The end of September announced the end of another summer. It brought with it dark evenings, chill winds and ten rings of the bells. Peter and Isaac had travelled to the village in question against the advice of Leonard Tully. Jane had begged to go along with them; she had gone so far as to borrow a pony from Martin, only to be tossed over Oliver’s shoulder before she could canter off in pursuit and was bundled roughly back into the house.
When Peter and Isaac returned that night, opened mouthed and bewildered, they told them that the village in question, only fifteen miles away, was completely abandoned with ominous splatters of blood across the cobble stones. Jane was sure she wasn’t told the full extent of what they found; she guessed the men had agreed, the less they knew the better.
After the silence had settled, no body thinking of anything much that could be said, Jane whispered, “I’ve never really realised before, but the world is a lot bigger outside of this little place. Isn’t it?”
They nodded; knowing that all too soon, that big world out there would come colliding with their little one and all they could do was wait for the impact.
Having been prompted by the recent terrors and with the ever growing feeling of being closed in on, Isaac and Peter came up with an advanced warning system which they and several other people in the village, including Jane, spent two weeks putting in place. It was like a miniature bell pull system and it was quite ingenious. They strung a wire at about knee height, in a large circumference around the village, running through the surrounding woods. If someone were to trip over the wire, it in turn would ring another large bell that they placed in the town square. It would give them a little warning, should someone come hunting. They tested the system and were absolutely jubilant with the result, despite the fact that it would only give them a matter of minute’s head start.
“Not bad,” Jane had grinned at Isaac.
“At least we’re doing something,” he chuckled, raising his eyebrows roguishly and giving her a gentle thump on the arm.
Isaac had also suggested setting traps in the wood but Peter thought it was too dangerous, should one of the villagers go wandering and get tangled up in one. But the spirit of the projects felt good. They felt as though they had pulled back some of the control over their fate, snatched a bit of the duvet back from their adversary.
The end of September also heralded the return to school. Jane always felt so claustrophobic at being contained indoors after three months of grass beneath her toes and sky circulating triumphantly over her head. She did not look forward to the prospect. She wasn’t to know this but she shouldn’t have wasted energy in worrying about it.
“I don’t see why we have to spend so long there. We get to school in the morning and its dark and by the time we leave its dark. I don’t get to be outside at all. How will dad cope without my help on the farm? I should probably leave and work here full time, he’s been struggling recently. He’d never mention it to you of course,” Jane was telling her mother the night before the return to school, as they prepared dinner together which that night was a luxurious, if not miniscule chicken, to celebrate the last day of the summer holiday.
“You should appreciate the days you have left at school. It’s your last year, another year won’t hurt you. One day you’ll wish for these days back. All too soon, they’ll be over,” Nora said, kissing her gently on her head before surreptitiously leaving the room.
The whines and complaints continued for the rest of the evening, the family choose to ignore her entirely, to her fury. Their silence was explained however, the very next morning. She and Lilia headed hand in hand towards the largest, crumbling structure in the village that sat just beyond the bell tower, but it was clear that nothing was as it should have been. Parents and children were gathered in large clumps outside the front of the building, there was much shouting taking place, all of it aimed at the headmistress, Miss Anderson, a tall skeletal woman who was stood atop a chair in order for her to appear superior.
“They've closed the school,” Jane whispered, as they walked towards the congregation.
“It might not be that,” Lilia argued.
“It is definitely that,” she said. And of course she was right.
The rash decision had come after they realised it was far more dangerous for everyone to be crammed into one building, like a fox getting into a chicken coop. The reasons were sensible and multiple, Miss Anderson argued until she was blue in the face. Then once she had actually turned blue, she leapt off her high horse and marched back into the school slamming the front door shut behind her, declaring the subject closed.
“I’m finished! Ask them if you want more answers,” she gestured to Peter and Isaac, who had been stood beside her throughout the protest, before disappearing.
And that was the end of that.
