From high in the branches Fliss watched slaves dig trenches where the wheels of the cannon would rest. Their overseer strolled back and forth, coiling his whip. A sergeant from the foot platoon lounged on a grassy slope, smoking his pipe. Now and then a trooper unslung his rifle and aimed at Fliss in her tree, hoping to see her flinch and lose her grip, but he did not fire. Although she was in range, no bullet could reach her: no cannon ball or fire-throwing machine, no wind or weather. Nothing could break through the wall.
Last summer the Morisettes had made a balloon that carried men high into the air, but though it climbed to the place where clouds piled up it could not pass over. Two had been lost before they gave up, sliding along the invisible barrier until the balloons tore open and the riders in their gondola tumbled to the ground.
The new cannon was their biggest weapon yet. The eight-horse team could scarcely move it up the hill, though men cracked whips endlessly over their straining haunches. Today was the last day of their agony. An hour would see the cannon slide into place. And then, Fliss supposed, some important man would come, general or governor, riding a white horse, with officers on black horses at his back and a troop of foot soldiers marching to a drum. Fliss had seen it before. Two summers ago, when the Despiners had held the Stewardship, an army of slaves had piled barrels of gunpowder against the wall. The invisible fabric undulated as the wind breathed, making the tower of barrels rock. And the explosion, when it came, spread up the wall and rolled back in a wave, licking at the general and throwing him from his horse. Fliss had laughed, seeing the man roll like one of his barrels down the hillside. When the smoke and dust had drifted away, the wall was untouched. Smears of soot slid down and settled on the ground on the other side.
The Morisette cannon would do no better. They must be hoping the weight of the ball would carry it through. Then they would build more guns and break the wall down. Fliss smiled at the thought. Another general would raise his hand and let it fall and end up rolling in the mud.
She ate her midday meal of fruit as the cannon rolled into place. She sipped water from her gourd, watching the general and his officers mince their horses up the hill. An important man, this one, with feathers on his hat. A troop of soldiers followed, with two drummers leading the way. The general — perhaps he was a governor — officers and soldiers all wore the gaudy uniform of Morisette. Even the drummer boys had its symbol on their jackets: a cupped hand from which coins poured like golden water. It made Fliss sick to see it. She had bowed her head and cupped her hands to that imagined stream a dozen times daily as she moved about the streets of Galp in the starved life she had led before running for the wall. Days of hiding, then nights of feeling her way through unfamiliar towns, of creeping into the dawn and finding a hole in some warehouse or waste pile or plantation shed.
The seasons had come and gone three times since she had fled, and the forests north of the wall had the freshness of a new spring. South, on the flatlands, brown plantations spread ten leagues wide at the sides of the river. Harvesters would be in the trees, tapping new gum. That had been her mother’s job until she had sickened and died. Her father was dead, too, there could be no doubt of it. He had been taken for the mines before Fliss was born. Men did not last long in the mines. Who was he? Fliss did not know. Some man, her mother had said. Half the men of Galp had been taken for the mines, and the women for the plantations.
Fliss would not cry. It was old stuff. She would sit in her tree and yawn at these Morisette soldiers as they dragged their useless cannon up the hill. Just sitting here she defeated them.
The gun settled into place. For a moment its black mouth pointed at her and she felt herself shrink. It looked as if it wanted to swallow her — and then she laughed. Its barrel was as thick as the trunk of her tree, but size was nothing, and gunpowder nothing, and the wall, thinner than the cloth of her shirt and made of — made of nothing — would not even know it had been attacked.
She watched a pair of soldiers ram powder into the cannon’s breech. Half a dozen slaves with ropes and pulleys lifted something wrapped in sacking from a cart. The soldiers pulled the sacking off, exposing this new thing that would break the wall — a giant arrow, she thought, with a polished head thick at the base and sharpening to a point. Behind the head was a bulb that must be filled with more gunpowder. Fliss saw what the weapon was meant to do: the sharp head would tear a hole in the wall; the bomb fixed to it would explode and widen the hole so soldiers could pour through.
Fools, Fliss thought. She hoped the cannon would explode and kill them all — then hoped it would not. The slaves would die, too.
She wondered if she should climb down and make her way home and tell the Old One about this new attack. But he would only smile a little and close his eyes and go back to sleep, so she stayed where she was. Smile and sleep was all the Old One ever did. Should she tell Shoo? But Shoo would shrug and say, ‘Will they never stop?’ Shoo could be just as annoying as the Old One.
Fliss made herself more comfortable. She watched the officers getting ready, and wondered why these men had to make a ceremony of everything. The drummer boys were beating out a noise she could only imagine — it would be like the rumble of stones tipped off a cart. The officers had their mounts in a line behind their general, who sat on his white steed with his sword — such a weak little thing, like a kitchen knife — raised over his head. Fliss wished she could see his face. It would be puffed up with importance. A man with a burning torch was standing ready by the cannon’s breech.
