I heard the door close with a bang, the sound reverberating in the wall behind my head as I closed my eyes and pulled myself up of the rough floorboards on which I sat. I had just enough time to sigh, walk over, and put a hand on the latch before he called: voice too loud for the silence I had been swimming in, unsettling the water.
“Seth?” It floated up the stairs, lazy and placid as a fish bubbling up to the surface, sending rings of water scurrying from its rising shadowy shape.
“Son?” I pressed the latch down and opened the door quietly. “You awake?”
I could have answered him, it would have been easier, but instead I slowly closed the door behind me and slunk along the corridor as silently as I could: each cloth-soft step a whisper in reply and the clinging pull of the rug fibres against my socks a shiver down my back.
I stopped where the bannister opened the corridor to the downstairs hall. I leaned over the bars. Watched him stand there by the door a moment with his head hanging down, looking at the scuffed shoes before him and holding his hand to the greasy hair at the back of his head, black as raven feathers and winding in loose, oil-shined ringlets. Some grey in there too, I noticed. New wrinkles on his forehead also, skin dark and shiny from the days out in the sun all his youth. After a while just standing there, he shook off the dark cloak and hung it up by the door.
“Late, aren’t you?”
He jumped almost guiltily, looking up at me with a hand to his chest. “Seth! You gave me a heart attack.” I noted he didn’t lower his hand when he realised it was me, just played with the cross pendant around his neck. He busied himself hanging up his holster by the door and taking out the pistol which he always put in his room when he got home. He walked up the groaning stairs and past me. “Yeah, we’re in a bit of a mess at work right now, I’m afraid. It took longer than I thought.” He said as he wondered into his room and shoved the pistol in his bedside cabinet. “Another assault,” he sighed, “There was a lot of cleaning up to do”
He stopped beside me at the top of the stairs as he untied his tie.
“You weren’t at the assembly this morning. You nor Nevan.”
He glanced up at me from the corner of his eye and then looked back down to his shoelace. “You know Nevan never likes to show his face around the townspeople.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
He sighed heavily, took his hand from his shoe and fixed me a hard look. “You know what curiosity did?” He nodded his head without blinking his eyes, so blue they sometimes looked silver in the dark. “If you must know, he was missing. I’m sure you’ve already found out about his habit anyway.” I sure had, but why was he so irritated. There was a harshness in his voice that made me feel like he was on the edge of snapping right about now, wonder why.
“And you?” I kept it simple, didn’t push too hard. When he was angry he was impossible to talk to, he would go lock himself somewhere and grumble away to himself all night if he didn’t get an apology and I wasn’t in the mood nor did I have the time for an all-out battle tonight, I had to go on my shift soon and my head was burning. Must be hungry.
“He told me to take some time off. I was planning on just popping in to tell everyone where I was and then just come back home. Not much point going to the assembly. Except, of course, I got caught up in all this mess because someone reported their wife missing and we needed as many people on hand to try and find her. All day and we didn’t see hide or tail of her but just as I’m about to go home I find a dead man in an alley.” He threw his hands up exasperatedly and leaned down to untie his shoes. “Anyway, why are you so annoyed about it?”
I watched the dark back of his head, dripping wet though it hadn’t rained and staining his thin white shirt like a spreading patch of ink. “Neither of you were here so Lahel had to take the assembly.”
His head cocked to the side ever so slightly. “Well she is the highest rank. And it wasn’t like I knew Nevan was going to go missing before I took my leave.”
I said nothing. Just looked at that little white patch of skin at the nape of his neck and wondered why he was shaking.
“Really, what’s your problem with her? I know she can be annoying, but she’s good at her job, a hard-worker, unlike some of them up there,” He gestured his chin towards the Guardhouse, “And you used to get on just fine.” He rushed to finish untying the second lace and then began extricating his feet with rough movements and a foot on each heel.
I looked up, away from him, and pretended to think. “I suppose we did.” We never did, you must be imagining it. “I don’t know, maybe all the power got to her. She’s really not…” I weighed up my words, how to say this nicely, “the same. If you know what I mean.”
He didn’t look at me, just nodded. “I guess she has changed, though I can’t say I liked her that much in the beginning…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “No, don’t tell anyone I said that. I don’t know what I’ve been thinking lately, annoyed at everyone for no good reason at all.” He laughed without humour, a self-pitying sound and straightened his back. “But remember, son, it’s a lot of responsibility being a lieutenant, and it’s not like you’re making it any easier for her.” A pointed look at me, raised eyebrows and all. “You could co-operate more and maybe she wouldn’t be so out to get you all the time.”
