They did finally make it to the tower and the radio there. Robin had always found purpose in maintaining those fragile messages of hope that could draw in new members to the community. But now he seemed even more determined to do whatever he could for Hera.
As soon as they had both made it up on the hoist Robin moved quickly to the desk in his tower wheelchair and began fiddling with the dials and grumbling about this or that part that he still needed in order to make it stronger. To reach even further. To find even more lost souls.
She had brought him a large measure of his whiskey, and now, curled up nearby in an upholstered armchair watching him berate the machine, she knew that it would likely sit ignored on the coffee table for a while. But she waited patiently for him to do what he needed to do, to fix what could be fixed, just as she had done for all those years before she had begun her training as a scout at his insistence.
Eventually he got the bank of dials humming along to his tune; sending out a repeating message of sanctuary in his own pre-recorded dulcet tones. Only then did he turn back to her and push his chair to the table, grabbing the whiskey. “Cheers.” He said and downed the measure in one go.
“Cheers.” Ishtar echoed, and sipped her own throat burning drink much more carefully.
He poured himself another straight away and tutted at himself as he dripped a spot onto his papers. The entire room was covered as usual by stacks and stacks of his numerous handwritten notes and drawings, but the latest idea always sat on the coffee table, close at hand for when he was watching over the radio into the wee hours. Ishtar picked up the stained sheet, working out the diagram and what it meant.
He grunted and waved dismissively. “Ignore that. That’s just a nonsense.”
She looked closer at it. A saddle, but not like Bill’s. The changes he had drawn would make it possible to ride without using your legs. And there were higher supports for the back and the front, along with buckles to hold someone there firmly.
“Fetch some of that bread and cheese.” He said, and she accepted the order as the distraction he obviously wanted it to be.
Returning from the tall sideboard with the bread and cheese she had to carefully step around many piles of books, notes, and clothes. Robin had never kept this room tidy in all the years that she had known him. Round and only protected from the draughts of the tower by the thick oak doors at the top of the spiral staircase, this was his real home, even though the knights had their own family rooms to themselves in the main buildings of the Castle. This was his place, even if those rooms were far more comfortable than the tower. Near the radio desk he had set up a small cot bed which looked lumpy and full of springs. The only convenience was an old gardrobe hidden behind an inner wall that fed into a pipe heading towards the water weeds of the moat. The upholstered chair, taken from some lower noble or handmaid’s quarters at some point, had been a big compromise by Robin, only added when he’d gotten sick of her hovering outside the door to listen to the radio and finally invited her in. The coffee table was battered and unloved.
His only other alteration to the round room was the widening of one of the old arched windows and the addition of the hoist and the landing stage that led into the room, where he could leave the tower wheelchair for his next visit whenever he winched himself back down to the courtyard. That was closed over by a new set of wooden doors made from some old crates that kept most of the winter winds out and a lot of the day’s sunlight.
Ishtar ate the bread with a thick slab of the cheese on it, swiftly cutting away the mould growing on one part of it and throwing down on her cracked plate. She watched him pour himself another shot and then finished her own.
“I ain’t talking about it.”
“Come on Robin!” She sighed exasperated. “You never want to!”
“I don’t gossip.”
“Bollocks.” She grinned as she used the pre-Awakening word he’d accidentally taught her along while ago. “You always gossip. You always know what’s going on in the Castle before anyone else.”
“Well… I don’t gossip about Hera.”
“Do you think that she’s really dying?” She felt tears prickling the corner of her eyes and blinked them away.
“Lass.” He said gently. “Will talking about it really help any?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Just tell me that it will be okay.”
“It’ll be okay.” He didn’t sound convinced of it himself. “The shield failing… I don’t know. She was right though, I do find myself thinking of this as a problem to solve. Doesn’t mean she’s right that I can’t do it though.”
He drank deeply again and instantly refilled his cup. She hadn’t seen him so determined on drinking in a long time. Anniversaries usually did it. Of the Awakening. Yearly when the snowdrops bloomed at the edge of the moat and he was reminded of Alexandra’s disappearance. She fidgeted with the gorget. It fit very well but it felt wrong to wear it.
“You don’t like it?”
