...and it's harder to _think_....
...and they're coming up behind me...
...clickety-clack, clickety-clack, tell the world the Bad Men are back...
...back to get her...
And the voice in her head, and that _sorcerer_...
...must get away, must get...
...get it out, get it out...
...out of here, out of here...
...inside, inside, where they can't get her, can't get it...
...can't get it out of her head...
...can't get _out_ of my head...
...get out, get out, get _out!_...
She stumbles, recovers her balance...
...but it was a mistake.
She can hear the horses - clickety-clack, clickety-clack - coming up behind her, the silent, skull-faced riders on their backs.
She was a bad girl. She stole from a very, very bad person.
She was a good girl. She stole from a very, very bad person.
And now the monsters are coming to get her.
To punish her for being good. To kill her for being bad.
Isn't that what happens when you're good and bad?
Bad things happen. They always do.
And then the monsters come to get you.
Get me. Catch me. No, no, no, never catch me...
...Run, run as fast as you can! You can't catch me...
I'm the Gingerbread Man!
She giggles to herself. Silly skull-faces can't catch me...
And then the spell is broken.
The skull-faced riders and their pale, so pale steeds are gone.
'Charlotte?' the voice says again.
'It's the Gingerbread Man...' she says. She collapses, flounders, turns over...
...and sees her saviour.
The Kapoor looks up from the campfire.
The bleary-eyed girl collapses at her feet.
The Kapoor gently moves her head into her lap, and strokes the girl's head.
'Where did you find her?'
'Running back towards the town. Seemed to be in quite a hurry...' Townsend leaves the implied question hanging.
The Kapoor doesn't answer; not yet, at least. She strokes Charlotte's head, feeling both the rough and the smooth, the smooth flow of her hair, the rough and sore patches marking where it's gone, ripped out of her head.
Softly she begins to croon a lullaby, a song half-remembered from days long gone.
'Hush, little baby, don't you cry...'
Gently, gently, she rocks Charlotte to sleep.
The Kapoor looks up. 'She will be okay.'
Townsend waits... and then realises that this is all she will get. She hunkers down.
'Why?... Because I was asked to make sure she was safe, to ensure she did not get hurt, to take care of her...' Charlotte startes to tremble. The Kapoor begins to sing again, softly and gently.'
'Who asked you?'
The Kapoor's eyes flick up.
'Who asked you?' Townsend repeats.
The Kapoor sighs, seeing a little of what will come. But... she sees no other way.
'Leighton. Your Lord. He asked me to look after his daughter...'
'Does that answer you?' the Kapoor asks.
She looks up again, but Townsend has gone.
Vanished in the darkness.
Townsend sighs as she settles down by the priest. 'This isn't going to work.'
He doesn't answer.
After a while... 'Praying?'
He smiles, but there is no humour in it. 'To who?'
Townsend looks askance at him. 'Your God of the Cross...'
'Would it mean anything to you if I were?'
Yeah, it _would_, Townsend thinks. It'd show me you're still bloody human. Watching her for the last three nights... as she sleeps, and sleeps, and doesn't wake up... Do you _want_ her to sleep forever?
(Why not? she thinks even deeper down. She had been a quisling, a little traitor prepared to give herself to the man at the top... Why _shouldn't_ she sleep forever...? And is shocked when she realises... she _wants_ that...)
'I don't pray. Not anymore.' the Father continues. He smooths the sleeping Isabelle's forehead. 'What can the damned pray for?'
'We all are,' he says. 'The Lords of Hell have come to this world... and made it their own. A hellhole shaped in Their image. And we are trapped within it.'
'Doesn't that Book of yours tell you to fight against the legions of Hell?'
He looks at her with hollow eyes. 'I did.' Unconsciously, he smooths Isabelle's ginger-blonde hair, mimicking the Kapoor.
'And I lost.'
'Cheery, ain't they...'
Angeline sits down next to Townsend.
'This isn't going to work...' Townsend mutters. 'All we left with were _her_,' she nods at Sade. 'stolen provisions... and _they're_ barely enough to keep a man going for a month. Eight people, one who can't eat, and one who won't... And Terminus is a week away.'