Of course, her parents already knew what was wrong when she arrived home; puffing and panting expletives at the kitchen where they were sat, arms folded and clearly waiting for the inevitable tantrum.
“Why didn't you tell me?” was all she could ask.
“It was better you didn't know. We thought you wouldn’t want special treatment, being the sister of a Protector,” her mother tried to console her, pulling out a chair for her to sit down.
“Everyone always knows everything before I do! You clearly don’t feel you can trust me with anything. I’m part of this family too! It feels like you are constantly keeping secrets from me, I’m not a little girl anymore!”
“It was for the best you didn’t know, Peter and Isaac wanted all the students to hear the news together so there was no panic. Are you telling me that if we had told you, you wouldn’t have gone running straight to Lilia and told her about it too?” Frank asked, knowingly.
“Lilia wouldn’t have said anything,” Jane muttered, proving her father’s point.
“They really do feel that shutting the school is the right thing to do at this stage,” Nora sighed.
“This isn't the answer! Everyone’s just giving up. Bar your doors and hope for the best! What kind of a solution is that?” she stormed.
“There is no solution. That’s the problem,” Jane’s father whispered. Jane slammed the door furiously behind her as she went. “I thought you hated school anyway, Jane!” he called after her.
The day turned out to be a very dark one indeed. Without planning or arranging it, the friends all gathered that evening on the grassy triangle outside the sad and lonely building. Lilia was sat next to Billy, who was ever so slightly behind her, protective and studying the back of her neck with awe. It was obvious to all that he loved her and always had done and with the looming threat of attack, it appeared he was building up the courage to tell her. Jane just hoped that he did so before it was all too late.
“What are we going to do now?” Harriet asked, staring up at the azure blue above her, as though it were just a matter of fending off boredom.
“I don't know what you're all so worried about, we're on a permanent summer holiday,” Martin chuckled. His laugh came out forced and hollow.
Lilia was pale and stony faced, tears budding in the corners of her eyes. “It's all gone so wrong. How could this have happened?” she sighed. From where Jane was sat she could see Billy press his fingertips to the nape of her neck, an act of kindness that pulled a heavy chord somewhere in her heart.
“We'll fight this. We mustn’t give up. We will win and we can go back to school then. And it will all be worth it,” Jane said, trying to be strong for her friends. She was always the one who they turned to in times like this. Jane was almost glad of it; at least it appeared that somebody trusted her.
She wondered whose initial idea it had been to close the school. Miss Anderson? She didn’t think so, the way she palmed off the responsibility. Rupert? Her brother? No, this sounded like the work of someone else. It was just as she was pondering this that she saw the suspected offender leaving the same old house he had moved into five years before. No doubt he was on his way up to her house on the hill to discuss the day’s issues with her brother as they always did come an evening. Jane leapt to the chase before anyone had time to notice she was gone.
“You!” she shouted. He turned around with a look of utter bewilderment.
“Is this your doing, Isaac? Did you decide it was a good idea for the school to close?” she said, catching up to him in a heartbeat. He refused to break his long stride however; Jane needed to jog to keep up.
“It may have been my idea, yes. And it was agreed by your brother, your parents, all of the teachers and Rupert that it was a very good idea as a matter of fact. So, you’re welcome,” he said, smug and unwilling to rise to the argument Jane was pushing him for.
“Trust me, I’m not saying thank you. I think it's the stupidest thing you could possibly have come up with. What are we all meant to do now?” she raged.
“I don't know, find something useful to do. The way I heard it told you wanted to work with your father on the farm anyway!” he barked.
“That was when I had the choice. Now it doesn’t look as though I have an option!” she growled.
“This was done to protect you, funnily enough, you and all your little friends. It was you that gave me the idea actually. After talking to you and you insisted that I do something because everybody was trusting me, I started thinking. Who are the most at risk? Children, was my answer. If The Crookeds got into the school, every child would be dead within a few moments. If you're spread out it will take at least five minutes to kill you all.”