Fliss put her fingers in her ears, but after a moment took them out. Noise, explosions, wind, weather, nothing came through. Believe, she thought.
The general struck down with his sword as though striking off someone’s head. The soldier with the torch touched it to the rounded back part of the cannon — its bum, Fliss thought.
The black tube rocked on its wheels. Its mouth bloomed like a flower, and Fliss, trying to see everything, saw nothing clearly, it happened so fast. There were two explosions of flame and smoke, one at the cannon’s mouth, one at the wall. Smoke surged like muddy water and engulfed everything — the cannon, the men, the horses, the drummer boys — while on Fliss’s side the trees
stirred lazily in a breeze blowing from the north, and a few birds, alarmed at the sudden red thing flattening and spreading in the place where they could not fly, fled shrieking into the forest.
The general’s horse galloped out of the smoke, the general clinging to its neck. A few men, bent almost double, came out. More horses ran, rearing and kicking as sparks landed on them. Fliss saw two slaves running. Go, she thought. The smoke began to clear. Dimly she saw the cannon, with soldiers trying to form up behind it, and officers off their horses, gathered about the general, who had dismounted and seemed to be shouting. The cannon stood ready, smoking at its mouth and still pointing at the wall, but there would be no more shooting — not today. The wall was unchanged. A few drifts of sooty smoke showed where it stood. They crawled on its surface as though they were tired.
‘Ha,’ Fliss said, and looked again to see if the slaves had escaped. They vanished into the scrub that crept up to the wall east of the cannon. She was happy for them, and then sad, because they had little chance of getting away. Slave hunters would come with dogs to track them. They
would be whipped, or perhaps executed as though
they had been responsible for the failure of the gun. She had seen executions, seen too many. Everyone had been forced to watch as prisoners who had tried to kill the Morisette patriarch, or the Carp or Despiner one, were tied across the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces. Fliss closed her eyes and bowed her head. She sat a long time without moving.
When she looked again the soldiers had formed up. The white horse had been calmed and the general was mounted. The officers surrounded him as though he were in danger — and suddenly one of them raised his arm and opened his mouth with a cry Fliss could not hear. She looked where he was pointing, away from the scrub hiding the slaves, along the hill on the other side, where smoke from the explosion still coiled in the trees.
A flash of red caught Fliss’s eye — someone moving fast there, trying to keep hidden. There was no chance of that — the red and yellow uniform made him shine like a lantern in the night. It was one of the drummer boys. He had seen his chance to slip away while everyone was staring after the slaves.
The sergeant gave an order, and four men dropped to their knees and raised their rifles. Fliss saw the muzzles puff and saw the boy fall to his knees. But it must have been at the whistle of the bullets, for he was up and running again before a second squad could take aim. He found a depression in the ground, threw himself into it and started crawling.
The general waved his arm. His face was enraged. The soldiers stopped firing and two of the officers spurred their horses along the slope. Fliss saw the boy rear up and throw a look behind him. He jumped to his feet and ran again. The horsemen found a clear path and closed on him rapidly.
Fliss climbed down fast. She jumped from a low branch, running as she landed. She ducked and side-stepped through undergrowth lapping the wall until she found a place where the ground was clear. She felt the barrier with
her mind, breathed the wall into herself, approached
with a nod of familiarity, and, still, after three years, a stirring of fear in her blood. The ground on the other side was covered with yellow weed. One of the horsemen was picking his way along. She stepped back, hiding in the undergrowth. He had gleaming teeth and a waxed moustache with pointed ends. He stared down the slope, watching (Fliss saw it in her mind) the drummer boy scrambling towards him. The other horseman must be herding him up. The man drew his sword and flicked it casually in the air. He wet his thumb and touched the point.
The horse became aware of Fliss. It rolled its eye but, well trained, stood without moving. The officer was bending forward, looking down the slope. She could no longer see his face. He flexed the wrist holding the sword.
Then she saw the boy’s face, slack with exhaustion. It seemed to come up from the ground at the horse’s feet. His hands gripped the edge of the bank he had climbed. In the instant she saw him he became aware of the man on the horse. She saw his cry, saw rage transform his face. He spat at the horseman.
The man stepped his horse forward and raised his sword for a downward slash. Fliss chose that moment to move. The horse was still aware of her. She burst from the undergrowth, arms spread wide, and ran at the wall, flung herself at it and felt it bend and hold her and then, just as easily, push her back.
The horse shied. Its front feet broke the clay at the edge of the bank and slid down. The rider struggled one-handed to pull it back, then dropped his sword and hauled on the reins with both arms. The boy was as quick as a forest cat. He scrambled on to the even ground, grabbed the sword and stabbed its point deep into the horseman’s thigh. The man screamed and lost control of his mount, which slid out of Fliss’s sight, raising a cloud of dust above the bank. The boy looked around wildly. He had no way to go — a horseman below him, another urging his mount through scrub further along — and Fliss saw four soldiers closing in along the side of the wall.
