- Published: 28 September 2021
- ISBN: 9780143776710
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 208
- RRP: $19.99
Fliss sat next to Minnie and the little one, letting the soft yet clear notes of song fall into her ears. She closed her eyes. As always, she felt as though her inner self was being gently caressed by the sound of Lorna’s voice and by the hint of yearning in the melody.
Yes, these were her favourite times. And yet . . .
As the song came to an end, the little girl chuckled with delight. Like Fliss and Minnie, she had been transfixed while Lorna sang, but as the final notes sounded she reminded everyone of her presence.
‘When Maia listens to you singing, Lorna, I think she is closer to you than she is to me,’ Minnie said, but without bitterness. She smiled and stroked her daughter’s hair, amass of wayward mahogany curls.
Fliss smiled, too, watching them. Maia, not long out of infancy, yet already so much a part of things. She completes us, Fliss thought. The sisterhood, and our purpose. Our world. There is nothing more we need. And yet . . .
She felt again the tug of that mysterious restlessness that had been gradually building in her over the past few weeks. She shook her head, trying to rid herself of any negative thoughts.
‘There is something troubling you, Fliss,’ a gentle voice prompted. Fliss looked up to see Lorna’s unseeing eyes turned towards her. It was less a question than a statement.
‘No,’ she replied, automatically. But it was a lie, and she knew Lorna would pick up on the uncertainty behind it. Fliss sighed. ‘Well, yes, there is,’ she conceded. ‘But I can’t tell you what it is, as I don’t even know what it is myself. A feeling, no more than that. It’s silly . . .’
‘No, it’s not silly,’ Lorna said. ‘There is something stirring. Some trouble. I, too, feel it. It must be from the other side.’
Of course. The other side. It was not something that any of them wished to think about, this hint of danger. Troubles were what they had left behind, on the other side of the wall. On this side, all was peaceful, all was harmonious. Especially since Lorna had taken over responsibility for the wall, ensuring that it stayed strong and impenetrable. This far up, near the crest of the ridge with the wall just beyond, Fliss could look out at the other side and keep watch for any threats, although there didn’t appear to be any, not that she could see.
It was over two years since Fliss and Minnie, with help from others, had brought Lorna safely from her Morisette prison in Galp and helped her through the weakening wall so she could take over as guardian from the dying Old One.
With a deep and personal wrench, Fliss remembered another who had been with them then, and had suffered all the dangers they had faced, but who had not survived. Lorna’s twin brother, Kirt. Or Keef, as he came to be known to them. Along with Lorna, he had been the last of the Despiners — the last of the family that had enslaved Fliss and Minnie, both. She should have hated him, but the feelings she had for him at the end, as she saw him die, were far from hatred. And of course, Despiner or not, she could never hate Lorna. But then, unlike Kirt, Lorna had never shown any of that overweening pride in her heritage. She had never truly been a Despiner.
Fliss soon put aside the twinge of unease. After all, it was not as though it should surprise them that something was brewing on the other side. The other side had been seething with turmoil and power plays for years. Whatever it was this time, though, it could not threaten them. Not with the beautiful barrier protecting them, invisible except for the shimmering reflection of the sun’s rays on certain days at certain times.
No, there were really no grounds for her touch of gloom. Perhaps the cause lay within? The lack of someone special in her life, someone like Kirt might have become if he had not died. But there was no use wishing. Besides, she had another mission to undertake that day — a pleasant one that involved a walk of a little over an hour and, she hoped, some well-earned praise at the end of it.
Before Shoo had moved back to her village, she had shown Fliss how to weave on the loom she had constructed and set up in the compound. It was just one of many skills that Shoo had taught her, and Fliss was eager to show the older woman the results of her instruction: a sizeable bolt of fine linen cloth that was ready to be dyed. It was for this reason, as well as to collect supplies, that Fliss set out for the village.
The path was well-trodden, at times threading its way through dense clusters of trees, their canopies providing a cooling shade. Although the path rose and fell, the overall trend was downward, as her destination was near the head of a sheltered and narrow valley.
As she neared the village — pausing at one of her favourite lookout points to take in the patchwork of fields, the partly hidden stream, and the cluster of dwellings around the village common — Fliss was filled, as always, with feelings of gratitude and security and belonging. For although this was not her land, not where she had been born and suffered, it had been her refuge for some time now, and she had learned to love the tranquillity, the daily rhythms, the gentle hospitality of the villagers.
She had been told of other villages further afield, some of them down by the coast; but she had not ventured beyond this one, the village where Shoo now lived, relieved of her burden of caring for the Old One. Not that the older woman had considered it to be a burden. To Shoo, it had been far more like a sacred trust. Now, as Fliss’s steps carried her to the nearest of the cottages, there she was, the matronly figure, hurrying towards her.
‘I hoped you would come today!’ Shoo exclaimed, arms held wide in greeting.
