Wanted – Sample
SHEA THREW HIMSELF flat on the ground, scared out of his wits. The damp, earthy smell of the forest floor was strong in his nostrils. Green shoots were starting to push their way up through wet leaves covering the ground. Something had spooked him and now he risked a glance up, to see a quivering arrow buried in the tree, just inches from where he’d been.
‘Shit!’ he muttered, and pressed himself further down. He listened, heightened senses reaching out for the smallest of sounds. He could hear the thump-thump of his heart, but nothing else; the forest was strangely quiet; the birds had stopped singing, even the sighing of the wind through the almost bare branches had stilled. Maybe the arrow was just a stray and he hadn’t actually been spotted. There were no shouts or cries of alarm, but then again, there wouldn’t be if he was being stalked.
Seconds passed. The silence was gradually replaced by the normal sounds of rustling branches and birds singing. He risked a small movement, reaching out for his leather bag.
So far so good.
He raised his head to look around. Trees, the derelict red brick building that he’d stopped to investigate, and beyond, the clearing where his rag and tube sky-kart sat waiting for him. He took a closer look at the arrow. Brown and white feathers were tied on with thread, along with several more coloured bands, the flint tip embedded a good half inch into the tree. Hunters, or possibly bandits, slavers even. At least it wasn’t kingsmen. Kingsmen had guns — ancient things from way back before the Collapse, but still guns — not bows and arrows, and they rarely missed their target. Whoever owned the arrow would certainly be looking for it; arrows could be reused and weren’t lost lightly.
He cautiously reached down to feel the knife in his belt. It was an ordinary hunting knife, old, handed down from generation to generation, but no good for throwing. He’d have to fight hand to hand, or make a run for it. One knife against a hidden archer? He didn’t like those odds.
‘Happy eighteenth birthday, dumb arse,’ he muttered to himself.
It had been a routine flight, heading East from his home in Bristol. The sky-kart was little more than a buggy with a propeller on the back, strapped under a massive fabric and solar panel delta-wing. The buggy had two seats in tandem, but he had been flying alone. He’d been told to stay close to home, but it had been a nice day, the first truly nice day after nearly a month of rain, and he’d just kept going, and going. Then he’d seen the clearing and the complex of old buildings, and the urge to scavenge was just too strong. So he’d landed in a nearby grassy field and crept in to investigate, hoping to find something of value that would compensate for the trouble he was sure to be in later.
‘Never, ever land anywhere where you don’t know exactly what’s on the ground or who’s in the area!’ That was the first thing said to him in the briefing. He’d pretty much ignored that advice and now regretted it.
The buildings turned out to be the derelict remains of ordinary houses. The roofs had collapsed, and there was little sign of where the gardens had been. They’d been picked clean over the years, by the locals and other scavengers. Shea had found nothing of value, just a few scraps of blue plastic sheeting; hardly worth bothering with, yet alone getting shot at for.
Static burst from his radio, staccato and loud enough to make him jump. Instinctively Shea reached for his belt, fumbling for the knob to switch it off. Damn! The slightest sound could give his position away — that was the last thing he needed and so he had to get out of there, and fast. He was struck by the sudden realisation of what might happen if he was caught; a severe beating, that was certain, but then would they imprison him? Or kill him? Out here he was just a dirty, stinking scav. They didn’t know who he was, and wouldn’t even care.
He tensed himself and sprinted to the wall of the nearest house. It faced away from the direction of the arrow, so afforded at least some protection and the chance to take stock. He eased along the side of the wall, staying close and stopping frequently to listen for anything that might suggest he was being followed; the snap of a twig, the rustle of a branch or feet through leaves. So far it had been quiet, but now he had run out of wall. He sprang forward and ran as fast as he could.
He was half way to the sky-kart when he heard the first shout, and immediately swerved to the right. That saved his life as an arrow tore past him. Another arrow ripped through the air as he crossed the last stretch of open ground, embedding itself in the cloth wing. He clambered into the front seat, not even stopping to fasten his belt before jamming the throttle forward. The electric motor came instantly to life, and within seconds the rag-and-tube machine started bumping across the grass. There was one last clang as an arrow bounced harmlessly off the spinning disc of the propeller behind him, and he was airborne.
‘Shit, that was close!’ He felt a sense of relief, even though his heart was pumping furiously. He forced himself to take deep, regular breaths, calming himself down. When he’d gained sufficient height that he judged to be out of the range of any further arrows, he circled around and looked down at the clearing. Whoever had shot at him was nowhere to be seen. Up here it was safe, and all he had to worry about now was getting home, and how much trouble he’d be in when he got there.
The sky-kart lurched.
‘Turbulence?’ he wondered. Then it started shaking violently. Something was seriously wrong.
‘Training… Training… Don’t panic,’ he muttered to himself.
Panic! Oh Shit, Oh Shit, Oh Shit, I’m going to die!