“Aye, I could.”
He looked away from me, back to the doorway and the dusty cloak that hung next to it. Rubbing the stubble on his chin with a pained expression, he spoke. “Maybe I should share more with you.”
I grinned, spiked little canines glowing in the dark. “Sure, dad.”
He was still considering the door, or the cloak, but he talked as he did, without emotion at first. “Honestly, I don’t remember a thing of what I did today. Well, that’s not true, I remember going in to tell Nevan I was taking the leave like he’d said but he wasn’t in his office. From there, there’s nothing. I woke up a couple hours ago as if it was morning again, except I wasn’t in my bed and it was almost night and I was just standing in some alleyway. Nothing there but a few rats and a dog, nobody to explain what had happened. So I just walked out and down the street but just in time I turned and saw the body of that man in another alley. And I stepped forward to see if he’s okay but I heard a splash and I look down and its blood all around. A puddle so big.” He held his hands out, still expressionless but the ends of his fingers twitched with the movement as if he wasn’t completely in control of them. “He had to be dead. Then some others came around the corner and I called them. I almost forgot that I didn’t remember, thought maybe I’d just had a dizzy spell or something, you know I get them sometimes, but then one of them says to me: ‘You’ve been out looking for her most of the day, Major. You should go home and get some rest. I mean, it’s not like she’s gonna be out there in those fields, probably just with a friend because she’s had an argument with her husband or something. And you did say all her babies died. Like you said, can kind of understand that maybe she don’t want to be found, maybe she gone to die.’ And when he said that I thought I can’t have forgotten all that. Like he said, I must have been searching about in the fields, my shoes were muddy and my cloak…soaked.” He turned to me with that desperate face: eyebrows pulled together like a puppy, all pleading and watery eyes. “I couldn’t just have forgotten walking around, talking, telling people stuff like that. I mean, I don’t even know the woman, so where did that come from? It’s like I don’t know who I am nowadays, all I know is that there’s something wrong with me.”
He’s crying now, great fat tears and a wide contorted smile like he’s trying to catch each one as they stream. “Father,” I say, soft against his strangled breaths, “I don’t know what’s wrong.” The way be breaths sounds painful, as if there’s something blocking his throat, it turns to wracking coughs as he gets more and more worked up. “But you need to calm down.” I put one hand on his bent back, see that he’s hugging himself tight and rocking like a child, so I lean close and speak to his ear. “Now don’t you worry, I’ll look after you.”
So he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, too proud to face me with them still catching the low light, and smiled. “I just never wanted to ask you for help, son. I should be the one helping you, that’s how it was meant to be.”
“You did help me.” I put an arm under his and helped him to turn around, though he resisted and tried to walk on his own anyway. “Don’t think for a second that I’ve forgotten.”
As I walked him to his room, he rested the rest of his weight on my shoulder. “I don’t know why I don’t talk to you more.” He sighed. “I trust you, my boy. I really do.”
“Do you?” I muttered.
“Hmmm?” He asked, but he was too distracted to wait for an answer. I could tell his head was hurting the way he kept holding it and his eyes were ringed round with purple like blood was seeping beneath his skin. Tired, you better go to sleep now, I thought. You’ve done enough.
After that I just took him off to his bed so he could sleep, went back to my room, and got ready for night duty. I shrugged into the jacket. Huh, still a bit big. I must have gotten mine and father’s mixed up somehow. I held out an arm so I could roll up the sleeves, I couldn’t even see my fingers out the ends. Guess I wasn’t quite there yet, I smiled, still more to do.
The tension in the room was palpable. Such a small space for so many agitated people to be confined in, and there were still some missing. People drummed their fingers impatiently, crossed their arms, chewed their cheeks and glared around the room with such aggressiveness you would have thought they meant each other harm. They didn’t, they were but itching to get out of there so that they could confront the real targets of their rage, they needed some directive, a leader to tell them who to fight. But there was no one to take charge here, at least not yet.