Since she had moved back to the village, the weariness of heavy responsibility had lifted from Shoo. Many of her fifty or so years had seemed to fall away, and a quiet cheerfulness had replaced her habitual caution and solemnity. It was not the village of her birth — that was some distance further west — but she had chosen instead to stay here, closer to Lorna and the compound, and she had been warmly welcomed by the village headwoman, who was an old friend.
‘I’m here partly for supplies,’ Fliss explained, after sharing an embrace, ‘but mainly to talk with you and to see what you think of my attempt at weaving. If you have the time.’
‘I will always have time for you, dear girl! I can’t tell you how much I look forward to your visits — to learn how Lorna fares, and to keep up with news of Minnie and the little one. If you hadn’t appeared today, I might well have walked up to find out for myself.’
With that, Shoo led the way to her little house near the village centre, where the two of them settled comfortably on a window seat that looked out onto the common. Children were playing there, girls and boys together. For all that they were tucked away, news of Fliss’s arrival spread quickly, and the headwoman and other villagers were soon at the door to offer greetings, shy but heartfelt.
‘And what of your news?’ Fliss asked Shoo, once they were alone together once more. ‘The harvest is going well, I can see.’‘Yes, yes. All is as it should be. But there is something new — although really it is little more than gossip.’
‘Talk has been reaching us from another village, one near the coast, of a gifted young man who is spreading a new message of hope.’
Fliss welcomed Shoo’s words. A message of hope delivered by a gifted young man was definitely something to lift the spirits. ‘Tell me more,’ she urged.
‘Well, I don’t know exactly what his message is, but it seems he has many followers.’
‘Is he a villager himself?’
‘Yes, of course. But he claims to be able to listen to the People, the Old Ones. He claims that his message is their message.’
The last of the People, a man known simply as the Old One, had died over two years previously, and Shoo herself had helped prepare him before the headwoman and others from the village had borne his featherlight body in its paper-thin skin to its final resting place. Now it was only Lorna — the New One — who was sufficiently attuned to the People and their ways to be able to feel their wishes and know what they had known. Or some of it. Only Lorna— and perhaps a little of what the People had known had been gifted to her, to Fliss herself. For sometimes she was sure the People communicated with her, unlikely though it seemed. And if the young man from the coast felt the same, then maybe he would understand her.
‘Well, it’s an interesting claim,’ Fliss replied, shaking herself out of her reverie. ‘And if his message encourages people to work together and help one another, then it certainly can’t do any harm.’
‘Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t intend any harm. The opposite, in fact. Those who have heard him call him “Truthmaker”.They say that he talks of things like peace and love.’
‘Truthmaker?’ Fliss liked the sound of that. She let the name echo in her mind.
‘Yes. And they say he is good-looking, too. To hear them say it, you’d think he was some sort of special gift from goodness-knows-where. From the People, perhaps.’
‘Oh well.’ Fliss shrugged dismissively, not wanting to make her interest too obvious. ‘It’s some sort of excitement for those who choose to believe him, I suppose.’ She turned away to look back at the children playing out in the midday sun.
In some ways, this ‘Truthmaker’ sounded like a typical villager. So of course the sort of message he was spreading would be bound to appeal to those on this side of the wall. All of the villagers she had ever met were gentle and welcoming people. But she couldn’t help hoping that he was something more than just that.
Fliss stayed overnight with Shoo, in the bed that was always there waiting for her. Even though it was not far from the compound, she stayed over more often than not when she visited the village.
She woke early, even earlier than usual. Her sleep had been uneasy and disturbed by dreams, but the sound of the birds’ dawn chorus from the forests that flanked the valley eased her mind. They were the same sounds that woke her every morning in the compound — sounds of pleasure at being alive.
Not wanting to disturb Shoo, whose gentle snores were reassuring evidence that she still slept, Fliss eased herself out of bed. She pattered quietly across to the door and opened it carefully, then crossed the common to the rock that gave the village its name. The sun’s light had not yet penetrated the valley, but the rock’s unusual shape meant it was still easily identifiable in the grey and chilly awakening of dawn. Its thick central pillar supported a rounded slab that had been smoothed and weathered by the years. Mushroom Rock.
The large natural formation, patterned with gold flecks and almost the height of two men, had a sturdy wooden ladder carefully placed at one side to make it possible to clamber up and sit or stand on the mushroom’s surface. From there, the view all around was expansive.
Fliss climbed up and watched as the sun coloured the sky and tendrils of mist arose from further down the valley. The chorus of birds, the gradual brightening of the morning, the feeling of peace and safety — these were experiences she never tired of.
It took her a moment or two to register something unusual about the dawning this time. From the northwest, in the direction of the distant sea, came a fleeting flash of red that vanished as quickly as it appeared. So brief was its appearance that she thought she might have imagined it. And yet she had seen something, she was sure. And with that certainty came a shard of inexplicable fear. It was just the sun briefly colouring a smear of clouds, she reassured herself; but that did little to quell a rising feeling of disquiet.
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