Sweat and white foam slathered Bill’s brown flanks as Ishtar pushed the mare hard, the horse’s shoes setting off sparks on the road home as the red sun crept ever lower. Sweat also matted loose strands of hair fallen from Ishtar’s elaborate braid against her forehead, but what was free whipped about her face as she held herself low and tight against Bill’s back.
“Faith!” Ishtar exclaimed. The sun was just unbeatable! Twilight was coming in quickly and with it the darkness. The Castle was still just too damned far away!
Pulling Bill to a stop, she stood up in her stirrups and looked about for options. Hunting for provisions in Knockwood had taken her further south than she’d planned, but Evenfield had been scavenged bare already. And Iris had needed the medicine. Still needed the medicine, Ishtar prayed briefly.
She shrugged the long rifle on her back into a more comfortable position as she adjusted her gorget and scanned the way ahead through squinting blue eyes. The rusted dead hulks on the road were familiar, even when coloured over with the red and shadows of the ending day. She knew that she was still was a good three hours hard ride from the Castle. But she was only a short way from one of her hiding places.
“Yah!” She pushed Bill into another gallop, the loyal horse only huffing ever so briefly as it complied. Like the wind they weaved their way through the long abandoned cars and lorries, leaping a barrier and then charging into a field alongside the twin grey lines of road. Mud splattered behind them as Bill raced the course towards a small copse atop a slight hill, the sky framing its dark trees with blood red clouds.
Time was short, but Ishtar still found a moment to free her friend from her saddle, bags, and reins, and to rub her over quickly with nearby moss and leaves, drying off the sweat on Bill as she stood and shook with exhaustion. Then Ishtar was quickly pulling the plastic tubing from her pack, stepping into a dank hole she’d dug months ago, and pulling the mounds of dirt and mulch over the top of her as best she could. Bill also nudged at the mound of dirt by the side of the hole with her nose, just as Ishtar had trained her to do. Fighting against the rising horror of being buried alive, she took deeper and deeper breaths through the tube and concentrated on slowing her heart beat until she reached a midway state somewhere between awake and asleep. It wasn’t comfortable, but the alternative was far, far worse.
It was only when she was as covered as she as could be in the shallow grave that she remembered that she hadn’t turned off her radio. She tried to convince herself that she was way too far from the Castle for a signal to even get through, but the niggling worry about it kept her from falling fully into sleep as she had managed the other times she had had to use one of her grave sanctuaries on the road. Please Robin, she urged with her mind, please don’t worry and try to call me. Please!
Hours passed, and the chill of night crept through the layer off dirt on top of her telling her that the faithful sun was finally gone below the horizon. Through the soil she could feel the nearby low vibration of Bill’s hooves on the ground as the beast kept watch over her friend. But the scent of the mare would be of no interest to those who lived by night.
She could only pray that the shallow grave would keep her much sweeter scent from them.
Ishtar must have slept eventually, because suddenly the blood freezing snickering of newborns woke her. There was a fateful second when her muscles nearly leapt into action to grab her rifle before she was reminded of where she was by the weight of the soil on her body. Still, be still! Keep calm! she urged herself.
From the guttural cackling sound above her that the newborns were making she judged that they were making they were quickly passing over her hiding place, flying northwards. Perhaps even heading for the Castle. Ishtar smiled a little, trying not to shift her aching body as she did. They’d find no good pickings there only gunfire and Faith!
But then just moments after the cackling of her enemies somewhere above her was silenced another noise began. It was the crackle of her radio at her hip!
Faith! Ishtar tried to subtly move her hand under the weight of the soil to try to flip the off switch. But the movement could only have confirmed a newborn’s suspicions about the source of the noise.