Norah sat on a low foot-stool in the corner of her own house. Her husband was there somewhere too, balancing on the arm of a sofa with a nervousness trying to masquerade as nonchalance in every awkward bend of his arms and legs. She probably looked the same to the others, but she didn’t feel nervous. Not anymore: scared, maybe, but mostly empty. Just waiting, eyes wide, hair still wild though she’d had time to change into some more presentable clothes. She noticed Maureen watching her like she wanted to catch her attention but she just glared forward, just daring her to come over and say something because she really wasn’t in the mood. She had never not cared about what people thought as much as in that moment, unfortunate that she couldn’t exactly enjoy it given the situation. This was serious. She’d all but started a war.
There was a knock on the door, just a formality, they would come in even though no one moved to open it, couldn’t actually as they were so packed in here she didn’t think she could get out of the living room and to the door if she wanted to. Ailbe Regan came in first as always, shoving through the door without consideration for the people who were getting crushed behind it. As he strode through the room, parting the sea of people with just a frown and a determined swing of his shoulders, somebody in a cloak Norah hadn’t noticed before stumbled up out of their chair to give him a seat. He had settled into the chair at the head of the table and rested his feet on top of it before Quinn Galilee had even negotiated his way into the room after him, stopping every two steps to apologise profusely and to receive curt, yet approving, nods in return from every person he passed. They were like night and day, those two, Ailbe small and dark, and Quinn fair and tall. Their personalities too, were so contrasting that you’d never think they could get on, Ailbe had had an argument with just about everyone in the room, and each of those fights had been patched up by Quinn, who always followed close behind with some kind words and a smile that could settle even the angriest farmer.
Eventually, Quinn got to Ailbe’s side and stood just behind his seat, happy to let the rest of the occupiers of the seats remain where they were though they each offered theirs to him with stoic respect for the smiling man.
“Okay.” Ailbe smirked, putting his arms behind his head and looking around the room. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a rebel meeting, isn’t it? I won’t lie and say I haven’t missed this.” They didn’t answer that, they knew the thrill too, that feeling like they were right beneath the Empire’s nose yet there was nothing they could do to stop them. That wasn’t what they felt today though, this wasn’t like the meetings they’d had before the second rebellion. Those had some hope to them, they had all been younger then, there had been no battle-scars on their faces, no lost limbs, the disillusionment wasn’t then sketched in every line of their face. Now it was real, and they were scared. They didn’t want to fight anymore.
“What’s with those faces?” Ailbe laughed. “Isn’t this exciting? And it was one of you…” He glanced around the room, meeting Norah’s eyes with a grin. “That called this meeting, was it not? I hope you’re prepared.”
Norah shivered, she never liked the guy. He was so arrogant, so self-assured, and it disturbed her how much he seemed to enjoy fighting, in any form, it wasn’t just war with the Empire but with everyone around him. He was trying to rile her up, from the dirty shoes on her table to the direct gaze down at her with that stupid, self-satisfied look on his face. She wasn’t going to let it bate her today, there were more important things to do today.
“So.” He lifted his arms towards her and leaned forwards. “What have you got to tell us, O’Connor? You finally decided to leave your husband.” He laughed and looked around to Quinn for support, and punched his arm when he saw Quinn didn’t feel like complying and chose instead to surreptitiously ignore him.
Norah did the same, just answered the question to the whole room as if he hadn’t said a thing. “Somebody tried to kill me today.” She said, voice high and proud.
Ailbe lifted an eyebrow. He didn’t need to ask, she was already answering the question in his head. “It’s the monster, it’s back again. It tried to kill me.”
There was a snort from one corner of the room, she knew it was Maureen without looking but she didn’t look at her, she wasn’t going to give her that satisfaction.
“And someone saved me, killed them, you’ll see, the Guard will find the body by tomorrow for sure.”
“The hero.” Someone murmured, Quinn, she was surprised to see. He hardly ever spoke unless someone addressed him, perhaps that was why people liked him so much.
“How can you be sure it was the monster?” Ailbe questioned, angry as ever for no apparent reason.
“Who else could it be? With Finnegan Crowe as well, the only other option is the Guards themselves, and the results the same either way.” She said flatly. Prepared to hear yet more denial from her fellows.
Ailbe began to speak, looking irritated, but he was interrupted.
“Did you see who saved you? You recognise them?” It was Quinn again, unusual to say the least. She frowned, she hadn’t talked to him much, he was around Ailbe too much and she could never work out what he really thought about anything.
“I think I did.” She said hesitantly.
“Are you sure? Who was it?” He was really pushing for this, even Ailbe was looking at him curiously.
“I think I did, no I’m sure I saw a glimpse of something. It was him. I’m sure.”