He held tightly onto the cross-bar. The aircraft tossed and bucked like a wild thing. Why did he not stop to fasten his safety belt? Because someone was trying to kill him! Well now his sky-kart was trying to kill him! It must be the prop, or the engine. He didn’t dare look around, it was hard enough just holding on. If he fell out, he would be dead for sure. The sky-kart lurched, pointing suddenly upward and Shea’s view filled with sky. Then down again and the ground loomed.
Blue. Green. Sky. Ground.
It seemed to go on for hours, bucking like a bronco and shaking the sky-kart to pieces in slow motion.
He had had many months of training, but several of those months had been spent sitting on the ground cursing the wind, or looking at the snow, or the rain, or the fog. Some of them had been spent doing useful stuff, like practising for emergencies, and those months now finally kicked in. He reached down and flicked the switch that cut off the motor. It was the last thing that any pilot wanted to do, and the effect was immediate.
The violent shaking stopped. It was calm, still. Just the sound of the wind in his hair, not even a hum or gentle vibration from the motor. Then Shea noticed the ground rushing up to meet him.
‘Recover! Recover!’ He shouted to himself, pushing forward on the bar, and pulling out of the dive. He’d lost a lot of height — too much — and his options were limited. The sky-kart would glide for a while, but there was no escaping the ground. He was going to hit it, the only question was, how hard.
He only had seconds to pick the spot. Not too close; not too far. He still had a limited amount of control. He could turn a little, but turning cost height and speed, and he didn’t have too much of either. There, just ahead at the base of the ridge, the trees hadn’t encroached into the ancient fields and there was open space. Decision made, he concentrated on flying the craft. The wind, swirling off the ridge and the trees bounced him around. He was level with the tops of the trees now; this was it. Then a gust of wind picked up one wing and tipped it. He tried to correct, but it was too late; there was no time.
FLICK STOOD BY the heavy wooden gate as the bay horse trotted through the archway, its shoes clattering on the shiny wet cobbles. With a barely perceptible tug on its reins the horse came to a stop at the rear entrance to the coaching inn, snorting as it did so. Flecks of foam dripped from its flanks, and jets of steam erupted rhythmically from its flared nostrils, merging with the cold March drizzle before fading into the early evening gloom.
Flick grabbed hold of its reins. ‘Steady boy,’ she said, patting his neck.
The carriage to which the horse was harnessed was black and sleek. Lights from the inn reflected in its polished surface, catching the myriad raindrops and making it sparkle like jewellery. It had the classic lines of an old luxury automobile, which, in fact, it had once been. Shafts extended from the front, and leather straps ran to the horse’s collar. The reins passed into the cabin beneath the windscreen. Flick stroked the horse’s neck as the vehicle’s doors opened.
Just then a large, balding man came out of the side entrance. He wore a grubby apron over a rough woollen shirt, and wiped his hand on it as he approached them.
‘Welcome, welcome to the Crown Inn,’ he said. ‘My name is Carter; Nicholas Carter, Nick to my friends, and I’m the proprietor. And this here is my daughter, Felicity.’ He indicated Flick. ‘We hope you have a pleasant stay here.’ He stopped and smiled. Realising he was still wiping his hands, he quickly smoothed his apron, and extended his right hand for them to shake, his smile fixed.
The two occupants of the car had got out and brushed themselves down. They were both wearing black military uniforms, picked out with small gold crowns. They stood looking at the innkeeper expectantly, studying him like a hunter studies his prey.
The innkeeper swallowed, ‘This way gentlemen,’ he said, motioning to the door with his unshaken hand. ‘Felicity will be along directly with your bags.’ He turned and hurried back into the inn. The two men in black followed at a leisurely pace. They didn’t give Flick a second glance.
Flick unhitched the horse from its harness and led it towards the stable.
‘Adam!’ she yelled at the top of her voice, ‘get your lazy arse down here and give me a hand!’
While she waited for her younger brother to appear, she tugged at the heavy black gates and latched them shut. There was still no sign of him and she yelled again, ‘Adam!’
When the door eventually opened, a young girl of maybe twelve, appeared. Her long blonde hair was bunched into two pony tails, contrasting with Flick’s short spiky look. ‘Oh hey, Ro,’ said Flick, ‘do you know what’s happened to that good-for-nothing brother of yours?’
‘He’s your brother too,’ she snapped back.
‘Don’t remind me.’
‘Dad says he doesn’t know where he’s at, so I’m to give you a hand.’
‘Thanks Ro. You look after the horse while I take the bags in, and then we’ll stable him and brush him down together.’
Rosie nodded and grinned. She loved horses.
Flick went around to the back of the carriage. A wide chrome strip had letters embossed into it, the name of the maker, lost in the mists of history. She traced the letters casually with her finger, saying them in her mind, ‘J… A… G… U… A… R.’ She rolled the word in her head, savouring it.
She wondered what it meant; something from before the Dark Time, no doubt. But that was idle speculation, and indulging in it was not her place. She snapped out of it, popped open the boot of the car and hefted out the two large bags before heading into the inn.
