And the second part of chapter 7. We return as Katie discovers the note in Stephen’s copy of the Book of Mars.
My heart beat faster. Was I ‘her’, or was this note old? Was it an unwanted threat, or an invitation to betray?
The avenues of thought that opened up to me were confusing loops and suspicious dead ends, so I tucked the silk into my pocket to think about later.
Climbing the ladder was easier than last time. With my heart still beating from the anxiety of the note, I quickly reached the top of the ladder. Probably best that there wasn’t anyone around to hear me shout out a number of choice words to help me ignore the pain in my fingers. No one could possibly consider me to be old-fashioned about anything, and certainly not about being polite when it came to necessity. Stephen had likely arrived at that conclusion already. The broken lantern still sat in pieces by the hole, with neither of us cogent enough to replace it. I could see the second one at the top of the next climb.
Standing at the base of the second ladder, I could already feel the familiar chill in the air on my face, and on my legs, which were only covered by the tight fitted jeans. I reached the top and climbed out, finding the door and pulling it open. It was supposed to be getting warmer by now, but for years we had been warned that we were due some protracted winters.
Jessie was fussing next door. The old palomino had eaten most of her food, though it didn’t really matter now. I would make sure she was taken care of at the Outpost. I set her up with a saddle and riding gear that had been covered by a beige tarpaulin. A pair of riding boots sat expectantly next to the saddle, and I was surprised to find that we almost shared a shoe size.
In captivity Jessie looked like a good-tempered horse, but once the hobbles were off she became desperate to bolt. In hindsight it would’ve been easier if Stephen had helped see me off before undertaking his dangerous underwater voyage, but with some effort, I was able to mount her and release the final ropes tying her down. We were off.
I could only hold on and steer her vaguely in the direction of the old town-cum-outpost that had been named for the Prophet who had predicted the rise of a new Age of Man, and the father of the Daimyo who ruled over it today.
Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com
“It’s an easy ride,” Stephen had advised. “Just follow the tracks. We’re four miles out, and each post marks one-twentieth of a mile.”
Four times twenty being eighty. Except it was not an easy ride. After about a minute at breakneck speed, I’d already counted to ten. Running like this was not going to be good for the poor thing and would exhaust her beyond all usefulness, but she undoubtedly wanted to stretch her legs and clearly didn’t know any better. “Whoa,” I urged as I tried to steady the old horse. Fortunately, Jessie did slow a fair bit. She also seemed to know the way, and needed very little encouragement from me.
A harsh chill in the air made me hug close to the cantering horse. I really wasn’t wearing enough layers for the cold, but was probably feeling significantly warmer than Stephen right now in spite of my mud-soaked skinny jeans.
After about fifty lampposts, I saw it for the first time. Until that point, I had been riding on a long flat stretch of land alongside the tracks. Now, the way began to slope downhill, subtly at first but within three or four lampposts the gradient made the ride a bit of a thrill. The Outpost looked like it was growing out from the ground as I rode down to meet it. The old outskirts of the town had been flattened for visibility, though there were a number of derelict suburban bungalows left standing.
Another twenty lampposts, and the railway tracks led up, now, on a concrete bridge that swept smoothly up from the decline, giving me a better view over the wall that separated Prophet’s Outpost from the old town that had been here before. The wall itself was tall but ugly, made from recycled components; old cans, sheet metal and thick wire fences that had been compressed together to prevent access. The only way in from this side was over the rail bridge. Jessie instinctively slowed further to a loping gait.
Beyond the wall, only a few larger buildings remained. They looked unoccupied, but they weren’t. Someone would be watching me; snipers, probably, who would take me out if they didn’t like the look of me. I had been hoping that they wouldn’t see me as a threat – after all, what could one woman on an old horse do?
I knew the answer to that, but I was hoping that they wouldn’t.
About three hundred metres ahead, the bridge entered a building that looked a bit like an old train station, though I’d never entered one from this angle before. I pulled hard on Jessie’s reins and the old horse gratefully slowed right down to a cautious trot. I looked all around for signs of life, but if anyone was home they were keeping themselves perfectly hidden.
The inside of the old train station had been turned into a kind of makeshift stables. There were a few other horses tied up here, meaning that someone was definitely around. Food looked scarce here, too – and the conditions inside made Stephen look like he’d been very considerate by comparison.
It was a few steps up to the main platform. The tracks themselves were buried under layers of horse manure as the most anyone here could be bothered to do.
I managed to find a free spot a little away from the other horses, who were much more restless than Jessie. Two of them had bags over their heads, which I knew better than to try removing myself. Once Jessie was secure, I walked over to the next horse, a soft white that had been watching me since I entered. I gave it a quick pet, and it seemed grateful for the contact, almost leaning into my touch and causing a bit of resistance, like a cat might. It was a little comfort, a moment of escape.
“Don’t turn aroun’,” came a voice from behind me.
“You heard me. Put down de satchel,” The voice was either high male or low female. Either way, I didn’t ask. I followed the instructions.
“Okay. Turn aroun’ slowly. I have a’ arrow trained on ya’ leg – move wrong and you don’ walk again.” Caribbean accent. Could be that whoever this was believed in the teachings. I hastily tried to recall my greetings.
“You aren’t going to offer me bread and beer?”
“I was tinkin’ more along de lines of dread an’ fear,” came the response. I studied the figure who stood side on, hood pulled up over the head, an arrow notched into a bow which was trained just above my thigh. “Are yuh alone?”
“Yes.” For now.
“Kick de satchel away from yuh and back up against dat wall, dere.”
I did as I was told. The bow was lowered.
“I’m sorry to do dat to yuh. Wait a second.” The mysterious figure took a step forward and pointed with a free hand. “Yuh missin’ yuh earlobe.”