Ailbe cut back in. “You called this meeting, you better be sure. We could all be killed for this.”
An exited murmur broke out in the room, over which Maureen’s squawked tones effortlessly cut. “Who is it then? If you know so well.”
“Him, the one who was saved from that house, the one the monster lived in.”
“Murphy? Are you sure?” Quinn breathed.
The cloaked man who had given up his seat to Ailbe stopped leaning on the wall and looked towards Norah. She hadn’t noticed before but he was short, shockingly so, and his face was the only one completely shrouded though many others wore cloaks, a safety procedure just in case the house was raided whilst they were still inside. “Yes” She whispered, whilst looking at over at the shrouded man who just then piped up.
“It’s him. Like I thought.” He mumbled in a high-pitched squeak so quiet that he probably thought no one else would hear, but the sudden hush in the room let his words fall like thunder, so clear every person turned towards him. His masked head looked from side to side and then out the window. He jumped back with such unexpected force that everyone moved with him, eyes instantly searching the square of street outside the window at the same time as their legs began to backtrack towards the door.
“What? There’s nothing there.” Maureen was the first to groan, probably because she’d jumped the highest. He didn’t answer, just stayed turned towards the window as if frozen.
Nettled, Ailbe grasped the back of the man’s cloak. “Just what are you trying to do man?”
“I thought I saw…”
“What? Spit it out.”
“Eyes.” He said quietly, as if they would hear. “I thought I saw some eyes.”
Faces around the room turned towards each other, knowing looks, some confused, some scared. “I saw some eyes too, the other day.” Someone shivered.
“Me too.” Another said.
Mr O’Connor chewed his lip and looked down at his hands anxiously.
“Has everyone seen something?” Norah asked, directing all those frightened eyes towards her. She was the only one who still didn’t look the least bit surprised, they trusted that. There were a few nods around the room.
She looked to Ailbe, directly in his narrowed eyes. “So, do you still question what I saw, what happened to me?”
“I haven’t seen anything.” He retorted.
Quinn put a hand on his shoulder quickly. “If we haven’t seen it, we’ve felt it in the air. Something’s changed, you know it Ailbe.” His words were soft and his eyes were grave but Ailbe winced as the hand gripped his shoulder, he was serious.
“So, if this is the case, the monsters come back, the hero is here, and the Empire’s using the creature against us, what exactly do you want to do about it?” He was back to smirking, Norah wasn’t sure if it was just bravado or if being arrogant was in his nature. She strongly suspected that it was both.
“You know what I want.” She said, emotionless: trying to sound authoritative though it was hard when she was sitting on a footstool about a foot of the ground and with her knees half way up to her face. “We’re going to fight.”
He smiled. For all the annoyance of being around him, at least he was predictable, she could trust him to be in on a fight any day. “Of course.”
“Wait a minute.” Maureen said. Norah was just about to lose her temper with that woman, she couldn’t even contain her argumentative nature for one minute even when all of their lives were at stake. Norah rolled her head towards her, all ready for a shouting match, but the woman was not looking at her. She was glancing to the window and then back to the table with a shocked expression on her painted face. “Where’s that weird man in the cloak gone.”
Every person turned, glanced around, and saw for themselves that it was true. The cloaked man was gone, vanished while they turned their attention towards Norah.
“Who even was that guy?” Ailbe said, “I would have remembered a pipsqueak like that around here.”
In fact, nobody remembered him. No one even remembered when he came in.
“A spy? Maybe the Empire sent one in.” Someone remarked.
“Probably a child spy by the height of him, one of our own children, for shame.” An old lady grumbled somewhere beside Norah.
Various ideas went back and forth, each voiced in such shocked amazement that they weren’t even scared at all, they hadn’t even thought of what was going to happen now he’d got away. Then a little voice piped up. “You know,” Einin sung to no one in particular, “I head the Guard General is as small as a child.”
“I heard that too.” Ailbe agreed, he had probably taken great pleasure in that fact as the impromptu leader of the rebels and therefore the Generals equivalent.
“So, was that him?” Norah said. “In my house?” The anger didn’t yet show in her voice but she could feel it bubbling under the surface, making her breath fast and dig her nails into her hands just thinking about the fact.
“Don’t know. I’ll go see.” Einin said, and wandered from the room sleepily, easily slipping between the densely-packed bodies and out the door, just as the cloaked person must have done.