“We may as well be dead. We’re running out of things to live for. Are we all just supposed to stop trying because we might get murdered one day?” Jane cried. He stopped stock still then and grabbed her shoulders tightly, perhaps harder than he meant to.
“Shut up! Do you know how stupid you sound? I thought you had been told how important you are to everybody. You have no idea the way people talk about you when you aren't around. If they heard you speaking like this, they'd all throw in the towel right now! If you've given up, why on earth should they try anymore?” He shook her, trying to get his words to sink in.
“Oh, and I suppose this might come as a shock to you as well. Rupert wanted to name you as the next Protector when Alistair and Turner left. He wanted the replacements to be you and your brother. He thought you were born for a reason and the reason was that you are the one who is going to save us all because, let’s face it, you practically are Evelyn. If anyone can put a stop to this war, it will be you.”
“Your parents tried desperately to change his mind, they don’t think you’re ready for the responsibility, but even they couldn’t sway him. He was convinced he was right. But given that I’ve saved your life on more than one occasion, I went to Rupert an hour before the announcement and convinced him not to make you a Protector,” he slowed, becoming calmer.
A moment passed while she absorbed this. He stood, smiling gently down at her, almost expecting her to be grateful for his meddling.
“How dare you?” she spat, finding her voice again.
“Look, I didn’t do it because I don’t believe in you. I believe in you, trust me. I’m your biggest fan. I did it because it's just too dangerous for you. Ridiculously dangerous. If they lost you...” he shook his head.
“That wasn't for you to decide. It wasn't any of your business. You can try and trick me into thinking you were being noble and you were trying to look after me, but you have always wanted to be a Protector and I don't believe for one second you weren't thinking of yourself in this scenario. Well, you got what you wanted. I’m out of the picture and you’ve been given a perfect way for you to satisfy your ridiculous God complex. What if I am meant to be Protector? What if I am the one who can save us? And you just ruined it all?” she fumed, shaking free of his grasp and running away from him, shooting one vicious look over her shoulder at him. He was staring after her, his mouth hanging open in a shocked and pained O.
“Get yourself home!” he called. She pretended not to hear.
Whilst Jane and Isaac had argued, Billy had said, “I wonder how long it will be before they realise they're in love with each other?”
“She doesn't love him! Look how she's shouting at him,” May laughed, half amused and half horrified at the ridiculous thought.
“She loves him very much. That's why she’s shouting,” Lilia sighed sadly, fearful that her friend would only realise once it was too late.
The sky was emptying its contents just to spite Jane. Apparently the heavens thought it would be jolly good fun to wind her up just that little bit more. She was doing a job she loathed, only doing it because she was no longer able to sit listening to the sound of the clock on the mantel piece. She felt like a wild bird that had had its wings clipped. Strange, because she had always hated school and viewed every hour she was trapped there with utter contempt. But now she no longer had a purpose, the thought of which made her feel inert and completely useless. So, she took to helping her father on the land, something she usually enjoyed but now that she had nothing else to do, it felt far too much like a chore. And especially with winter fast approaching and autumn being the season of fruitfulness, it was a race to harvest the vegetables before the frost could reach its icy fingers out to them.
So that was where she found herself one hateful afternoon, digging up vegetables in a loathsome field whilst the rain transformed the upturned soil into thick, all consuming mud. Every few minutes she would look up at the sky and curse. She was drenched through to the bone and the rain made the spade slippery which gave her blisters. But she wouldn't stop because then she'd have to return to sitting down and doing absolutely nothing else.
“There's no point carrying on in this weather, Jane!” her father called over the rain. To which she didn't reply. He wouldn't understand.
“Come in the house! We'll put on a pot of tea,” he said, trying to convince her. She hated tea. She had drunk six cups since breakfast with lack of anything else to do and now the caffeine was storming obnoxiously through her veins.