Angeline laughs. 'That all? Food all aroun' you, know where to look...'
'In the Badlands?' Townsend retorts. 'I'd sooner eat the Devil's shit then touch one of the things 'round here...'
Angeline smiles. 'An' wha' am I? A witch, hey? I _know_ what gonna kill you quick an' what gonna kill you slo'...'
'Won't matter either way, if we don't get to Terminus...'
'An' why won' we?' Angeline raises an eyebrow. 'I know where we go, yeah?'
That's what scares me, Townsend thinks. Just where *have* you been? Cat-slit eyes, patches of luminous skin... and those ears... Where did those come from?
But we _have_ to stick together. None of us would survive, not without the others.
We die apart, or we die together. No' much of a choice.
Angeline sighs. 'Don' know where *she* go, tho'...' She nods in Charlotte's direction.
'Wakin' or sleepin', walkin' or talkin'...' Angeline shakes her head almost... sadly? 'She in her Hell, an' she lon' forgot the way out...'
Angeline sighs again. 'She destroyin' herself. She at _war_ wit' herself. Her mind tearin' itsel' apart...'
'How do you _know?_' Townsend demands.
'I _kno'_' Angeline hisses. 'I know...'cause all wha' I see when I look at her is _hell_!'
'And when you look at yourself?' Townsend can't stop herself. But she has to know.
'Jus'... Jus' go.' Angeline mutters. 'GO!' she screeches.
Early in the morning.
And Laura Tobin is the only one awake.
The fire's burning itself out as she watches, embers of blue and orange flickering in the remains.
She rubs her eyes.
*Not* a good night. Charlotte running off, that... tension 'twixt the Sheriff and that witch-woman, an' the Sheriff stalking off like... she fumbles for the words.
(enchanted, she thinks, spell-bound. Bewitched...)
Like her family, she thinks, all of us trapped together and no one can find a way _out_...
But she found one. Oh, she found one. Tagging along with a group of refugees from a devastated town...
And she knows - *knows*, in her soul - that it would have been worse if she'd stayed.
The witch-woman scares her (but not half so much, a little voice whispers, as she scares the witch-woman...). Scared all the girls in town. Passed around whispered tales of secret things done in the night, nightmares and demons at her command...
...and she knew they weren't true, that the truth was likely worse, but could not, if asked, tell you how she knew this...
...but she had to know she could get out of the trap her family had become, had to find a way...
...and she went to the witch. And the witch screamed at her to get _out!_, terrified by something she'd seen...
...and then the town had come down...
There is a lonely howl, something lost and alone, out in the darkness. She huddles herself closer to the fire.
Fumbles in her cloak, and looks at what she was able to bring from the town.
A piece of glass. A piece of glass from a shattered church
(...and she hadn't even known she'd picked it up. Dived in, to save a life...and found it caught in her cloak...)
And she sees the loops of the symbol caught in the glass, the '?' that marks a Question. Sees the final flickers of the flame behind it, illuminating it.
(wondering, briefly, what the Question was, and who it might be for...)
The glass flashes as it catches the light, and she instincitvely flinches. Held it too close to the fire...
...and there is a sigh, somewhere in the darkness.
She stands up fast, maybe too fast. Something - someone - following them? Not the wind, it had sounded too... too _alive_ for that.
Wheezing, drained, it pulls itself into the firelight. Pale, skin pulled tight over the skull, eyes wide and set in dark holes.
Then Laura sees the ginger-blonde hair framing the face.
Isabelle groans... and collapses.
Laura edges round to look.
She's asleep. Just normal sleep. Gentle breathing, the chest rising... and falling.
Things will be harder in the morning, Laura knows; food for another mouth, helping Isabelle recover... helping her _travel_.
Things will be harder... but maybe there will be something at the end of all this.
She looks at the piece of glass again.
She knows, now, what the Question means.
And maybe, just maybe, there _is_ a way out...
Only time will tell.
In the east, the sky begins to lighten.
Copyright 2001 Imran Inayat