The boy swung around and looked at Fliss. He forgot the wall and ran for shelter; and the wall bounced him softly back so he fell on the seat of his trousers. He sat there, astonished, then howled at the wall — some ugly word, Fliss supposed. He looked at Fliss, shouted at her, then spun around, half crawled, half scuttled, peered down the bank. He put down the sword, broke off a lump of clay and threw it at something down there. Dust puffed beside him. The soldiers along the wall were shooting. The boy scrambled back, saw the sword where he had dropped it, crawled on his belly and grabbed it, then ran at the wall — and again it bounced him back. He screamed and attacked it, trying to slash his way through. He was like a wasp in a bottle, Fliss thought, there was nowhere to go.
‘Don’t hit it,’ she cried, ‘that’s no good.’
He slashed at her. He punched her, but the wall pushed his fist away. Fliss stared into his face. It was agonised, bloody with scratches from the scrub. Hatred poured out of him the same way as sweat. She did not want to watch him die, and began to turn away.
No, she saw him shout. He began to claw the wall with his free hand.
‘You can’t,’ she said. ‘There’s no way.’
He dropped the sword, beat the wall with both hands. The horseman he had wounded reared up from the bank behind him, still mounted. Blood from his thigh darkened his horse’s side. He steadied the animal and drew a pistol fastened to his saddle. His face was red with rage, yet he took his time, tormented the boy by aiming slowly, sneered a word at him, and the boy, spread-eagled on the wall, straining with his heels to kick himself backwards, hollowed his chest to take the shot.
Fliss remembered coming to the wall three years ago. All day long she had tried to find a way through. The wall did not mind her. It almost seemed to stroke her, but always, all through that day, it had pushed her back. She had knelt and rested her head on it. She was going to die against this friendly barrier. Tears rolled from her cheeks as she whispered, ‘Why?’ As if in answer, a hand reached from the other side and pulled her into a different world as though pulling a fish from the sea. It hurt — one jolt of agony — but the face smiling down at her, the hand stroking her face, cured her pain. She had gasped and smiled back, knowing that at last she was safe and she was free.
All right, she thought, if Shoo could do it, I can too. She put her hands on the wall and felt her fingers tingle. ‘Please,’ she said.
The horseman held his shot. He was watching her, grinning at her. She smiled back at him and slid her hands through and felt the sticky air on the other side. His mouth gaped. Then he shifted his pistol from the boy and shot at her. She felt a pressure on her forehead like a finger’s touch and saw the bullet trickle to the ground. For a moment she thought of poking her tongue out at him. Instead she took two handfuls of cloth beside the boy’s epaulettes and pulled him, worked him like a sack of grain, to safety. She heard a whisper as the wall repaired itself. The boy screamed with pain and jerked himself free. He fell heavily on his back. She saw the pain die on his face as he plunged into sleep — the same sleep Shoo had let her fall into for a night and a day after pulling her into the bushes so her hunters would not know how she had vanished. The boy lay unmoving. She waited to see him breathe, and at last his chest heaved and he gave a sigh and sank even deeper, smiling a little.
Fliss looked down at him and did not like him. He was too well fed. There were no hollows in his cheeks. Meat and gravy, that’s what he’s been eating, she thought. The first time she had run, at the age of eight, she had been starving, and the lean-to behind the Despiner factory in Galp had been so cold that the slave children who slept there had to huddle in a mass to keep warm on winter nights and the big ones pushed the younger ones to the outside. She had run to save her life. This boy had not known anything like that.
He worked his mouth a little as he slept, tasting the different air on this side of the wall. Fliss felt like pushing him back.
‘Fatty,’ she said, prodding him with her foot.
The horseman had dismounted and regained his sword. He was jabbing at her wildly. His companion rode up and shot his pistol at her face. Soldiers arrived and fired a volley with their rifles. She wondered how to show her contempt for them — turning her back seemed the best way. She unslung her gourd and drank a mouthful. What now? she thought. The boy was safe, but she had better tell Shoo so that something could be done with him when he woke. She liked the idea of leaving him sleeping easily, less than an arm’s length from the men trying to kill him. The soldiers were fixing bayonets on their rifles; the horseman with the wounded leg and the waxed moustache was pissing at the wall, but all he was doing was splashing his boots. Stupid, she thought.
She left them there, the soldiers stabbing at the wall and the cursing horsemen, and walked home through the trees, stopping only to fill her gourd at the stream. She washed her hands, washing off the boy, and dried them on her shirt.
It did not seem strange to her that she had been able to reach through the wall. It seemed like something she was meant to do.