After half a mile or so they entered the village of Empty. Once upon a time the community that had grown up around the Castle had lived here, and the village held houses in a variety of different styles. There were black and white sloping houses slowing merging with the earth and each other, and a newer estate in the north with dulled red brick and long dead solar panels that shone flatly in the bright morning sun. All the houses were decrepit in their own ways. Doors hung off hinges after being yanked open in the night. Windows smashed in two decades ago had allowed twisting weeds and vines to take over the bedrooms. Slate tiles had fallen from the roofs when the creatures had roamed over the and there were now gaping open spaces for birds and bats to come in to roost.
Whatever this village had once been called it was ‘Empty’ now, renamed by those in the Castle after the years of scavenging done by scouts like Ishtar. Everyone in the Castle knew that there was nothing good left here, but that did not mean that there was also nothing bad in the village. The scouts in the party knew well enough that the dangers outside the Castle weren’t limited to the newborns. A carelessly placed foot on a rotten floor in a house could lead to a broken leg and a long painful death as help did not come. A scratch from an iron nail could end a life in fever and pain. Even drinking from rainwater in the wrong place could bring painful cramps and delirium.
Memories of Iris’ death still haunted Ishtar, but her friend’s lethal pains had happened suddenly in the Castle, not when she’d been out scouting. Still though, concern for those in the party swamped her. If her death could find her within the safety of their high walls, what could happen to her party out here?
She saw concern written on their faces too. Some, such as the woman with the sun browned skin who wore field workers’ dungarees, would never even have ventured to Empty before. The scouts among the party were vigilant. Freya and Kate for instance had taken up positions in the train where they could watch the empty buildings. But the guards among them were more used to nights watching the skies and covered their eyes against the sun instead of looking for danger. Robin, keeper of electronics and listener in the tower, was completely out of his comfort zone, but seemed perhaps to have learnt a few things from Alexandra. He was watching the shadows, much like the other scouts. Luke was… well, Luke was sitting rigid backed and chin up as though there was nothing to fear at all.
Ishtar turned back to the road between the houses. Up ahead she knew that their path would bend about a park with a pavilion and then wind through those newer houses and cross over a river. She’d been further north than this before and knew how long it would take them to get to a larger road where it would take them four days to get to London. Perhaps, if they did not rest the horses too often. She’d rather keep them as fresh as possible in case they needed their speed for a hasty exit from this ‘London’, but they also knew time was running out.
“You look deep in thought.” Robin had drawn level with her. When they’d first left the Caslte he’d just let Bill follow loyally behind Ishtar on Indigo, but he’d been experimenting a little in the last hour or so with leaning his weight forward to tell Bill when to move up. The mare was more used to Ishtar’s subtle squeezes with her knees, but she was a smart girl and was picking up on the differences between her two riders and their needs.
“Just planning ahead. Empty is a safe enough place to pass through, but once we get beyond the bigger town ten miles from here, then we’ll be in territory I don’t know. Sticking to the big roads could keep us from lots of dangers, but not when night comes and there’s nowhere to hide.” She whispered to him, breathing out her worries.
“Agreed.” He nudged Bill a little closer, “Does it always feel like this? The silence. The deadness?”
He sounded afraid too. He’d barely left the Castle and the areas that had been made accessible for him in the past years. Her life had been very different, but she understood the jarring differences between the Castle and the lands beyond.
“Sometimes after I come back from a scavenging mission the Castle feels just… too loud. Too busy. Like there’s too much life. I have to take time to adjust.”
“Alexandra used to say something like that as well. Its funny that you and her never bothered with partners.” He nodded towards Kate and Freya. “There’s more safety in having someone about to watch your back.” There was a tightness in his voice. Ishtar wondered if he blamed Alexandra’s lack of partner for her disappearance and likely death.
“True. Iris suggested it a few times when we were in training. In the end she went outside the Castle with whoever was keen on going at the time.” Ishtar thought fondly of her friend’s constant annoyance with her. “I guess that she got fed up of waiting for me not to want to go alone! But I’ve always been happier out on my own. This is… weird for me.”
“There’s a lot about this that’s weird. Have you spoken with some of the others who aren’t scouts yet? I’ve gotten to know Lisa a bit better. She’s never been beyond the fields and the harvest there, but she seems tough, capable. She’s got a family back at the Castle but she’s adamant she’s needed in the party. Since the dream and all that.”
“In the dungarees. And I’ve tried to calm Joseph a little. That lad’s never been further away from the Castle than the paddocks where the horses are broken in.”
She looked back to where Joseph was riding alongside Luke, looking up at the guard with adoration as the older man talked on and on about something.
“When we stop for the night I’ll talk with as many as possible.” Ishtar tried not to sound reluctant, but even in the Castle her circle of friends had only ever been Iris, Robin, and a few other scouts she would say little more than a hello to when seeing them in the scout dorm.
“I get it, I do. I’ve never been one for people either I guess.” Robin shrugged. “But if you’re going to lead…”
Ishtar brought memories of Hera to mind. Their leader knew everyone in the Castle. She knew about their children… or their hopes for children. She knew where they would be best put to work and what would make them happiest. She knew people. Ishtar didn’t have that skill. But maybe she would have to learn.
Freya interrupted them with a short whistle. Ishtar called the party to a halt with a scout symbol, holding up a closed fist. Joseph’s horse ambled on a little way but Luke caught the reins from the stable boy’s hands to halt them both. He understood what was going on, perhaps the guards used similar gestures.
Ishtar caught Freya’s eyes and saw how alert they were. The party waited, standing stock still, until the rest of them caught what Freya had smelled first. It came drifting on the breeze towards the rest of them. The dull iron smell of blood.
“Newborns?” Robin whispered, his fear ridding him for a moment of all common sense. The sun was not even at its height yet. Any newborns in Empty, and there hadn’t been any in all the years the scouts had used the village for training, would be hiding and sleeping not feasting. She shook her head silently. There were other predators they would need to be worried about. She placed a gentle hand between Indigo’s ears as the horse whickered nervously.
Then they heard it. A sharp bark to the west answered by another from the north west.
“Dogs?” Robin mouthed, and she shook her head again. They might have been dogs once. But in the twenty-four years since the Awakening the generations of pets left behind had changed. Breeding with wild dogs, and even wolves from the farther north, the packs that roamed the streets now were a major danger.
She gestured the sign to the other scouts among the party. They nodded, they knew what the sound portended. Rifles were slowly slipped from hanging scabbards on their saddles, and their eyes scanned for movement. The other removed the guns that they had been gifted and practised the training that every Castle member got, recently refreshed by sessions at the shooting range under Ishtar’s watchful eye. She knew which of them were a fair shot and which ones could be trusted to at least make a noise loud enough to scare any wild animals. Joseph was one of the latter kind and she noted the sweat beading on his brow. She tried out a comforting smile and a nod and got one back in return.
She gestured to them to circle up, getting close enough on Indigo to share her plan.
“We head north still. They sounded west ways. Maybe we can skirt by them. But if not, I want scouts and guards on the front facing them. Take them down fast and be ready to grab at swords for close attacks. Your horses have trained in combat too, so don’t be surprised if they rear, be ready for it.”
They all nodded, and she led them on, the sound of their horses’ hooves again the only noise in the stillness of Empty.