Flick juggled three mugs of ale between the people standing in the bar. Friday nights were always busy with a mixture of locals and guests, although the locals tended to stick to the downstairs bar, and the few guests kept to themselves in the upper rooms.
Working the bar came with being the owner’s daughter, and Flick had quickly developed a thick skin. Besides, her shrewd head for business had soon realised that a little bit of flesh and a knowing wink was good for trade, and The Crown had the busiest bar in town. In any case, one day the inn would be hers.
Three lads in green serge uniforms sat around a table, the faint glow on their faces cast by a solitary candle wedged into the top of an old bottle. Flick approached and put the glasses down, and three hands reached eagerly for them.
‘Now lads, not without paying,’ she said, winking. The hands quickly disappeared and seconds later reappeared holding coins.
‘Thank you Fred,’ said Flick as the first lad put his coins into her outstretched hand. His fingers lingered, touching her skin, almost caressing it. ‘How is your lovely lady?’ she continued without missing a beat or even looking down. ‘It was such a lovely wedding, and only a month ago; I think we’ve still got some cake out back. I can have Maggie bring it out…’
Fred’s hand beat a rapid retreat, and it seemed that the room grew several degrees warmer as he muttered something under his breath. The other two were more circumspect, dropping their coins into Flick’s hand from a height of at least several centimetres.
‘Stanley, Bill,’ she acknowledged as they did so. Bill and Fred were brothers. Flick had known them since they were all small. Bill was her age and Fred a year older.
Flick was turning to go when Bill motioned her to come closer. ‘I heard,’ he said in a loud, conspiratorial whisper, ‘there’s a pair of kingsmen staying here.’
She leaned toward him as she answered, ‘What’s it to you, Bill Watson?’
Bill got an eyeful of Flick’s cleavage. He swallowed nervously at the proximity of all that soft flesh before continuing. ‘What are they… I mean, like?’
The other two roared with laughter, obviously thinking that Bill’s theatrics were designed just to get him up close and personal with Flick, but she sensed the worried edge in his voice. She drew herself up to her full five-foot-four height and looked at the trio.
‘Well they’d take the three of you without even looking! I mean, have you seen yourselves?’ The three watchmen looked crestfallen. ‘But don’t worry lads,’ Flick continued, ‘they ain’t interested in you; they’re just passing through. Be gone in the morning.’
That cheered them up.
Flick had turned to go again when Stanley grabbed her arm. ‘What is it this time?’ she asked. ‘There’s other people in this bar you know, and they all want serving…’
‘Has he, you know, asked you, yet?’ he asked, ‘only, you know, if he’s not gonna, I quite fancy my chances…’ He flashed his best puppy-dog look at her.
Even though she was used to being chatted up in the bar, Flick felt her face redden slightly. ‘If you think I want to be known as Mrs Wilder, you’ve got another think coming!’ she said indignantly, pulling away.
‘You know you want to, really!’ he muttered to her back.
‘I heard that!’ she called, making light of it, as she retreated back towards the bar, although she admitted to herself that Stanley wasn’t unattractive.
On the way, she collected several empties and picked up orders for more drinks, while dodging the occasional stray hand. She drew the beers from the casks and served them. Back at the bar, her father came out from the kitchen with two steaming plates of food.
‘These are for the kingsmen,’ he said. ‘And be on your best behaviour, you don’t want to find yourself arrested, and I can’t afford to be short staffed.’
‘Yes dad.’ Flick rolled her eyes as she took the plates and climbed the stairs towards the back bar. The noise receded as she entered a large room laid out with tables and chairs. It was empty apart from the two kingsmen. They sat at a table by a large window overlooking the courtyard, deep in conversation over a pile of papers. When the men did not appear to notice her approach, she coughed politely.
They stopped and looked up, saw the plates and started gathering up their papers. ‘I’m sorry, my dear,’ one of them said, ‘we were a little… preoccupied.’
‘That’s okay,’ replied Flick, setting down the plates in front of the two guests. ‘Hope you enjoy it.’
The two men unfurled their napkins and tucked them in to the tops of their tunics. Flick turned to go.
‘Just one moment, miss…’ This was the other one.
‘Felicity, sir. Felicity Carter.’ She waited to see what he wanted.
He pointed to his plate with his knife. ‘And this is?’
‘Venison, sir. And greens and spuds.’ The man waited, as if expecting more. Flick went on. ‘Roe deer, sir. Caught it myself, about a week ago. Well, me and a couple of lads. Greens and spuds come from the market, sir.’
‘And what did you bring it down with, my dear?’ This was the first kingsman again.
‘Bow and arrow, sir. Made the arrows myself.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘What, with? Steel? Iron? Where do you get it?’
Flick was wary, sensing that he was testing her. ‘No sir, flint. Can’t afford iron or steel. I’ve got a corner of Dad’s workshop where I make them,’ she said.