“Should I be wearing it?” It had been in his bag. He hadn’t known she would need a spare. So had he always carried it in there?
“No one else is bloody using it.” His head hung down, the long strands of his dark hair falling over his face and obscuring his eyes.
She nodded and finished her whiskey. “Perhaps I should go. It’s been a crazy twenty-four hours or so.”
She went to stand.
“Stay.” He said quietly.
“Are you going to keep on drinking?”
“Likely.” He looked up and smirked at her. “But let’s talk of better days and better things.”
The newborns had gotten into the Castle past the Shield. Hera was dying. And Ishtar was wearing Alexandra’s gorget. He must have made it for her as a special gift, and then one day she just hadn’t returned from scouting. Ishtar didn’t feel like she could be a merry drunk this evening.
“Please.” He asked, looking up at her with desperation in his dark eyes.
She nodded and sat back down on her chair, curling her legs under her again.
“Faith!” He exclaimed. “Could you believe that beast?! Twenty feet of winged poison and you and the Castle guard just charge at it, blades hissing and spitting with Faith! Man, that was a bloody sight to see!”
She laughed despite herself and in her amusement she brought up her hand to allow a spark or so of Faith to dance across her fingers. “I think that was mostly Ethan’s victory. Him and his guards.” The sparks died quickly. She was exhausted and depleted. “I have barely enough in me to light a candle most days.”
Robin watched the brief path of the lights across her fingertips and palm. “Aye, but you boosted the power to your radio to make contact. There’s many about the Castle who couldn’t even have done that. Myself included.”
“What’s it like, not having Faith?”
He laughed a little. “The word meant something a little different… or maybe just a little less… before the Ancients woke up. I’ve always had faith, Ish. I had faith in my wife. In the Castle and what it could be. In Hera. But it never worked the same way for me as it does for you and the others born after it happened. I don’t miss it though. You can’t miss something that you’ve never had. I wasn’t born into this world, I remember what it was like before even if I was just a kid back then. Do you miss the world from before?”
She smiled, “I think I would have like to have seen some of it. Tell me again about cars.”
He groaned. “Not again.”
“You could probably fix one though, couldn’t you? One of the ones from the road that isn’t too broken?”
“Possibly, but why would you want one of those bloody hulks of fuel burning crap? Bill’s a much more environmentally friendly option. He only eats grass and not petrol!”
“‘Environmentally friendly’?” She looked puzzled.
“Don’t worry about it. All that ended with the return of the Ancients anyway. Not enough humans left to bother our Mother Earth anymore.” His words were slurring now, and she noted how little of the amber whiskey was left in the bottle. “But once upon I actually thought I might come up with some kind of great fix for that too. I was going to save the world with science! Least that’s what I always told Mr Hawkins. Arrogant little gobshite wasn’t I?!”
She sat forward, always keen to hear more stories of the legendary ‘Mr Hawkins’. “And what did he say?”
“He encouraged me of course. Sat and listened to all my dumb ideas about nets to catch all the plastic and anti-carbon nano whatsits. On the coach ride to the Castle he listened to me bend his ear the whole damn way!” He chuckled.
She watched him warming up to his story. The bus, heading to the Castle from their ‘school’, had carried him, Alexandra, Mr Hawkins and so many others. She loved to hear about their bickering and play-fighting as they wandered about the Castle, back when it wasn’t the home to a couple of hundred survivors. Back when the gift shop wasn’t the infirmary. And back when they hadn’t had to watch the sky with fear, keeping an eye out for when the sun began to set.
She loved to hear about Mr Hawkins, who she only had the vaguest of memories of as some old man muttering to himself as he walked the corridors and halls of the Castle. The ‘mad scientist’ Robin liked to call him, with affection. The biology teacher who had tried to apply his science to the newborn. Who had only ended up on a coach trip to a castle because Miss Anders the history teacher’d had flu that day. What had happened to Miss Anders, Ishtar wondered? How easily one fate was exchanged for another.
“I have all his notebooks here… somewhere”. He turned his wheelchair to start looking, much too quickly, and knocked the coffee table, making the bottle of whiskey teeter and wobble. Ishtar grabbed it quickly and picked it up.
“Don’t mind if I do!” He said and held out his cup again.