“Leave me alone,” Jane replied, not lifting her head.
“You'll make yourself ill!” he cried, striding towards her.
“It’ll take something worse than this to make me ill.”
“You don't have to prove anything to anyone,” he said, snatching the spade from her hand.
“Now come inside.” The rain was dripping from his eyebrows and moustache. He had to squint to see.
“I haven't finished yet!” she said, raising her voice. He growled at her under his breath and in one movement he snatched her up and flung her over his shoulder. She put up no fight for she knew he would always be the winner.
Once inside the house her dumped her down on a chair in the kitchen and stormed upstairs.
“You deal with her!” he snarled.
Her mother made no noise but simply draped a towel around Jane's shivering form and said, “Nobody needs you getting ill again.” She looked sadly down on her daughter then. “I beg of you, stop trying to self destruct. I need you.”
Jane made a quite important decision there and then. She would not keep herself alive for the good of the village or Evelyn or anybody else but she would live for her mother and that look on her face.
Tim had been gone for nigh on two weeks. This was not unusual; he didn't like to leave
Sophia’s side anymore. He saw it as his job to protect her and he was terrified that The Crookeds would return to claim back what they saw as theirs. This prolonged absence was the reason they were so surprised when he burst, unannounced, into the kitchen later that evening, letting the dark night fall in with him.
“Timothy?” their mother said, jumping up from her seat by the fire. Not even she had sensed this sudden return of her son. He wasn't alone. He was carrying somebody tightly in his arms.
“It's alright, I'll explain in a second.” His voice was falsely calm, apparently trying not to cause alarm. It was difficult to see properly in the fading light of the fire as he placed the figure in an empty chair. Whoever it was Tim had brought into the house did not have control over their limbs and could not hold themselves upright where they sat.
Tim then darted to the open back door, ran through it into the night and satisfied that they had not been followed, he returned to the kitchen and locked the door. In the blink of an eye he was sat at the feet of the figure, trying to prop them up in the seat.
“Tim?” Nora said, the confusion frightening her.
“Mum, some dry blankets,” he said simply as he pulled the wet ones from around the figures shoulders who was shivering violently. He let them drop to the ground with a heavy slap. Nora returned a moment later and Tim bound the figure lovingly and whispered fervently in the ear of the person, to which they nodded.
“This is Sophia everybody. I’ll explain everything properly in a minute. Jane, will you get me some hot water please? Oliver, go and light the fire in my bedroom. Mum, some dry clothes please. Dad and Pete, you need to go down to the village. Check the perimeter. Wake up Isaac too. Get him to help you and then bring him up to the house, he needs to hear this as well,” Tim said, systematically. Everyone sprang into action, not questioning his authority or status.
Jane was left alone in the kitchen with Tim and Sophia. He was holding her head and muttering comfortingly to her all the time. Jane felt like she was intruding on something secret and precious. She turned her back on them as she focused more attention than was entirely necessary on heating a saucepan of water on the stove.
A few moments later Oliver burst back into the kitchen. “It's lit now,” he said, shifting awkwardly to the opposite side of the kitchen, away from the lovers. Their mother followed after with armfuls of clothes for both him and Sophia.
“What's going on?” Nora asked quietly.
“Not yet,” he shook his head. “Sophia, I'm going to take you upstairs now. Will it be alright if my mum and Jane change your clothes?” he asked her softly, pointing to his mother and Jane, making sure she knew who he was talking about. She nodded warily.
He scooped her up into his arms as though she were a light, but precious, rag doll.
“Follow me,” he gestured to them. In his room, now gently lit by the glow of fire, he placed Sophia softly on his bed. He kissed her forehead and said, “I won't be long. I love you,” he said.
The intimate words made Jane start; it was something she had never heard him say, something she wished she hadn’t heard. They made her feel like she had missed the bottom step.