‘Remarkable initiative,’ the man said, nodding.
‘I can fetch some and show you if you’re interested?’ said Flick.
‘Yes, I should like that,’ he said. ‘One more thing, my dear, how old are you?’
‘Sixteen, sir,’ Flick replied.
‘And still unwed, I see,’ he said.
Flick heard the disapproving tone in his voice but said nothing, trying hard to maintain a blank expression.
‘Remarkable,’ he said, and turned to his dinner.
The following morning, Flick and Rosie had got the horse harnessed up to the one-time motor vehicle, all ready to go by the time the two kingsmen emerged from the inn with their bags. Flick opened the boot of the vehicle and the two men placed their luggage inside. She then rushed to open the passenger side door, while Rosie held open the other. The first man got in. He still had the same scowl on his face that he’d arrived with the night before. The second started to climb aboard and then stopped. He turned to her.
‘Felicity, wasn’t it?’ he asked.
‘Such a pretty name,’ he said, smiling. Something about that smile made Flick uneasy. ‘Last evening, my dear,’ he continued, ‘you said that we might see some of your arrows and your flint making workshop.’
Flick nodded cautiously. ‘Yes…’
‘Might I trouble you for a very quick look?’
‘Of course, this way sir,’ said Flick, waving towards her father’s old forge at the back of the yard. She didn’t want them hanging around any longer than was necessary, so hopefully they’d just take a quick look and be gone. The man whispered a few words to his companion before following her into the workshop. Several bows and quivers of arrows hung from hooks on the wall, and there were baskets of fresh sticks and chalky flints.
‘Looks like you’re equipped to supply an army!’ the man commented dryly.
Flick’s palms suddenly felt sweaty. Was he after something? There had been a lot of strangers around the town lately, and now these kingsmen, so maybe something was going on that she didn’t know about. ‘I sell them in town sometimes. It helps to make ends meet,’ she said.
‘I’m sure,’ said the man, noncommittally, pulling an arrow from its quiver and turning over in his hands.
‘That’s one of my hunting arrows,’ she said. ‘It’s a standard hunting tip, but I can do others, smaller or bigger. Careful with it now — it’s very sharp.’
The man gave her a quizzical look, then ran his thumb cautiously across the edge. He nodded.
Flick explained how she cut up goose feathers for the fletchings, and the different threads and glues she used, and how different colours meant that each hunter could identify their own arrow and know who had made the kill and, more importantly, who got the meat. All the time the man nodded and smiled.
‘And you’re sure you only have stone… tips?’ the man asked. There was a slight edge in his voice that suggested the wrong answer could have unfortunate consequences. ‘Only I can’t help but notice the forge.’
Flick swallowed. ‘That’s Dad’s forge. He used to be a farrier, before mum died. But now…’ she hesitated. ‘Look, there’s just him and me running the inn, with some help from a girl in town. Dad can fire up the forge if there’s a horse dropped a shoe or something, but really that’s it. I don’t know anything about any armies, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re barking up the wrong tree, begging your pardon.’ She glared at him, heart pounding, thinking that was probably a very stupid thing to have just said.
The man raised an eyebrow, but before he could say anything, the other kingsman called out, ‘Cheng, fascinating as I’m sure you find these… rustic trades, we really must be going.’
‘Of course,’ Cheng replied, turning to leave. Then he paused and turned back to Flick. ‘Do you have one that I could possibly take with me?’ he asked.
Flick went to a drawer in the workbench at the back of the room and rummaged through it. She picked out an arrow head and handed it to him. ‘That’ll be a quid please.’
Cheng raised an eyebrow. ‘Young lady, you do realise I’m a kingsman, in the service of the crown, on official business?’
‘Yes sir,’ Flick replied, her hand still held out. ‘It’s still a quid. Business is business.’
Cheng rolled his eyes, but reached into his pocket and pulled out a small black bag. He tipped the contents into his other hand and picked out a coin which he handed to Flick. She took it, looked carefully at both sides and bit it before putting it in her own pocket.
‘You think I would pass false coin?’ Cheng asked.
‘Can’t be too careful, sir,’ Flick replied.
‘Knowing I’d have to arrest myself, try myself, and probably even execute myself?’ he added.
Flick shrugged. Most crimes carried the death penalty, although often it didn’t come to that.
‘Or arrest you for daring even to suggest that a servant of the crown could be corrupted.’
Flick swallowed. Maybe she had gone too far.
Cheng shook his head. ‘But of course I understand you’re just being cautious.’ He have her a long hard stare before grinning a cold, mirthless smile. ‘Thank you, young lady, that has been most enlightening. Now I must bid you farewell and continue my journey.’ He smiled and bowed briefly before turning and climbing into his seat. The reins shook and the horse and its carriage departed through the archway.