“Maybe that’s enough for tonight?”
“Nope.” He said firmly and raised the cup and his eyebrow to her.
She reluctantly filled it again.
“To Mr Hawkins, the daft old mad scientist!” He raised his cup for her to clink hers against. She filled it quickly and did it.
“To Mr Hawkins.” She drank quickly, feeling the whiskey beginning to pool uncomfortably in her stomach. She hissed at the strength of the drink.
“To all those who passed in the night, and all those who don’t wake with the next!”
“To the silent dead.” She agreed.
“To Alexandra, wherever she may be!”
She placed a hand on his cup as he tried to refill again. “To those who are still here.” She said, trying to bring him back to the present and back to happier thoughts.
He frowned at her and sloppily pushed his scruffy hair back, before spitting out another toast. “To Iris!”
She pulled her hand back as though burnt. But she went through with the toast. “To Iris. My friend.”
“To friends and lovers!”
This time she did stand and move away from him. “It wasn’t… we weren’t like that.”
“Nothing wrong with it.” He said gruffly, “You might have not have noticed, but there are rather more women here than men. Even if you count the half men!” He pounded a fist into an unfeeling leg.
“You should get to bed.”
He paused, and she could see witty, or perhaps hurtful, responses forming in his drink addled mind and almost making it to the tip of his tongue. But instead he merely nodded. “Aye. You’re right. I am tired.”
She didn’t offer him any help, but instead set about tidying his spilled papers as he lifted himself from his chair and onto the cot bed, not even bothering to undress. He sat there and watched her for a moment, seeing her moving about on her damaged leg. “Stay here tonight. On the chair, like you used to.”
She looked back at her chair. “I think that chair might still look comfortable if I was as deep in my cups as you!”
“Well, drink up then!” He leant back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. She sat and followed his suggestion and let the alcohol flood her veins and wrap her in its warm embrace. Lifting her legs carefully she rested them on the table, finding the least uncomfortable way to rest in the chair.
“You warm enough?”
“I’m fine.” What would he do if she said she wasn’t? Offer to share his blankets? Two could barely fit on the cot bed. But the memory of his hands about her waist for that brief moment haunted her.
She was dreaming. She hoped that she was dreaming.
There were screeches of rage echoing down a long corridor, windows on one side showing her moving water and reflecting the slight moonlight. Big dark shapes loomed over the water, castles shaped without turrets or parapets into thick sharply cornered blocks, shiny and sleek on their sides. They watched eyeless as she ran, faster and faster from the blood craving beasts chasing her.
Chasing her? No, they were after the one running ahead of her. A slight thing, hair pale in the darkness, her scrawny arms and legs pumping hard as they took her away from the mess of newborns tumbling and crawling towards her. A child. Younger than Ishtar had been when she and her mother had finally discovered the Castle. Too small to be alone.
She had no weapons so she lit Faith in the darkness, summoning it into her palm to flare and warn them back. It was a brief spark in the black, enough to highlight their stretched and bloody faces. Not enough to stop them.
The girl screamed behind her, a sound of exhaustion and frustration. Ish turned to see her pounding her small fists against a door at the furthest end of the corridor. The girl shook and pushed and shoved, and still it wouldn’t open.
“Faith!” Ish shouted, only for her exclamation to be swallowed up in the roar of a tumult of Faith barrelling down the corridor, over and through her. The wave crashed into the newborns and they burnt up, screeching even louder as fire raged across and into their bodies, bursting out from their dread maws and their eye sockets until they collapsed into cinders and ash. The image flashed and shook, replaced for a moment by a familiar place in the Castle, and then coming back.
Ishtar woke with a start, sweat beading her brow and her back complaining from sleeping sat in the chair. “Faith!” She muttered in a hoarse breath.
“Ish?” asked Robin, and she looked over to where the man was sitting up on his cotbed, using the bricks of the tower to support his shaken body as he cleared bleary eyes. “Ish?” He said again, his voice trembling. “I had a dream…”
“Me too!” She said, her voice breaking as she forced her words out. “A girl. Full of Faith like a fire. Taking out newborns. And I thought I saw…”
“The well. The Castle’s well.”