“Come downstairs when you’re finished,” he said to her mother before leaving the room in a blur. They heard the front door slam as he left the house not a moment later.
“Come on now, love,” Nora said in a sprightly voice. Sophia allowed her sopping clothes to be removed grudgingly, trying in vain to cover up her frail body. Her ribs poked out at irregular angles through her pearlescent skin. She was covered in scars; they were traced all over her back, down her legs, across her stomach, her groin. Some bruises hadn't healed and nor did they look like they were going to. There were painful looking welts all up her thighs. This was the real tale of her years of torture.
“Oh,” Jane exclaimed quietly before her mother shot her a furious glare. They dressed her in a set of her mother’s old pyjamas and Jane made her sip down some hot water. But she did not stop shivering.
“Settle down. You're safe now,” Nora sighed soothingly as she stroked her hair. Nora was lying of course; none of them were safe anymore.
It only took a few minutes of Nora’s special cooing, the same that she used to do when her children were restless, to lull Sophia into a deep sleep. She was clearly exhausted. Perhaps she hoped that the sooner she fell asleep, the sooner she could put this all down to another bad dream.
Shortly afterwards the front door opened and closed downstairs again and the kitchen was humming with the bass tones of male voices in distress. The women looked at each other before silently making their way out of the room and back down the stairs.
“What the hell is going on here?” Isaac asked loudly.
“Keep your voice down or it won't be The Crookeds that slit your throat,” Tim growled, looking fearsome for a moment in the flickering fire light.
“How is she?” he turned to ask his mother.
“She's asleep, she just seemed shocked,” Nora said.
“Thank you. Sit down,” Tim ordered. Everyone sat. Jane perched on the stairs where she could see Tim's face but could only see the back of Isaac’s head. She was very keen to avoid eye contact with that traitor.
“Yesterday morning we were called together in Sophia's village and their Protectors told us that they had heard solid rumours that The Crookeds were on the retreat, something about one of their leaders dying and they were all called back to mourn. I didn't believe it. The Crookeds don't mourn, so I knew something was wrong. But the villagers promptly started to celebrate, they thought that this news might give The Hopefuls enough time and space to get together some kind of army and finally be rid of this shadow that hangs over us. So of course, any kind of good news is an opportunity for a party. I tried to warn them not to,” he shook his head.
“Then last night, once everyone was suitably inebriated, The Crookeds made their move. It was a rumour designed to get the village to lower its defenses, which were actually very strong, we could take a leaf from their book let me tell you. They had wanted to protect Sophia.”
“But even their Protectors were pissed by that time. They didn't stand a chance. Of course, The Crookeds didn't know exactly where Sophia was. I had heard them working their way rapidly through the village, so I knew it wouldn’t take them long to get to us. I took Sophia and we ran. Maybe I should have stayed and fought. But we all know what would have happened if I had.”
“The point is that they are coming. They want her back; they won’t let this slide. I don't know how they could know that she was with me or where we would have gone but she used to live in this village and they'll check here first. And now, here's where I need help because I don't know what to suggest for the best,” Tim said, burying his head in his hands.
“I think we need to evacuate everyone. Immediately,” said Isaac.
“It's not the answer. All those people trekking across open country? They'd be hunted down in a heartbeat,” Peter said.
“What do you suggest then?” Isaac snapped.
“I don't know,” Peter sighed, pacing around the kitchen. He stopped suddenly and said, “What do you think, Jane?”
Her head snapped up, she had not been expecting that. All eyes turned expectantly to her.
“I think...that it’s not up to us. It’s gone too far now and we can't decide for everyone anymore. I think the time has come when people need to choose for themselves. That’s the only way to make people feel like they had a say in whether they live or die. Those that want to stay and fight can and those that want to run, can do so as well,” she said.
“That's all very well and good, but we're far more likely to lose if everyone decides to leave,” Isaac said, crossing his arms.