SHEA SCREAMED. He was lying on his side in long grass, the smell of it filled his nostrils. He hurt. God did he hurt, but he was alive. The memory came back to him; the sky-kart plummeting, aiming for the meadow, but hitting the trees, being thrown clear, tumbling. He needed to get back, grab the radio and call for help. He tried to get up, but the pain struck him like a body blow. Intense, mind bending.
After some minutes the pain seemed to ease slightly and his head started to clear. He tried to move again, slowly and more carefully this time, gritting his teeth as he did so. His body hurt so much and he broke out into a sweat, but his arms seemed to work, and he managed to raise himself up gradually to a sitting position. Then everything spun and he collapsed back to the ground, flinging his arms out and grabbing tufts of grass, clinging on for dear life. Gradually the dizziness subsided and the world stopped spinning. He relaxed his grip and looked up. Now, moving even more slowly this time, he pushed himself back up.
He spotted the mangled wreckage of the sky-kart several metres away. Thank God he didn’t have his buckle fastened; if he hadn’t been thrown clear he’d be dead for sure. He had come down near the edge of a meadow, at the base of a long ridge of hills. Carved into the side of the ridge was the massive stylised figure of a horse, white from the underlying chalk. Behind him, the field ended in a large expanse of woodland.
Shea shifted his weight, and pain stabbed through him again. Blinking back the tears, he tried crawling towards the line of trees, slowly, slowly. If there were any houses or people, that’s where they’d be, and help was what he needed now, never mind who they were. Each time he pushed himself along a bit he winced with pain, every push taking longer and moving him a shorter distance than the last, until he stopped moving altogether and the world became dark.
‘YOU’RE SURE THEY didn’t have any?’ Flick asked.
Maggie nodded. ‘The shop was as empty as I’ve ever seen it,’ she said. ‘It’s been getting worse for weeks. There’s been no bread to be had for the last three days, and if you hadn’t brought that venison home the other day, I don’t know what we should have done.’
Maggie Watson had been Flick’s best friend since their first day at school together, and at the last Choosing, she’d been taken on as cook and housekeeper at the inn too.
‘But the wagons coming in to town are as full as ever?’ Flick said.
‘So what’s happening to it all?’
‘I think it’s been going up to Mayor Griffin’s place. There’s something fishy going on there, I’m sure of it,’ Maggie said.
Flick paused from doing the dishes. ‘Really, what makes you say that?’
‘All the strange men around town for a start. Where do they come from? Where do they live?’
‘So you think they are all staying up at the mansion?’ Flick asked.
‘Well it fits. And it would explain the sudden food shortages,’ Maggie said.
They can’t all be the mayor’s estate workers surely. I mean he doesn’t need that many. Does he?’
Maggie shrugged. ‘You’re the one that’s been seeing his son Joe. Hasn’t he said anything?’
Flick shook her head. ‘I think “seeing” is a bit optimistic. I’m pretty sure he’s not interested in me. At least, if he is, he doesn’t show it. But I’ll ask him what’s going on the next time I see him.’
Flick dried her hands.
‘Tell you what,’ she said after a moment, I want to go up to the ridge for some flints; I didn’t realise how low I was until those kingsmen wanted a look this morning. I can take my bow and see what I can bring back.’
‘Did you see that coach they had?’ Maggie asked, suddenly excited, ‘Wasn’t it amazing?’
Flick nodded. ‘A relic from the Dark Times. We don’t see many of those about.’
‘Do you think it was? That would make it, what, a hundred and fifty years old?’
‘At least,’ Flick said. ‘It must be incredibly valuable.’
‘My gran says they’ve got all sorts of things from before the Collapse, and that they just keep them hidden away to stop people like us from having them,’ Maggie said. ‘She says her gran told her about things that they used to have that we can’t even imagine now. Machines that could fly, machines that let you talk to people the other side of the world just like you were in the same room, electricity that came out of the walls. Gran’s gran had an old book, with pictures…’
Flick cut her off. ‘There’s lots of things that we don’t know from the Dark Times — that’s why they’re called the Dark Times after all. We just know they ended in the Collapse, and well, here we are.’
‘But the book came from before the Dark Times, when they still had real books on paper…’
‘And have you seen this book?’
Maggie shrugged. ‘It must have gone to someone else in the family, if it still even exists. It would have been really old when my great gran had it.’
Flick thought for a moment, then brightened. ‘Will you’ll be all right holding the fort for a few hours while I’m gone? Rosie’s out with her friend Alice, Adam’s… who knows where, but Dad’s here.’
Maggie nodded, ‘Sure, I’ve got dinner to be getting on with — while we’ve still got food to cook, that is.’
Flick grinned. She pushed open the door to the front bar and called out, ‘I’m going up the ridge, Dad. I’ll be back before it’s dark!’
There was a grunt from somewhere out front.
‘Be careful up there,’ Maggie said, an edge of concern in her voice. ‘No one goes out that way, and if you get stuck down that pit, it’ll be tomorrow before we can send Adam to pull you out.’
‘I’m always careful,’ Flick said, ‘and anyway I’ll be back long before curfew.’
