CHILDREN OF THE RUINS
Huaresh, Eastern Valdesia (The Skirt), 3057.7.18
Carla lies motionless. Like a dead thing. Dark is coming on. Their work finished for the day, the crows with caw and croak are leaving.
She sits bolt upright. She cannot look to her left – her mother was on the left. She dare not look to the right for something sticky is making a pool there, a pool she had put her hand into only a moment before. She will not look at her hand.
Instead she stares stiffly straight ahead into the ruins of the schoolhouse.
A new sound has roused her.
A call or cry. At first she thought it was a cat but now she understands that it’s the squalling of a baby. A baby of the ruins.
Her legs are sore. Her arms growing bruises. Her back tender. Everything hurts. She considers squalling herself. Not crying like a baby demanding attention, but because she should. Because. Instead she sets her face hard, pushes to her feet and begins to step carefully through the scatter of bodies, making sure not to stumble. She makes her way, not as a terrified and abused seven year old might, but as her mother would whenever something needed to be done.
Mr. Gjultera’s house is on the right, and Old Ma Bera’s little cottage. Both of them are smashed at either end as though a great big hammer had swung through the gap between. Floor boards jutting out from half way up wobble and creak as though someone is walking on them. But no one is there. Not even a ghost.
And then Ma Bera’s front door swings open.
Carla wants to run but cannot. She is fixed in place mid-stride, back heel up, front toes curling into the dirt. Not able to look and see who or what is coming because she cannot turn her head. She senses a dark shadow: a suggestion of someone, bending to retrieve something from the road, and then bringing it to her. The suggestion stops some yards to her side.
‘It’s a coat. A coat for you.’
He moves close, holding it out for her to take. Only now does Carla realise she is half-naked and shivering.
‘It’s for you – you’re cold.’
Released by sudden anger screaming in her head, she snatches the coat from him, swirling it around her shoulders; she drags it in at her middle with two fists, and then sinks to her knees to gather in the warmth.
Benito had heard the baby too. He’d been lying still. Still and quiet for an age. Long after the noises in the village had finished. Down in the cellar. The cellar that belonged to Mrs Bera. Where his cat had gone. He wondered where the cat was now.
But he heard the baby start to skrike – wanting someone to come. So he got up and climbed the dark stair into the back kitchen, past the larder into the parlour and through to the front door.
And there was the girl – Carla, a classmate of his little sister – standing still in the road, though it looked like she was walking. On the floor in front of him was a coat – one of those jacket things Mrs Bera always wore. He decided it would be best to give it to Carla, then maybe the cold wouldn’t keep her frozen in one place.
As they climbed through the planks and boards and broken furniture, the baby began to cry non-stop. ‘A good job too,’ thought Benito. The crying made him easy to find. Carla rolled up her coat sleeves and picked him up, took him from the cold stiff body of his mother. Benito took off his jumper for Carla to snuggle him in. The baby boy cried and cried. Benito didn’t mind that.
‘You need to give…’
The voice came out of the air. Carla crouched to the ground, shielding the baby with her own body.
‘He wants… milk’
The voice was cracked and weak.
Benito looked up, and there, silhouetted against the dusk sky, doubled over a shaft of wood at the top of the old school bell-tower, like a worm on a stick-pin, was the shape of a broken man.
Oswaldo Bassalo was surprised that any of it still mattered. He should be dead already. Most likely he would be dead in just a little while. But for as long as he was living he’d try to help them. Whatever the cost. The pain from his wounds bound him tight, making it hard to breathe, still less to speak. The children were silent, both looking up at him as though he was an impossibility.
‘Must … help me … down.’
His words came in bursts. He wondered if they could understand him. The baby had stopped crying now, perhaps warmed into an exhausted sleep. Carla gently laid him on the ground, making sure he was well wrapped, and then got to her feet. One thing at a time – he’d told them a thousand times. She stepped over to Benito and pushed lightly at his back. The boy did as he was told and stepped closer to the tower.
‘Signoren,’ he said.
It was an acknowledgement at least, but there was no certainty in the boy’s stance. Carla came to stand next to him. Oswaldo concentrated on trying to make his words strong and clear.