“What does it mean? We can’t both have the same dream!” She squinted at the door covering the hoist’s platform, making out slight beams of morning light coming through gaps at its edges. “The sun’s up.”
“We need to go to the well. I have no idea what happened, but I know we need to go there.”
She nodded, and they set about getting down from the tower by the hoist. From the bottom of the tower the well wasn’t far, just across the courtyard, through a few archways and into a round space near the middle of the Castle where the entrance to its cool, dark space was closed by an iron gate. It had been padlocked in the past, to prevent tourists from exploring and falling in, but not long after the Awakening the school boy Robin had worked with others on the original project to get it into working order again. Fed by the same waterway as the moat the water you could draw from it was brackish but healthy enough, and when the taps had failed in the aftermath of the Awakening it had kept the terrified survivors from dying of thirst. There was usually one or two people visiting the well for water to wash or cook, but this morning Ishtar and Robin were surprised to see a small crowd o of women and one or two men gathering there, nervously talking to each other in hushed voices. They added themselves to their number, and still more people arrived after them. Ishtar nodded at the scouts Freya and Kate who she knew well.
“You have a sudden need for a drink too, Ish?” Asked Freya in fake light-heartedness. They had done their scout training together, and Ishtar knew her well enough to know when she was genuinely scared. As she had been on their first missions out from the Castle. Kate hugged her close. The slightly older woman was her Hera blessed wife, and an Awakening survivor who’d made it to the Castle before Ishtar. Like Robin and the others from that time, she had no Faith of her own, but the two of them made a good scouting team, their love keeping their eyes open to danger for each other.
“You have the dream too?” She asked, amazed that this was happening.
“We both did. Hi Robin. I guess this isn’t just for those with Faith.” Said Kate, smiling at him, but looking pale and shaken. “Who do you think she is?”
“I don’t know. But what she did to those newborn… We have to tell Hera.”
“Well now’s your chance.” Noted Freya, nodding towards where Hera was walking towards them, supported by her dearest companions and carers.
“Faith!” Ishtar breathed, “Should she be up out of bed?”
Silence fell on the crowd as Hera joined them. She spoke with a clear voice, one diminished by her illness but still rich with the power that she’d brought to the Castle.
“I dreamt of a girl last night. A girl who could defeat newborns just with her Faith. More Faith than I have ever seen before. I assume you all dreamt of her, and of the well too?”
There were nods and words of agreement from the group.
“What does it mean?” Asked Robin, the only knight among them all and the only one used to speaking directly to Hera herself.
Hera sighed, and Ishtar was reminded again of how close they were to losing her.
“It means that we have to find her. And you are the ones to do it.” She looked at each of them. “I see scouts and guards. Warriors with experience of fighting newborns. Those who know how to live beyond the walls of our Castle.”
“And me.” Robin said in a low voice, but it caught Hera’s ears.
“I can only assume there is a need for you. I dreamt of office blocks over water. Did you recognise them, Robin?”
He grimaced. “I think I did. But we can’t go there.”
Hera nodded. “But we must. And you know the way?”
“We can’t go there!”
Hera smiled warmly at her knight. “It’s okay to be afraid.”
Ishtar half expected him to deny it, but he just sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “Aye I’m afraid. But I’m not just scared for me! Look about you Hera, these are your finest fighters and your most Faithful. The Castle might never recover from their loss!”
Hera looked from him, and caught her eyes, holding them steady with her grey ones. “You, scout Ishtar, what do you think we should do?”
The crowd looked to her and she felt her mouth dry up. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “My Faith is small Hera. But I’ve always given it in service of our people. If you ask it of me, I will find this girl and bring her safe back here.”
The others about her nodded and raised spears and swords in agreement.
“And if I don’t ask you? What if I let you make the decision for yourself?”
Ishtar caught Robin’s stricken glance and then steeled her courage. “I will go. Because I am called to.”
This time the agreement from the others was greater.
Ishtar did a quick count of heads. There were only eleven of them.
“Only eleven, good Faith!” breathed Robin, who must have been making the same calculation. “And one of them in a damned wheelchair!” He added grimly, before exhaling and muttering mostly to himself. “Bloody hell, we’re going to London.”