She waved as she slipped out through the back door. Her bike was old and had seen better days, perhaps even better centuries. She’d been given it by her father as a fifteenth birthday present, just as her father had once been given it by his father. Over the years it had been patched up and mended. The mudguards were long gone, but other bits had been replaced: a new saddle here, a wheel there, even the frame had been replaced at one time. But it was still the same old bike, even though not one bit about it was original. Flick’s own contribution to the bike was the addition of a carrier plate and panniers over the back wheel, and a clip for her bow on the crossbar.
She made sure the panniers and her bow were attached, and grabbed a quiver of arrows before setting off through the town.
Faringdon had been fortified some years after the Collapse. The derelict houses and factories around the outskirts had been demolished, leaving just the inner core, and the piles of rubble had been banked up to form a defensive rampart. The four roads in or out of the town — North, South, East and West had to pass through large wooden gates, each of which was guarded day and night by a pair of Town Watchmen.
‘See you in the pub tonight Fred?’ she called as she cycled through the open southern gate.
‘Where else would I be?’ a voice called back.
‘Save us a coney if you catch any!’ called another voice.
Flick waved, but didn’t stop or look back. It seemed that Maggie wasn’t the only one who’d noticed the food shortages.
It took the best part of an hour to cycle the half dozen miles up to the ridge. The road South was little used and in places had overgrown so that it was not much more than a narrow track. Only horses and pushbikes — and very few of those — came this way. At the top, Flick parked her bike close to the edge of a large pit.
The pit had been dug when people realised that things were not suddenly going to get better, and if they wanted new tools, they had to make them out of whatever they could find. The local flint was good for making sharp blades, and very quickly the available supply on the surface was used up.
So enterprising people had dug a mine.
That was a long time ago. Famine and disease had decimated what remained of the population, and the mine — never much more than a deep pit — had been abandoned since before Flick was born.
Flick climbed down the wooden ladder into the pit. It was dark at the bottom, and she rummaged for one of the makeshift wooden torches that she kept in an alcove. She wrapped some oil-soaked rags over the end and got to work making a small fire by striking a piece of flint against a curved steel band that she kept tucked in her belt. Once the spark caught, she transferred it carefully onto some tinder and blew gently until the glow became a flame. Carefully she let the flame caress the oily rags until they caught and her makeshift torch burst into light.
She looked around and saw the low entrance into a passageway cut into the chalk. The torch was burning brightly now, and she ducked down into the passage, taking care not to hit her head on the low roof. After a few metres, the cave curved around to the right and the last trace of daylight was gone. The roof was getting lower and she had to drop to her hands and knees, pushing the torch along the chalk rubble on the floor.
She held her breath. Was there something moving at the back of the cave? No, it was just a shadow from a protruding rock, caught in the flickering torchlight. She waved the torch around just to be sure.
‘Jumpy,’ she muttered to herself.
Then she saw it, a seam of flint, a good ten centimetres thick about halfway up the cave wall.
She wriggled herself into a sitting position, and pulled the bone-handled stone axe from her belt. She was proud of this axe, it was the first tool she’d made by herself, even if it wasn’t her best work. Once she was comfortable she started chipping away at the chalk.
She worked quickly, putting the rubble into a leather covered basket that she would drag to a small spoil heap whenever it was full. Soon she had a nice pile of flints, and was about to call it quits when something caught her eye. This was a big one.
She picked up the torch to have a good look. It seemed to be well embedded. She tugged on it.
That was too simple. She started chipping away at the surrounding chalk, stopping every minute or so to try and wiggle it loose.
Finally it moved. Just a few millimetres at first, and not in the right direction, but she pulled at it and wiggled it, and gradually it moved a bit more.
‘Come on, out you come…’ she muttered, giving it a really hard tug.
And out it came. Flick fell backwards as the giant flint suddenly broke free and fell to the earth with a thud, bringing the cave wall with it.
It was dark. Flick lay on her back, feeling the weight of rubble on top of her. Panic gripped her chest with icy claws, radiating out to a cold dampness on her skin. Blood pounded though her ears with a rapid thump thump, thump thump.
The torch must have gone out when she’d dropped it. Cold sweat tickled on her cheeks as it mingled with gritty chalk dust. She spat the chalk away from her mouth, coughing as she pulled in a lungful of the dusty air. A cascade of small stones rattled away, dislodged by her spasming chest muscles.
Calm down; you’re still in one piece.
She tried to move an arm and found, miraculously, that it came free from the stones quite easily. She felt about and started pushing aside the powdery rubble. It was only a thin layer of small stones; any big rocks must have dropped straight down as she fell back. She pushed them aside and worked herself up into a sitting position, shaking the last few pebbles from her hair, and wiping the grit away from her nose and mouth.
‘Felicity Anne Carter, if you want to see your seventeenth birthday, you should be more careful!’ She imagined her mother scolding her.
‘Love you, mum,’ she whispered back to the darkness.