“Ish-” Robin’s worried voice briefly came through the whining white noise of the static, but he was cut off as a pale bony hand burst through the soil and curled around her wrist, painfully vice-like. She was dragged up and out from the grave and yanked near twenty feet into the air by her arm, the radio falling below her to the floor of the wood and sending Bill charging off in panic. The newborn that had her screeched into her face and immediately tried to rip into her jugular with its rapidly extending fangs. They clashed with the steel gorget surrounding her delicate throat and sparks flew as the creature wailed and screamed. Ishtar felt its grip on her weaken as the blessing pained it and she prepared herself for the heart stopping drop if it let her go, comforted only by the thought that she had managed to hurt at least once with her people’s Faith before she died.
But it managed to hold on to her, pushing its white and red leathery wings harder and harder to keep the two of them in the air and making a strange retching noise as the damage from the blessed gorget made it sicken and descend any way. Ishtar thought that it must have fallen far behind the others of its Wing, because no other newborns came to tear the ‘treat’ from its grasp and take advantage of its wounding. It screeched in her face again and Ishtar held her breath against its fetid stink even as she reached into her boot for her hunting knife. That was blessed as well, and her people’s Faith poured into the creature’s heart as she plunged it deep into the foul thing’s thin and wretched body.
Falling was inevitable and she almost welcomed it as in triumph she saw the last bits of un-life flee from the beast’s red eyes as the two of them tumbled in a mess of wings and limbs to the floor of the copse. The impact knocked her into a dark sleep.
The faithful sun woke her eventually, buried this time not in soil and leaves but under the dead body of the newborn, its broken wings sheltering her almost as though it had wanted to protect her. And it had. The smell of the newborn’s decrepit body and the dark blood splashed over her had kept her safe from any other newborns for the night. And now the sun was up it was beginning to crumble and fall apart on top her, leaving her anointed with pale ash along with the dirt and blood.
She pushed its powdery remains aside and stood up, cursing as a shooting pain told her she’d jarred something badly in her leg. But she was alive.
Bill was back and nosing about the packs and her rifle for extra feed as though last night had not been a horrific nightmare and as close to death as her friend had been in a long time.
Ishtar spotted her small black radio not far off from the remains of the shallow grave. Thankfully it had not fallen from that high and still seemed to be in working order when she tried turning it on. The range to the Castle still made it hard for her to hear what the tired sounding Robin was trying to say to her.
“Ish-… Ish-… come… in? Can you hear…”
She closed her eyes and delved into the small well of Faith that she carried within her, thinking of the community at the Castle. Of Hera and her faithful warmth. Of Robin… and of others. Of Iris and her fever, of how she needed her to return as soon as she could with the medicine. She pushed that Faith into the radio and the sudden burst of power strengthened the signal. An old trick she’d learnt working with Robin, before…
“Ishtar! Come in! Ishtar, we haven’t heard from you in a day. Ishtar? Come in, Ishtar!”
The effect of her own small Faith wouldn’t last long. “Robin, listen, I’m here. I am coming back from Knockwood along the old double road way. Heading North. Had to stop overnight in a grave. Had a run in with a newborn but still with Bill and will be back today. Robin, do you hear? Over.”
There was a relieved sigh before Robin quickly answered. “Yes, I… we hear. Good to hear your voice Ishtar. You boosted the signal? Over.”
“Yes, and I don’t have long. Don’t ask Hera to help at your end. She has enough to do. I’ll just get back as soon as I can. I have the medicine for Iris. Over.”
Robin was silent for a moment and ice flooded Ishtar’s veins as she realised why.
“Oh Ish, she passed. She’s gone.”
A sob escaped from her, but the sound was swallowed by the whine and screech of the radio as the signal went back to coming and going, filled with white noise and static.
Ishtar and Bill were welcomed by the workers in the gardens long ago turned into fields surrounding the Castle, but she had no heart for their admiration. She waved faintly to cheering children sitting on the top of wooden fences while their mothers paused in their labours to smile at the returning hero. But she didn’t feel like a hero. She’d failed Iris, and the pain in her belly and the fever in her head had taken her sweetest friend away from her.
