I did not want to be a reason why Sophia was kept alive in your mind. I thought that speaking to you would only keep her memory fresh in your heart and you needed to forget.
But now I can write with wonderful news and thus do not feel guilty. Only yesterday I opened my front door to find a tiny, stray woman curled up on the doorstep. I was surprised at first, unsure of what I had to do with this person. But upon inspection, of course I found that it was Sophia. How she has come back I can only begin to guess but I think you’ll agree that it doesn’t really matter. The fact that she is alive is enough.
Timothy, she is quite broken. She cannot speak more than a few words and so we have no idea what has happened to her or why they have kept her alive for all this time. Beneath it all, the girl she used to be is still visible, just. Her recovery will be a long one.
I will tell you not to come. You will be devastated by what you see. I will tell you not to come, but I know that you will. The love you speak of for her in your letters, even after all of these years, is more than any man should bear. So come, by all means. But do not expect anything from her. She is clinging to life as you have clung to her memory. I expect I will see you soon,
He finished reading the letter with elation spread over his face. His hope, his love, had been returned to him after all these years of waiting. He deserved this. Her quiet brother deserved this unexplainable miracle that had happened.
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
“In the morning. Mum convinced me to give her these few extra hours.”
They were both silent for a very long time.
“Everything is moving in slow motion,” he sighed, falling asleep where he sat.
In the few months that had gone by Sophia was a little further away from the edge than she had been but was still struggling against it with all the might she had left. Tim made the trip to her village several times a week, spending more time there than at home now. The family understood. They kissed him goodbye when he left and buried him in their arms when he returned, exhausted and frustrated.
She couldn’t speak about what had happened to her but she would then scream in her sleep, terrified by all the secrets that she was trapping inside herself. She was eating a little more now and trusted her cousin not to poison her food. She could tiptoe about the house but would not yet venture outside. She had recently remembered who Tim was and had kissed his hand a few days before and whispered the solitary word, “Shepherd.” When he had returned from that particular trip Jane had never seen him happier.
But the news that an emergency meeting was being held had wiped that happiness clean away again. It was replaced with fresh terror. They were outside the village hall where people were talking in small groups with their heads bent low, looking about themselves with worry. Clearly something was not right. Someone was starting to usher people into the hall as the family arrived. Jane immediately found a seat next to Lilia in the cramped and uncomfortably sticky hall.
“It’s not good,” Lilia whispered.
“It’s never good,” Jane sighed.
There was no time to talk, for people had seated themselves quickly and without fuss, eager to start the meeting. Rupert was already standing at the front of the hall. He looked exhausted and shrunken as he ushered people to take their seats. Despite this he commanded all the respect of a man half his age and twice his size would. Rupert had been Protector before her father and anybody who managed to captain the ship without incident would always be treated with reverence. A nervous hush fell about them as he stepped forth.
“I know that there has been much speculation about this meeting tonight,” he began. He seemed shaken which was unusual, a distinct quiver was quaking in his voice.
“I apologise for my cryptic nature today but I wanted you all to hear about this together. Experience has taught me that rumours prove to be dangerous things and I didn't want something that wasn't the truth leaking out. You all deserve better than that,” he looked around them proudly. He had never had a family of any sort; he looked to them as his daughters and sons, looking after them had afforded him no time for children of his own.
“I'll keep you waiting no longer. This morning our village Protectors, Turner and Alistair, came to the decision that it was time for them to step down. They felt that they were getting too old to protect you all with the care you deserved. With the very real danger that could arrive at any moment they feel that the fastest and the strongest ought to be at the forefront of the battle. They both felt that they were no longer the best people for the job. They told me this with intense regret and apologised profusely. So mortified were they by their decision that they have already moved on, not willing to disappoint you good people any further. They also asked me to assume the responsibility of selecting the new Protectors, which has not proved easy. As I’m sure you can imagine.”
“I know you are all aware that it is a great risk, changing Protectors at a time like this but it is a decision forced upon us and I am to reinstate the two new Protectors as of this very moment. We cannot be without protection for a second longer. We are at war after all.” His voice rose in volume and pitch at the end of this sentence. He was terrified, letting on how much danger they had all been in today with no Protectors in place to guard them.
“Therefore, as your former Protector, I hereby name Peter Shepherd and Isaac Forrester as our new village Protectors.”
The reaction all around the room was one of stunned silence, adjusting to the idea that Tuner and Alistair had gone was enough of a shock but to hear the new Protectors announced in the same breath was more than they could cope with. Then slowly, a sense of pride started to trickle through them as they realised that a new era had begun and that the men selected would be more than capable of the job.