Maureen shook her head, that girl sure was strange. She would normally never remember stuff like that, she’d been doing it all the more recently. She’d become more observant too, like she’d had a complete personality change all of a sudden. It was unsettling. But there were more important things to worry about, Norah was busy thinking whether she should tell them about the creature she saw in the water but she was hesitant. They were nervous, frightened even, but they didn’t know what was out there. When they said the word monster, they weren’t really thinking of a creature like that. They were thinking of a person, an evil one, but a person nonetheless. They weren’t prepared for what could be out there, what they could be about to face.
The conversation came to a natural holt, everyone wanted to be out of there anyway, worried about Guards seeing them on their way back if they left too late. They had chosen the time right on the switching point between day and night Guard, a gap that had always allowed them to meet unsuspected in the second rebellion and that they hoped would still do so now. The Empire didn’t expect them to do anything, see, they underestimated them thoroughly every time, and there was no reason for them to stop doing that now. Norah thought she knew why they looked down on the townspeople then, as she looked around at all the faces of those leaving and thinking of the faces of those who never turned up, so many who were too used to being subjugated to even consider resisting. Those who chose to ignore what was happening and just live under the Empire’s foot like animals. Those who were too scared to even come out at night.
Ailbe and Quinn talked as they walked away from the O’Connor house.
“She’s a gossip, you know. I don’t know if we should just be believing her.” Ailbe said, a bit too loud to be subtle. “Did you hear about that banshee thing yesterday? Her going missing? I mean, surely she knows that banshee stuff is nothing but a rumour, they’re just outcasts living in the forest. And then she comes back with this story, it doesn’t seem right to me.”
“I have heard she’s been unstable lately.” Quinn admitted, glancing back to the house with a guilty look. “But I trust her. I mean, it’s not about trust, you can tell, can’t you? This is the start of something new. We just needed a trigger to get everyone together. It’s the start.”
“Is this really a good idea?”
“I don’t know Ailbe. I don’t know.” He sighed. “We’ll have to see.”
Maureen walked out the door and watched for a sign Einin. She seemed to be the only person worried about her, she had pushed through the crowd as fast as she could to get out but had still ended up at the back of the line, one of the last ones to leave. Surely the girl couldn’t have gone far, she’d only left a few minutes ago and she had hoped she would have wondered back by now, having failed in her mission to catch the cloaked person. She wouldn’t have been able to catch up would she? What if she had, she could have even got caught, she could be in trouble somewhere.
Still, Maureen wasn’t sure what to do. She expected the girl to come back here, so if she left they may end up separated, but if she didn’t go she could be lost or even injured somewhere, waiting for her to come and find her.
Lucky, she had stayed, because after just a few minutes of standing there and worrying, she caught sight of the bob of fair hair that she recognised instantly as belonging to Einin. No other woman had their hair cut short like her, they wouldn’t dare. But Einin had always been like that, she didn’t care about what others thought just as much as she liked to do strange things that they wouldn’t approve of, she was always surprising. People watching might think that she hated her, but they didn’t know how their relationship worked. This was how they were, they fought, her sister always needed direction and to be told what to do, she was annoying but, for all that, if someone else was to hurt her she would be outraged.
She tried to call over to the girl but she didn’t hear. She looked a bit closer and saw that she was talking, though the other figure was disguised by the shadow of the alleyway in which it must have stood. Then Einin walked into the darkness, her bright hair dissipating into black.
Maureen walked towards the alley with an encroaching sense of dread. Not even daring to call the girl in case something was wrong. Was the other person the spy? Was she in danger? She realised, when she was almost upon it that, realistically speaking, she was in danger too. She shook her head, she couldn’t back down now, afraid, when her sister may be in danger. She was the younger one, she had always relied on Maureen to look after her, and she was not going to let her down now.
She turned into the alleyway, refusing to let her feet falter and keeping the same steady pace as she walked into the sopping darkness. What was it? Water? No, it stuck, thick and cloying, to her shoes. It was blood. She fell to her knees, and put her hands to her sister’s face. Einin was lying, eyes open, in a small pool of it. Her hands at her neck not able to prevent the viscous flow of it between her shaking fingers.
“It was him.” She gurgled, as if her lungs were bathed in the liquid. Bubbles of it spluttered from her throat.
“Don’t worry.” Maureen crooned, cradling her poor head on her lap and stroking her blonde hair with trembling hands. “I’ll get him.” She choked, holding back the sob that was wracking her. “I’ll kill him I swear.”
In a nearby street somebody laughed.