The gates to the Castle were wide open with only a small group of guards standing casually by the shattered glass of a freestanding cubicle that stood just inside the great gate, advertising tickets no one needed any more. That gate was on the other side of a wide drawbridge over an empty moat full of weeds, in bloom with the height of Summer and the blessed short nights. On the other side Ishtar recognised Artemis, the captain of the guard among the guards and nodded her head to her in recognition. She saw the older woman take in the dirt and newborn blood all over her and share commands with the rest of the group. One of them put aside their poleaxe and ran across the courtyard, most likely bearing the message of Ishtar’s return to one of Hera’s knights.
She stopped Bill by the stables and waited there, her head hanging down, too exhausted to even ask for help. Eventually she felt soft hands encouraging her to slide from the saddle and supporting her as she limped across the grass and cobblestones towards the inner courtyard and the infirmary. Others brought her packs with their supplies and the damned far too late medicine to where they would be stored.
In the inner part of the Castle she was gently washed, dressed and bandaged, her cuts examined. Her sprained ankle was placed on an extra cushion as they helped her onto a clean bed in the infirmary in the old gift shop, its wooden swords and tiny toy trebuchets long gone. She asked for time to rest and they left her there, but she didn’t sleep, she only stared at the ceiling and remembered Iris.
The squeak of his wheels on the smooth floor of the infirmary told her that Robin was there. Always knowing what was going on in the Castle seemed to be one of his talents.
“The newborn didn’t get to kill you so you want your guilt to do it instead?”
“Fuck off Robin!”
“Nice to see you too, Ish. Iris would bloody well beat you black and blue in the practice yard if she could see you now.”
“Fuck off Robin” this time the words came out with sobs.
He pushed his wheelchair closer to the side of the bed and she forced herself to look over at him, even as her tears threatened to blind her. He was looking at her with compassion in his deep brown eyes, and for just a second she allowed herself to remember the harvest festival last autumn. The few moments when she’d been sat on his lap and barely inches away from the soft depths of those eyes… and his lips. It was a moment she’d buried away as soon as the same hands that had gently caught her when she’d stumbled had then helped her to stand again. Helped her to move away from him. She replaced the memory with thoughts of Iris, her sister in all but blood, who she’d sparred with and learnt with and who was now gone because she’d not made it back in time with the damn antibiotics!
“Faith Ishtar!” Robin snapped, catching the shadows in her eyes. “She didn’t die because of you! You know that we had several scouts out looking. Freya and Kate both got back with penicillin from a small town in the North. It made no difference! She was too far gone!” Hera’s knight took a hold of her nearest hand and looked at her earnestly. “You did what you could. Faith! You even fought with a newborn and won!”
She looked at his serious face, taking in the few days growth of stubble and the deeper lines at the corner of his warm eyes. “You look like crap.”
“Well, someone had to stay on the radio and see if a signal could get through to our most reckless scout!”
“If only you’d have let me stay on radio duty…” She began and immediately regretted it. It was an old argument and one not worth bringing back up. Long before the harvest festival, and that moment when she’d thought they might kiss, they had been close companions. Robin, the older man who remembered the time before the Ancients, had taught the curious young woman all about how the radio worked, a bit of tech from his era, and letting her try out her nascent Faith on it to boost the signal. But then he’d encouraged her into scout training because ‘only a bloody cripple should be stuck inside a Castle tower day in and day out.’ It was a horrible word and one she would never have used about him, but the Ancients had scarred him in ways she was only starting to understand as she grew older and, maybe, wiser. But he had ended their partnership with Hera’s blessing.
“And cost the Castle and its people their best scout?”
“I thought I was the Castle’s ‘most reckless scout’?”
