Chapter 19: Beyond limits
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
Where I went was not on any map. How I got there wasn’t on any map. And yet I was someplace I’d been before, a long time ago.
The deserted village was on the Children’s land, north of North Village. There’s a lot of land up that way; you could hide three or four villages in it. But there was only one deserted village. It was something like Sacred Mountain, and yet not like it. It was ill-omened ground, that was for sure. And nobody was supposed to go to either place. So much they had in common. Yet Sacred Mountain was visible from all the other villages, and was officially off-limits. While the deserted village wasn’t officially off-limits. It was just deserted, falling into ruins, not visible from any other village, and forgotten by them all.
Save North Village. We still remembered it was there. We didn’t remember much else about it, when it had been founded, or why it was abandoned. We didn’t even remember its name. But we knew it was there, because we were the closest village to it. And as kids we would dare each other to go there, to play for some moments in its streets until fear took us away again. Maybe it was fear of the silence, the lack of human noises. Or maybe it was fear that we had heard a noise, the noise of the crazed hermit said to wander the village. Forget that no one had ever seen the hermit; he was a legend, and as such could scare children, sight unseen.
Stephen Nash had been killed with a gun. No one had heard a gunshot. I was betting he had been shot in the deserted village.
If my theory was true, then there had to be a secret path between Hilltop and the deserted village. My first task was to find it. I went to where Elsie had found the start of the secret path between Milltown and Hilltop. I had to concentrate to see it. How that worked was still a mystery to me, and a disturbing one. Yet it was a mystery to be solved some other time; I had a murder to solve first. I walked in under a minute to that clearing near Hilltop. And then I tried to find whether there was a path to the deserted village. It took me some time, but it appeared before me. Somehow, I knew that what I saw would take me where I wanted to go, as if there were some connection between my intentions and what paths revealed themselves. I stepped into the path I was shown without hesitation. And again in a matter of seconds, the transition was complete. I was in the deserted village.
Although I had played here for moments as a kid, I wasn’t familiar with the village then, and it looked no less strange now. Many of the windows were gone. Some buildings had partially collapsed. The rest were in sad need of paint, at the very least. Grass and weeds grew in the streets. There were no telephone poles, nor any evidence that the place had ever had electricity, either. And the late afternoon sun hung over a village in which no people moved, nor did people make any sounds. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks, the light wind in the trees, yes, but no human sounds, save my own footsteps, save my own breathing. It seemed oppressively hot, probably because it was so still. Though maybe because I remembered running away in fear from this place when I was younger.
I strode forth into what looked like a central intersection, for all I could see, for I had no map of the place, not even a mental one, it had been too long. I looked about. The village was larger than I remembered. I had no idea of where to look. But I had two things in my favor: several hours left before dusk, and the absence of locks on the doors.
Make that three things: I had my own powers of observation. Detective I was not, but I was no fool, either. I must have looked at it more than once before it struck me. There was a house plant in a window belonging to a house on my left, a living house plant. Someone was living in the village.
Wondering what I would find, I stepped to the front door of the house. It took me a while to build up the courage to open the door. That surprised me. Somehow I just couldn’t stop imagining the hermit inside, waiting, drooling, with an ax at hand to kill me.
That was nonsense. Upbraiding myself, I opened the door and stepped through into the house.
The kitchen had no refrigerator, but it had an ice box. There was an old wood stove which had clearly seen recent use. And there was running water, presumably from a nearby well. The last proof I needed that the place was still occupied was that the pantry was stocked with food, some of which was this season’s produce. Someone lived here. Someone had help from the Children to live here.
I breathed a sigh of relief, could feel my shoulder muscles relax. This was all too prosaic, too much the stuff of normal living. There was a hermit here, indeed, but that hermit was human, recognizably so. He ate and drank as we did, and was no supernatural creature. I need fear no ax.
And then I walked into the living room and had second thoughts. It was empty, save for the plants in the window, the plants I’d seen from the street. Not a stick of furniture, which seemed mighty damn peculiar, as if anything here, including how I’d got here, was normal. Who puts up plants in a deserted room? Madmen, perhaps, and the old image of a deranged hermit came back to mind. I tried to dismiss it again, but the room bothered me. So I quickly moved on to the next room.
There I had better luck. There was a bed, a bed with covers and sheets and pillows. And, most importantly, a nightgown. A woman’s nightgown. I stepped forward and picked it up, held it against myself for size. Whoever she was, I guessed that she was shorter than me, probably slimmer. A slight woman. Again I felt relieved. I’d been getting creeped out by one thing after another, from the whole deserted village, to finding out there really was a hermit living here, to that eerily empty living room. It was nice to find out she was probably a small woman, and not some hulking giant who would kill me and eat me for dinner. I had nothing to worry about.
I turned around, found myself looking into a pair of eyes, and screamed.
Really, I shouldn’t have screamed. But it was this whole deserted village thing, first of all. And it was the shock of actually meeting someone here that caused me to scream.
At least the surprise was not one-sided. She screamed too, even louder than I did! And instead of ornamenting the big wooden club she was carrying with my head, she dropped it in her panic, turned, and ran away.
I recovered my self-possession and was after her in an instant. I barely got to the front door before she did. She ran right into me, which made it easy for me to catch her. We engaged in a furious struggle, her trying to escape, me holding on to her. But she didn’t struggle long. She wasn’t that strong and, as I would shortly find out, I was decades younger and fresher. The moment she stopped struggling, I released her, and quickly turned and shut the door behind me.
She had sprung back a few steps, but no farther, and when I turned back to her I found her looking me over. I’d been right about her build. But I couldn’t have imagined the great tangle of hair on her head, some copper red, some gray, nor her tatterdemalion appearance. She looked to be maybe fifty or sixty, her face heavily wrinkled and brown with a deep tan.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said. “I was just looking for something, and saw this place was inhabited. I’m not going to hurt you.”