Flick felt her way back through the passage to the shaft, where a dim grey light filtered down. The flints she had already gathered were in a neat pile near the foot of the ladder, and she transferred them to the basket ready to be pulled up and loaded into the panniers on her bicycle.
I’m not doing that again in a hurry!
She brushed the worst of the chalk dust from her leathers and hair. Once she’d let her heart rate get down to something approaching normal, she climbed onto her bike and pedalled off, wobbling slightly. After some minutes she came to the lumps and bumps that made up the earthworks of an ancient fortification and stopped for breath. This was the highest point for miles around and the view was breathtaking. Complex shadows played over the short grass, which rippled in the breeze, but today she couldn’t appreciate beauty of it. She shivered, banging her arms together against the cold, slapping the leather of her jacket, and sending more chalk dust into the air. The sun had gone, hidden behind clouds that were scudding in from the West. More rain would be coming soon and it was best to be off the ridge when it did.
Time to go.
She kicked off along the track that would take her down the side of a steep valley to the lane leading back into town. As her bike got up speed, a ray of sunlight blasted its way through the clouds, striking the hillside opposite and lighting up the giant horse carved into it a brilliant white.
At the bottom of the hill, something caught her eye, snagged in the branches of a tree and flapping in the wind like a big black flag. She stopped and stared at it for a moment before deciding to set off across the field to investigate, cutting a trail through the long meadow grass. She wasn’t a scav — far from it — but that didn’t mean she wasn’t above the odd bit of illegal scavenging when the opportunity arose. After all, whatever it was could be valuable.
Twisted metal poles thick like scaffolding hung from the tree, caught up in pieces of fabric and rope. Higher up in the canopy there was more of the shiny black fabric that had originally caught her eye. Close up she could see that the fabric itself wasn’t black, but it was covered in hundreds of small black glinting squares joined by tiny brown strings. But how on earth did it get up there? That was a mystery.
On the ground was more mangled wreckage. A small two-seat three-wheeled buggy had bits of broken tree lodged in its twisted and scratched up tubing. If there had been anyone driving it, they were long gone; hers were the only tracks through the long grass. It almost looked as if it had fallen through the trees. That was another mystery.
She walked around the contraption, tugging at it. Some of the poles dislodged from the tree. They were surprisingly lightweight, not steel or iron — something else — but far too big and awkward to do anything with. Then she spotted something in the grass a little way away. It was a small box. She picked it up. It was quite heavy, but fitted comfortably in her hand. There were small knobs and a big, bendy rubber stick on one end. On one side was a clip, possibly designed for a belt. She shook the box; it didn’t rattle. Shrugging, it went into her bag; she could figure out what it was later.
In her mind, Flick was already calculating what the wreckage could be worth. The poles could go to Dad in the forge, along with the carcass of the buggy: metal was always valuable even if it wasn’t steel or iron. The seats and wheels would be good for trade. The fabric sheeting with the strange black squares? Well it would come in for something.
It would take several trips to transport the wreckage back to town if she did it on her own, and she’d have to come back with a trailer, or maybe a wagon. She could always get help — Adam would do it, or Joe possibly, but she’d have to swear them to secrecy and share whatever money they got for it.
She pulled the rest of the black shiny fabric down from the tree. It was too visible from up on the hills — that was how she’d spotted it herself — and the wreckage would need to be hidden while she made multiple trips to the town.
Another movement caught her eye, over towards the trees at the far edge of the field. She looked across, and could see something red in the grass. As she ran towards it, it became obvious what it was; wearing strange red clothes and a leather helmet, it was a body.
The body lay face down, as if it had been crawling away from the wreckage. It wore one-piece overalls made from some sort of red fabric, smeared with grass stains, and a hat made of leather that completely covered the back of its head. Flick looked at it for a moment, wondering what to do, then nudged it with her foot.
The body made a low groaning noise. She nudged it again, and it groaned again. Then it moved.
Flick jumped back in alarm, wishing suddenly that she’d brought the bow and arrows from her bike, but glad she at least had a knife in her belt.
She waved the knife in the general direction of the body. ‘You okay?’
The body moved its arms as if trying to push itself up.
‘No sudden movements; I’ve got a knife,’ Flick said.
The body worked itself over onto its back. It was a boy, a few years older than Flick, with dark hair poking out from the edges of his leather hat, and the beginnings of what might one day become a proper beard. There was a big bruise under one eye.
He looked up, obviously trying to focus, His eyes settled on the knife and he shrank back, but as he moved he cried out in pain.
‘You’re hurt,’ Flick said, putting the knife back in her belt and kneeling. ‘What happened?’ The thoughts of salvage evaporated from her mind.
The boy didn’t answer, his eyes were wide with fear.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,’ Flick said. She held her hands up. ‘See?’
When he saw she wasn’t going to attack, he calmed down a bit. ‘Leg… can’t move…’ he said, pausing between words as if the effort of talking was too much.