“Aye, well maybe y’are both.” Robin had a touch of an accent from the times before the Ancients. Scottish he’d called it once. And it always came on more strongly in the times when she had caught off guard. ‘Gentle, lass’, he’d said to her as he’d caught her when she’d stumbled in the dance, his two large hands about her waist and her fine dress, and his breath rich and dark from his own home made whiskey. ‘Gentle, lass’ as he’d gently helped her to sit down on his lap and be close. Before he’d chosen to bid her stand again!
Faith! That memory was strong today! She almost wished she and Bill were fit enough to be back on the road, rifle on her back and the Castle far behind them, just so that she could distract herself from thinking about him.
“Hera’s going to want to see you at the sun down ceremony. If you’re up to it?”
“Of course. Our Faith got me back in touch with you… with the Castle. I’ll be there.”
Robin nodded and twisted the outer rim of his wheels to turn him away from her and then pushed himself from the infirmary room. She let her arm fall against her forehead, remembering how hot Iris’ head had been before she’d left. Ish?, she’d asked in a voice weaker than Ishtar’s heart could bear, Ish, promise me you’ll talk to him. Promise me!
He’s a knight, she’d replied. It isn’t up to me.
And Iris had just laughed.
The sun down ceremony was as beautiful as ever. But with Iris’ name added to the litany of loss that the choir were singing, it was the most painful Ishtar had attended. It began with the bell ringing, calling all the community into the Castle as the outer gates were closed. And then the community shared their Faith, had it shaped by Hera, glorious in her plain white gown and the golden light of sunset, as she told the story of the return of the Ancients and how the few had been left behind. The women, the young, the men with disabilities and diseases. In the Ancients’ eyes, the weak and the crippled. Those who weren’t a danger. Those they could live off and control. But they had not reckoned on their Faith.
As Hera told the story, her eyes gleaming as she stirred the community in the chapel into greater and greater connection, Ishtar felt her own small Faith stir and join with the others. Older ones, the ones who knew the story as a memory, who had lived it, did not have this power. Those like Robin could only sit there as the children of the Return of the Ancients joined in protecting the Castle, surrounding it with the shield of their Faith. Hera, older than them but special, was the focus and the shaper. Her words, her voice, fanned the flames of the power and made the shield come to life. One small old woman, grey of hair and in her sunset days was the most powerful of them all.
Ishtar saw tears in the eyes of those old enough to understand the power and fragility of the community. The children laughed and clapped as the air changed with the blossoming of the shield. It was a fun game for little ones who used their Faith to make their wooden toys charge into each other or dance a jig. For scouts and knights it was the power to survive an encounter with a newborn.
“Go in peace.” Hera said finally, a blessing for them all as her entourage of helpers in their black robes helped her back to her chambers, putting their Faith to work to help her aging body.
Ishtar saw Robin watching as closely as she was and moved nearer him.
“I hear Artemis might be made a knight soon.” Robin began, and Ishtar frowned at him for changing what she thought was going to be the subject, Hera.
“No Ish. I’m not discussing that. Anyways, I’m heading back to the tower for the night. Got to keep the signal open in case…”
“When did you last sleep old man?”
“How’s that crutch working out for you?” He asked pointedly, looking at the wooden crutch the dark robed sisters in the infirmary had forced on her. It went poorly with the long sleeves of the simple long dark blue dress she’d slung on for the ceremony, but her blood covered scout gear wouldn’t have been right for the chapel and the sun down ceremony. She’d avoided a veil at least, they had never felt right on her head, instead drawing her hair into two long plaits resting on either shoulder. It was more lady-like than she ever really cared to look, but it made her stand out less among the other women. She got a few winks from the other scouts, also in their fine dresses, sharing the oddness of being road scavengers and wearing long gowns for the ceremony.
“Not bad, but I guess I could borrow your wheels if needs be.”
He laughed and went to leave.
“Can I… can I hang out in the radio room with you? It’s not like I’m much of a scout at the moment. And maybe an extra pair of ears means you can get some rest tonight.”
He seemed conflicted for a moment and then nodded. “Come on then lass, you can join me in the raven’s roost.”