This seemed to reassure her somewhat after several repetitions. She stepped closer until she was practically staring me right in the face. I got the impression she was near-sighted from the way she was peering at me. Or maybe it was just the dim lighting, the later afternoon sun coming through the dirty windows. All of a sudden, she stepped backward and pointed at me. “You’re Emily Fisher the damned.”
Who was this person? How did she know my name? And why, exactly, was I damned in her eyes? I decided introductions were in order. “Yes, I’m Emily Fisher. Who are you?”
She raised her finger to point at me again. “You’re Emily Fisher the damned.”
“OK, OK, we established that. I’m Emily Fisher the damned. And just why am I damned, may I ask?”
She didn’t reply. Instead, she went into the kitchen and got the kettle, filled it with water, and put it on the stove. She used a match to light up the stove, and then got out two cups, which she put on the table. I took her gesture then to mean I should sit down with her, so I did.
We stared at each other in silence for several minutes. She pointed at me again. “You’re damned. I’m sorry about that. Only the damned and the dead come here.”
This was madness. I wasn’t getting anywhere with basic questions, so I just followed her lead. I said to her, “In fact, I’m here trying to find out about a man who is dead. I think he might have been killed somewhere in this village.”
She nodded. “Shot three times.”
Bingo! That was exactly what had happened to Nash. “Where did this happen?”
The woman didn’t answer. She just sat and stared at me.
I tried again. “Where did you hear the shots?”
She thought, then pointed at me again. “All of Gabriel Fisher’s children are damned. I tried to break the pattern, but I failed. You’re Emily Fisher the damned.”
The latter phrase was becoming an annoying litany. But the rest was intriguing. I’d been wondering how she knew who I was, for I did not recognize her at all, and I had not been on the Children’s lands in two decades. But I strongly resembled my father, and my father’s given name was Gabriel. The Children liked Biblical names. “How do you know my father?”
She just shook her head before getting up to see the kettle. Once she had poured our tea, she sat back down again, pointed at me, and said, “Selena Sawyer tried to break the pattern, but she failed, too. You’re Emily Fisher the damned.”
If I heard that phrase one more time, I’d be tempted to demonstrate the Wrath of the Damned on her. (There was a famous illustration of this in the Children’s New Revelation that had given me nightmares for weeks when I first saw it. I gather that was the intent of having it in there, to terrorize children.) Still, even though this woman was clearly unhinged, her mention of my old friend had whetted my curiosity. “What did Selena do? Why didn’t it work?”
She groaned, and sipped at her tea. The tea, at least, wasn’t bad, a bit strong I’d say, with loose leaves floating in it.
I tried another approach. “You’re here. Are you damned, too?”
“Dead or damned, it makes no difference to me.” She leaned forward, took a careful look at me, and pointed at me again. “But ’spect it matters to you, Emily Fisher the damned. Are you back for vengeance?”
“Sure, hey, why not?” I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I resorted to sarcasm. “Who do I need to take vengeance on?”
“Selena Sawyer, that’s who.” She chewed on her lip, sipped more tea. “Selena must be damned, too. Surprised she’s not here. Instead there’s the other one.”
“The other one what?”
The woman groaned again as her answer, which was almost as informative as anything else she’d said. Then she fixed me with a look. “Go. Go away. I don’t want you here. You’re Emily Fisher the damned. Go. You can’t have my soul.” She stood up, anger and fear playing across her face. “GO!” she yelled at me. “GO!”
I tried to calm her, but she started backing away, yelling at me to go away. This wasn’t getting me anywhere. So, instead I said, “Thank you for the tea,” turned around, and left the house. I noticed she watched me from the living room window as I walked back to where the secret path had dropped me.
I figured I was going to need help to get any more useful information from the woman. That was assuming she wasn’t completely delusional, which still seemed a fair possibility. I needed to find out who she was, and who was helping her.
I knew the answer had to be in North Village. It had to be there because only we remembered the deserted village. And so I decided to go to North Village to see the one person who knew everything that happened there. I went to see Hilda Strong. Because if anyone knew the answer, it would be Hilda.
But I didn’t make it to Hilda’s that day. Alex Bancroft had warned me that if he could track me, so could Nash’s killer. My almost getting shot yesterday proved he was right. But he hadn’t thought to add that other people might be tracking me, too.
End of chapter nineteen
Oh, and you say of me leaving you in suspense?
But . . . but . . . but . . . it’s a murder mystery. Of course you’re supposed to be left in suspense! Still, the clock is ticking, and Emily has unraveled one thread. Assuming the woman isn’t completely bonkers, of course.
Yes, I did particularly like the way you introduced the link. You’ve definitely developed the knack. While I struggle to find something sufficiently obtuse to be enticing without giving away the plot. Unfortunately, of late it’s been variations on “. . . and having escaped the Eld, will he yet find her.” But patience, for soon it will be, “What secret desire motivates Ardhea?”
Perhaps this is one case where the format of online publication works against you. Long episodes have to be broken up, and Kerrid’s flight from the Eld, being arduous, needs be long. Yet here that means breaking it up into shorter chapters. At least that is how I understand your design, and perhaps your frustration with it.
My equivalent difficulty here is exposition. I’m bringing a religious society’s life before the reader, and much is rooted in its history, as well as Emily’s own personal history, so much needs to be explained, but I constantly worry that I have told too little or too much for the reader.
That I can appreciate, since mostly my stories are in some way other-world set and require a certain amount of exposition. But it’s acceptable, it’s a milieu thing. If the story isn’t set in the here and now and the very familiar then the reader wants and enjoys the background material. Or at least, I certainly do.