Peter was sat behind Jane, nodding in respectful satisfaction. Their mother was sobbing into his shoulder. Their father was squeezing her hand with a look of great relief on his face.
“Thank goodness,” Jane was sure she heard her mother cry.
Being named Protector was a great honour. Peter was reliable, he was brave and he was kind. All in all he was perfect for the job. It had really only been a matter of time before he was handed the title. For years now he’d been right hand man to Turner and Alistair, offering his support and advice freely. It was almost as if they were training him for this moment. It would have been simply wrong to pick anyone else for the job.
Isaac, however. He was a different kettle of fish entirely. Isaac was selfish where Peter was generous, he was vain where Peter was modest and he was self absorbed where Peter thought only of others.
Jane could see Isaac sitting up straight in his seat, a few rows in front of her, appearing to have doubled in size with pride, allowing himself to be congratulated by everyone around him. Even the back of his head looked smug.
“The Protectors have always been an important part of our world. Now more than ever, we need their protection and guidance. We look to you now for our hope,” Rupert looked first at Isaac and then at Peter with something that should have been of trust and wisdom. Instead it looked more like fear and panic.
Rupert called an end to the meeting shortly after the announcement, eager that people should be home before night fell and so everyone started to disperse. The atmosphere was joyous and full of excitement. No one would have liked to admit that they were growing worried about Turner and Alistair's ability to protect the village; they had possessed the titles for around nine years now, a long stretch in anyone’s book. But now, thankfully, their resignation had solved the problem without the need of a single uncomfortable discussion. Suddenly hope had been renewed in the form of these two young men. Maybe they would make it through this after all with them at the helm, was what most of them were thinking. But not Jane, she knew better. Isaac would run. If things became difficult he would disappear like the morning fog.
She spotted him stood outside the hall, surrounded by people and being clapped heavily on the back by his father. His three siblings were clinging to each other in delight and a few pretty girls from school, including some of her own friends, Harriet and May, hung around him like flies, waiting for their turn to bombard him. His face was a picture of perfection. It annoyed her how entrancing she found him. Which only made her hate him more. When he saw her looking at him through the crowd, he nodded happily and waved an energetic, goofy wave. She looked swiftly away.
Her father grasped her shoulders between his hands. Into her ear he whispered, “It has come back to Evelyn's genes again. Did you notice?”
Jane shook her head, she hadn't considered that fact.
“It always will, you know. It’s fate. Our family is the hope of the Hopefuls,” he said, walking away to stand beside Peter who was also receiving his fair share of attention.
She didn't feel like celebrating. She felt like there was something very heavy sitting in the pit of her stomach, a deep kind of dread. Evelyn was the reason they were alive now and Jane shared her genes. More so than her father, more than her brothers even because she was the only other female to be born into the family. Jane was more like Evelyn than any other person ever had been before. Did the knowledge of that lead Jane to believe that when new Protectors were crowned that it was her birth right to be one of them? Was that why she was so upset? What right did Isaac have to be a Protector? Especially when she knew he was only going to make things end in chaos.
She was about to head home when she spotted her friends, who had gathered together on the dewy grass of the village green in the fading light. Lilia had drifted over to them as well and was sat next to Billy. Their hands were positioned so that no one in the group could see but from where Jane was she could see that their fingers were intertwined behind their backs.
Harriet and May were gabbling happily, glancing over towards where Isaac stood every few moments hoping to catch his eye. Jane smirked, enjoying how pathetic they were making themselves seem.
Martin, Freddie and some other boys were chatting loudly and animatedly about the meeting. Two boys were wrestling in the grass. Jane didn't notice who. She considered joining them for a moment, maybe shaking off this mood and having some fun would help rid her impending sense of doom. But then Isaac darted over to them and as a collective they started screeching and praising him and she thought better of it after all. She didn’t want to sit and listen to how handsome Isaac was and how safe they felt now because he was in charge.
The two newly appointed Protectors were in place not only as tradition but primarily for safety. As Evelyn had saved The Hopefuls and become the original Saviour it was her belief that there must always be two Protectors keeping guard of every village in The Kingdom. They were elected on their bravery, their strength and their commitment to hope. Jane thought it laughable that everybody had managed to fool themselves into feeling so safe when half of their fate was lying in the hands of a man who loved only himself.
The icing on top of the dreadful evening was witnessing her own parents walk up to Isaac and pull him into a fierce embrace. “Thank you,” she saw her father murmur to him.
“Thank goodness,” she saw her mother say again, planting a shy and grateful kiss on his cheek. What they were thanking him for was a mystery but Jane had no inclination to stay and find out. Feeling as though she had been cheated out of a piece of cake at her own birthday party, she walked home alone.