‘Benito … find an axe.’
The boy didn’t move. Oswaldo smiled inside, despite the pain. Benito at fifteen, apprentice to his father now, hadn’t changed much from the schoolboy the Signoren had taught. Benito was kind and tolerant and sensitive, so good in many ways, but he was rarely quick to action. He needed to consider everything he heard and saw for a good long while before coming to a decision. Oswaldo realised he should have explained why he wanted an axe.
Carla wasn’t so slow. She would do Benito’s thinking for him. The girl took his hand and after a quick glance to reassure herself that the baby was safe, she led him over to his father’s house. Oswaldo could not see what was happening as they clambered through the ruins to the back but he imagined the girl struggling to lift the big axe and then Benito stepping-in to help.
A new scene swam into his view. Minutes had passed. Below him now Carla was angry with the boy. He stood motionless, looking as though he might cry but the girl was dragging at his shirt, urging him to the base of the tower, and thumping his chest when he wouldn’t move. The boy shook his head.
‘No, can’t,’ he said. ‘It’ll hurt the Signoren bad.’
Carla relented in her attack. Then she put a hand upon his forearm, and looked him in the eye. She nodded her head, giving him permission, releasing him from fault. The seven year old was taking responsibility on herself.
Oswaldo wouldn’t have it.
‘You must!’ he spat out. ‘I tell you to.’ Speaking so forcefully tensed the torn muscles in his stomach – his words came out as a howl of pain but he wouldn’t let up. ‘You must Benito – good lad – chop me down or I will die. Your father would be proud of you. So proud. Can you do this Benito? For me? For the baby? Carla is right – you must do this – for us all.’
In the village scores of Bassalo’s people knew pain no more: not the women battered or skewered, not the children beheaded, not Andras amputated till the blood drained out of him. For Oswaldo every axe-stroke was agony, but agony is not death. He clung to every jolting, jag of pain as though pain could empower him; it would designate him among the living.
This had been a day of horror but also a day of miracles. The biggest spar that impaled the Signoren had torn through the fat on the right of his belly, scraped the surface of the muscles beneath, and come out again through the left hand side. Who would have thought that being fat could be a good thing? Not an organ injured. And the pain in his back was awful but he was sure his spine was undamaged. Most likely though, he would never use his left arm again: another shaft had pierced his shoulder and in the trauma of the fall, the impact had forced it deeper, pushing his shoulder-blade out at right angles to his back. The biggest part of the bleeding came from this wound. Carla launched herself at it with a wad of cloth, and pressed to stop the flow, and pushed to stop the shoulder blade looking so bad. Bassalo screamed all the while and then passed out.
When he came-to she was still there, still pressing but weaker now. The shaft had been drawn – Benito sat to one side looking at the bloody end of it on the ground before him. Carla kept looking back at him, needing help, but the boy didn’t notice. Bassalo wondered that she didn’t call out to him.
‘Benito, good lad,’ he said, and the boy looked round, startled perhaps that the Signoren could yet speak. ‘Do you know where your mother keeps her needles? Her sewing box?’
Benito frowned. ‘It’s under her bed,’ he said. ‘She always sews in bed. Where it’s warm. She says it’s a grand job! Always sewing and knitting. Dad says it’s a pity you can’t knit money.’
Carla had known what the Signoren intended. He thought she might have done it anyway, whether he’d asked or not. She kept up the pressure on the wound until Benito returned and wouldn’t relent until the boy knelt to take her place. She was so white-faced when she stood that Oswaldo thought she might faint. He should have known better. Carla wouldn’t allow herself a moment’s rest or weakness. She rummaged through the sewing box, scattering the contents all around, until she found what she needed. She took out a bobbin of the best silk yarn and a curved needle.
Oswaldo could see her poor arms shaking as she tried to thread it.
Start of book: The Preface
THE BEST OF MEN
SONG OF AGES
An epic fantasy of monsters, gods, warriors and wizards, of heedless villains and decent everyday people.
Available as a Paperback Original
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COINCIDENT - The Best of Men Pt 1
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Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages