Ishtar watched the muscular woman as she crinkled the papers in her hands and hissed through her teeth. She knew this was just how Smith’s liked to tease the denizens of the Castle, but time was running out and she didn’t have others’ patience for this kind of show.
“Well?!” She snapped.
Smith looked down at her. Smiths were initially chosen for their size and muscle, but the training at the forge made them larger still. Ishtar refused to be dominated though. Her mission was more important than Smith’s self-importance.
“What have you got to trade?”
Ishtar pulled items from her pockets. Knick knacks. Trifles of no real worth in a world where seeds and medicines were holding them on to life. A silver banded watch. A pack of playing cards held by an elastic band. A china dog. A romance novel with frayed pages. A hairbrush.
Smith pushed her hands through her short hand and just laughed at the hairbrush. But she pocketed the rest.
“Need materials too.” She shrugged. That wasn’t blackmail, just a fact.
“I brought back leather a few trips ago. Some metals too.”
“All gone. And I need a saddle to start from. Can’t build from scratch on this. Would take too long.”
Ishtar nodded. “Isis’s saddle…”
“You got permission for that? I’m sure some new scout’s going to need it!”
Ishtar brought out another piece of paper. Hera’s handwriting was familiar to all of them and Smith just nodded as she read it. “Anything you need. You know you could have shown me this before I took all your treasures.”
“Sure, but then you’d have felt hard done by and done a shoddy job.”
She ducked as Smith’s large hand swung towards her and dodged back, laughing. The older woman smiled wryly. “Bloody scouts. You always have to risk your damn lives.”
“And if we didn’t where would you get your trinkets from?”
She took Smith’s chuckle as meaning that the deal was done, and they spat on palms to seal it.
Taking her leave of her, Ishtar walked a meandering course through the Castle, thinking on plans and paths northwards as the Castle went about its day. In the bright afternoon sun most were working in the new fields shaped from the old flower gardens, but some remained inside to fix what damage the incursion the other night had done to the Castle’s shutters and gates. The few guards that had been drained had been beheaded and buried out by the orchard where some still planted the old symbol of the cross on top of the dead. There was no Faith resting with the burials there, they kept it all for the Castle, but Ishtar knew that if they had any chance of heading north into the old city of London then they’d need to get sanctuary in the few spots where Faith still seeped from the soil. She detoured to the Castle library where the books that had survived the first winter were still kept.
She was pouring over spiral bound maps of old roads when Robin coughed to let her know of his presence. He was around a corner, another map in his own hands.
“Same idea?” She asked.
“We can’t just head north. We need places to stop.”
She nodded. “I know a few spots of Faith going that way, but I’ve never gone that far.”
“You’ve had other tricks as well?”
She thought back to the claustrophobic darkness of her grave. It was a last-minute solution and not a favourite of hers. And Robin… he wasn’t Castle born but he was Castle bound. No scouting trip would have ever offered him a place with them. He never worked the fields even though he worked his magic on the electricals of the Castle. How would he cope with lying in the dark under soil, trying to slow his heartbeat before the newborns came to stop it forever?
“A few. But Faith might be our only hope.” She brought over the map and pointed out the small symbols. “Here, here, and here. The sign of the cross. Churches. If they have faith within them we can re-activate-”
“Do you ever notice how the old faith is just ‘faith’ and our power is ‘Faith’.” The difference in the word was clear.
“Hera’s shown us a new power. I’m not even sure it existed before the Ancients.” She looked into his serious eyes with a question in hers.
“Oh, I don’t know. There were plenty who thought they had the power. What happened to them during the Awakening, I don’t know. Plenty more who thought it was all BS-”
“Ah.” She nodded thoughtfully. “I kind of get it, but isn’t BS useful? We use it a lot in the gardens.”
She perched on the arm of a chair near him, hoping to get him chatting about the world before. She enjoyed hearing about the pre-Awakening world, especially as Robin described it.
“Do we have time for a story?” He asked. She noticed now the tense lines about those serious eyes. Had he been sleeping? Hera was sick but still working. The shield hadn’t failed last night or the night before, and even if it did they were prepared now with larger night guards made up of the most Faithful. Ishtar was even called upon to add her blade and rifle to the effort, even if her Faith was small.
“Maybe its good to know what we face when we go north?”
He laughed, running a finger over the roads that would take them there. “London now is a very different place to the one I remember. Although it will likely be no better for wheels than it was back then. God, so many accessibility problems. And now with added fun of hundreds of thousands of newborns!” He smiled ruefully at her.
“The girl… where was she?”
“My best guess is somewhere near Canary Wharf. A financial district.”
He saw her confusion. “Financial, all about making money. I recognised the shape of the buildings. Our school was not far from there and once we visited the Dome and I saw the silhouette of them against the sky.”
He saw her about to ask the question. “The Dome… a big round tent thing. It doesn’t matter.”
But she was entranced by even the smallest memories he shared with her.
“Did your mother ever say where she was from?”
“I don’t remember much about her.” She knew she sounded curt, but tension was tightening her muscles as memories were pushed away.
“But you were… what, ten, when you got here?” He sighed and flipped to the front of the road map where a picture showed the whole of the country and its divisions into pages. “Any idea where you came from?”
“Does it matter?” She shrugged, trying to ease her shoulders with the movement as well. “Ended up at the Castle that’s all that matters.”
Robin nodded, leaving the topic alone finally. “Are you heading to dinner?”
“Are you?” Robin didn’t always eat with the rest of the Castle so she was surprised that he was asking.
“Sure. Why not.”
She tried not to read anything into his new sociability and walked with him to the great hall where those on catering duty were dolling out a minestrone soup and some coarse granary loaves to the community. Ishtar smiled at familiar faces. There was Freya and Kate who obviously always sat together. A bunch of scouts she dormed with. Guards on shift breaks. Numerous families with squabbling kids spilling soup and grabbing at remaining loaves.
“Are you sure you wanted to eat here?” She asked Robin over the noise.
“If I’m going to go outside the walls, I better know what’s inside them that I want to protect.” He said lightly, but she thought he meant it.
There were only a few men in the Castle who’d lived through the Awakening, just because the Ancients had dismissed their worth based on their physical differences. Ethan, who she spotted with his squad of guards, gesturing quickly as he chatted with them using his fingers. Another few guardsmen who had adapted to lost limbs in a previous war and wore prosthetics older than Ishtar. Baxter who had something called Down’s which made him look somewhat different but who was one of the gentlest people she had ever known. Hera’s partner Chris, father to Luke, who had been blinded as a child by some disease called meningitis. Others she knew by sight, men who’d founded families here and helped to create new boys who’d grow up knowing that the Castle kept them safe from being newborns because their limbs were whole and the Ancients wanted them for their endless army of blood drinkers. She looked at one man playing with a toddler on his knee. Steve? Steve? He was much older than Robin with grey hair and an oddly dropping face, just on one side, as though something had hit him there once.
She and Robin took their supper and found a place on a long table that was unclean but further away from the louder conversations. Robin caught her staring at the older man with the child on his lap.
“You want kids, one day?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” She looked back at him, not sure if she should ask the same of him or whether it would be too personal a question.
“Alexandra and I did. Some day. You should never wait for ‘some day’, Ish. It never comes if you’re not careful.” He slapped the metal rim of the wheel of his chair. “Of course, I was worried that this would get in the way. And now I know I was an idiot.” He nodded at the grey-haired man. “Having a stroke at forty something didn’t stop Steve. He’s onto something like his seventh kid now. Repopulating the world all on his own, that one.”
She looked over at him and saw the various women sat with him, each with their own set of children, many of them looking like their father.
“I don’t know if I’d want to share… I mean if I really loved someone.”
Robin looked up from his soup. “Yeah, we had that discussion too. About how I should ‘do my duty’ and help out some of the other ladies of the Castle. It was a bloody short conversation. I didn’t want to, and Alexandra definitely didn’t want me to.” He laughed.
“And now that she’s dead?” The words were out of her mouth before she’d thought about how they might be taken or how they might be insensitive. “Oh Faith! Sorry that was stupid!”
She hoped for an interruption, but none came. Robin just kept calmly eating his dinner, his eyes lowered.
“And now that’s she’s… gone? Well, guess I don’t think about that kind of stuff all that often. And I won’t need to if we’re heading into the lion’s den like damned fools to save someone we saw in a dream.” He did finally meet her eyes, and she nodded.
“Same I guess.” She mumbled and filled her mouth with bread so that she didn’t need to speak on it. But Robin pulled at her leg.
“Saw Luke giving you the eye though.”
She nearly spat out the bread, “Luke?!”
“Why not. You’re about the same age. He’s attractive if you like six foot something muscular men with long flowing hair and cheekbones you could cut cheese on.”
“Faith, Robin!” The idea was ridiculous. Luke was arrogant, and self-important, and cold to anyone he didn’t respect. Yes, thinking on it, maybe he had made his interest obvious in the past. But she could never feel the same way, no matter what he could use his cheekbones for!
A unbidden memory, Robin’s hands about her waist, flowed into her mind again and she fought the reddening of her cheeks.
“Ah, so he does interest you.” Robin said, oddly flatly.
She was cut off by the ringing of the chapel bells and the summoning to share in Faith and summon the Shield about the Castle. The two of them joined the flow of people heading that way, after returning their bowls and thanking the staff. By the time they got outside her cheeks were pale again, but Robin was already pushing ahead into the crowd, away from her.