His voice was thickly accented, and Flick struggled to understand what he was saying, but she smiled at the boy. ‘I’m going to help you,’ she said, and thinking if I can. She looked him up and down. Nothing seemed obviously broken, but under all that clothing it was hard to tell. ‘I’m going to have to touch you,’ she said. ‘It might hurt a lot. Do you understand?’
The boy nodded.
She knelt down and put a hand gently onto his leg, feeling carefully up and down one leg then the other. The boy winced, but didn’t cry out. She couldn’t help but notice how firm his muscles felt.
‘Well, you still have two legs and nothing obviously sticking out sideways,’ she told him. ‘I don’t think it’s broken.’ Her hand moved up to his thick muscular chest and the boy winced again. In other circumstances… She caught herself. Stop it!
She held up a finger in front of his face and moved it from side to side, watching his eyes as they followed it. Then she pulled off his leather cap and gingerly felt around his head.
‘Your head seems okay too, but I’m no doctor. I can go and find you one, but it’ll take several hours, and he’ll want paying in advance…’
‘No… doctor,’ he managed.
‘Let’s at least find you somewhere to rest up. I suppose you crashed that contraption that’s wrapped around the tree. Going too fast, I shouldn’t wonder,’ Flick said. ‘Can you walk?’
He tried to get up, but cried out and flopped back down.
‘I guess that’s a no. Let me give you a hand then.’
The boy looked at her warily.
‘There’s an old cottage through those trees,’ Flick said, pointing. ‘We’ll take it slow and steady, it shouldn’t take long. There’s still a roof on it, though it’s a bit rickety, but it’s dry and out of the weather. I used to play there sometimes when I was a girl.’
With her help he eventually managed to stand on one leg, his arm held tightly over Flick’s shoulder. Flick held his arm tight with one hand and wrapped her other arm around his chest, and they started off, slowly and carefully, into the trees.
‘I… thought you were a ghost,’ he said as they walked.
‘A figure in white.’
Flick looked down, her leathers still had some of the chalk dust on them from earlier, and it clicked. ‘I had a little accident in a chalk pit,’ she said, laughing, ‘but it was nothing serious. Got covered in chalk dust though.’
They continued in silence for a while.
‘You didn’t answer my question,’ Flick said after a while.
‘Crashed,’ he said.
They walked a bit further, but he said nothing else.
‘I suppose you’re not going to tell me, and I won’t press,’ she said after a while. ‘But you don’t look like a kingsman or a scav, though your clothes are a bit strange.’
He became quite agitated at that. ‘No kingsmen…’ he managed.
‘No kingsmen,’ Flick said quickly, and he relaxed. Another mystery, she thought. Why should he be so upset at the mention of kingsmen; was he in trouble?
They pushed on, and after several stops to rest, they came to the derelict cottage. It had no door and the windows were empty, but the roof was still attached, even though it sagged alarmingly in the middle. Ivy covered large sections of the walls, almost hiding it among the trees. They went inside and Flick helped him down to the floor.
‘Shea,’ the stranger said.
‘Oh. Flick. Pleased to meet you,’ said Flick, shaking his hand formally.
‘I come in pieces,’ Shea said, and passed out.
After checking that the boy was okay, Flick went back to her bike and grabbed the bread and a metal water bottle she had stashed in the panniers. Ok, so the bottle held small beer rather than water, but it’d do. She spied the small black box that she’d picked up earlier and her hand lingered over it, but she left it where it was. Then she turned her attention to the wreck. The sail: she rolled that up. It would be useful as a tarpaulin or to cover the ground. She looked around quickly to see if there was anything else of use. A leather bag containing an empty water bottle and some folded blue plastic sheet. And that was it.
She returned to the cottage with her spoils. Shea opened his eyes as she entered the room. ‘Still here? How are you doing?’ she asked. His face was still pale, but he managed a slight grin. She set down the bread and bottle beside him. ‘Good. Last trip. Won’t be long.’
This time she went in the opposite direction, towards the stream that ran past the abandoned village. She collected small branches and twigs that she could use for a fire. At one tree she pulled out her knife and scraped off some bark. She put this separately into her leather bag.
Under the trees it was getting quite dark, and Flick felt the first drops of rain. She hurried back to the cottage. Once inside, she built up the twigs on the hearth, and quickly had a cosy little fire going. She sat back against the wall, watching the flames. Shea was asleep.
Flick wanted to wait until the rain had passed, but she was needed back at the inn, where Maggie was preparing dinner and waiting for the meat she’d promised to bring. No chance of that; home was still an hour’s cycle away, and the town gates would be locked at dusk.
‘I’ll come back when I can,’ she said to the air, and left.
End of sample
Please sign up to Tim Arnot’s new releases mailing list, here.
If you would like to continue reading, the complete book may be purchased in both paperback and eBook forms from the following stores:
In the U.K.: www.amazon.co.uk
In the U.S. www.amazon.com
Barnes and Noble: Nook