“We're going to lose anyway,” Tim cried. “All the stories mean nothing! They mean nothing until you actually witness what they can do! Those creatures are not human anymore. All of the evil has removed any trace of life they once had. They are monsters! And this is hopeless.”
“Well, with that attitude!” Isaac replied.
‘You’ve seen it Isaac! After what they did to your family! You saw that village a few weeks ago, they leave nothing behind! How can you still believe after everything you’ve been through? We cannot fight them; it is no longer an option.”
“Tim, calm down. We’ve always known what we were up against. It changes nothing,” Peter reasoned.
“Why didn’t we hear the bells?” Jane asked. “When the attack happened in Sophia’s village, why didn’t the bells ring?”
“Don’t be naïve. There wasn’t time for anyone to ring the bells. The system doesn’t work,” Tim spat. “There will just be one less set of bells ringing on Friday evening, that’s all.”
All in all there were now four sets of bells that did not ring a reply on a Friday. Four villages within the twenty mile radius of their village, where there was no one left standing to ring them.
“Peter, you have to come to some kind of conclusion about this,” Frank said.
“I think Jane’s spoken the most sense. If we do it her way everyone gets to decide their future for themselves,” Peter said placing his hand on her shoulder. “No one can say we weren’t fair.”
“Give people the option and they will all run, they're all terrified,” Isaac argued, desperate not to accept her idea.
“We know these people. Do you really think they would abandon ship now? This is the Saviour village! We have more fight in us than the rest of The Kingdom put together,” Jane exclaimed.
“Also you're forgetting something,” Peter smiled, looking to Jane. “They won't want to leave where Jane is. You know how they feel about her.”
Isaac glared at her with distaste.
“And you wouldn’t run for anything, would you Jane?” Peter asked proudly.
“Not for anything,” she replied.
“She should, if she knew what was good for her then she would run. As soon as The Crookeds find out exactly who she is and exactly what she could do to them, she'll be hunted down in a flash. I’m surprised they haven’t come here already, baying for her blood. It'll be worse than with Sophia, much worse. You can only hide her for so long,” Isaac said. “You should make her run, not encourage her to stay.”
“Are you telling me how to take care of my daughter?” Frank said.
“No, I'm telling you how to take care of Evelyn's heir,” he replied.
“This is ridiculous. We'll tell the village our decision tomorrow; they can leave whenever they want after that. This meeting is over. Isaac, I'll walk you home,” Peter said, grasping him by his collar and marching into the wild night with him.
Tim was on his feet and up the stairs in a wink.
“Jane, don’t let what Isaac said frighten you. We’ll never let anything happen to you, you know that,” Nora said, taking Jane’s hands and holding them in her own.
“I’m not scared,” Jane lied.
“Isaac’s a prat, he just likes to sound important,” Oliver said, slapping his sister on the back and performing a gargantuan yawn before moving with elephantine steps up the staircase to bed. It seemed that nothing would faze Oliver.
Jane headed numbly up the stairs not long after him. She caught some broken words coming from Tim’s room on her way to hers.
“...won't get to you. I'll never let them. I'll never leave you on your own again. I promise.”
She maybe whispered something back but it was on their secret wavelength that Jane wouldn't ever be able to hear.
From where she was, alone in her little attic, closer to the sky than anyone else she knew, she wished for the first time in her tiny life, that there was someone whispering to her, holding her hand, sharing secret words with her.
Tim cried long into the night and though Jane couldn't hear him from her lonely bed she just knew that the tears wouldn't have stopped falling yet. So, why couldn't she? There was enough to weep about. She had always thought that crying would solve nothing but now she wished for it. They were stuck in her now after all these years she had spent squashing herself back in.
“I'm busting at the seams,” she whispered to herself.
The night fell still outside, the rain finishing its onslaught for the day. Hours into the time she should have spent sleeping, she thought she might have heard a voice that she recognised calling her name from outside. But surely this was just another one of those Hopeful thoughts that were starting to become few and far between.