15460 words, novelette
The Privilege of the Happy Ending
2019 Winner: World Fantasy Award for Best Novella
This is a story that ends as all stories do, eventually, in deaths.
When Ada’s parents died in the winter of her sixth year, she was sent to the neighboring parish to live with her aunt, Marjory. Marjory was a widow with three daughters, all older than Ada; and their names were Cruelty, Spite, and Malice. They lived in a narrow cottage with a single room, and rain came in where the thatch had grown thin beside the falling-down chimney. Marjory had a garden and a pig and some piglets, and three sheep, though one was old. There was also a coop full of hens with a single rooster. There was no room for an orphan in Marjory’s narrow cottage, nor in her narrow gray life, so Ada slept in the coop surrounded by the chickens: their feathers and fluff, their earthy smell, their soft nonsense gabbling—and of everyone in that household, Ada’s food was scantiest but her bed was softest.
Ada loved all the hens, but her favorite was Blanche: white as a pearl and sturdy as a peasant’s ankle, with five bright white nails on each ivory foot, a beak the pink of rosebuds in May, and a flat little comb and wattle the crimson of full-blown roses in July. She was pretty as an enameled jewel made for a duke, yet her golden-black eyes were clever as clever. Blanche’s egg-laying days were past, but it was Ada’s task to collect the eggs and tell her aunt who was laying and who was not; and so Blanche was not eaten.
There was a day after the hay had been brought in but just before the fringed golden wheat was ready for the sickle. After Marjory and the sisters broke their fast, the porridge pot had been nearly empty (and the rest needed for dinner); so once Ada had fed the hens and collected the eggs, she went into the old forest to find something from which she might make her own meal. But she knew it was dangerous to go alone, and so she took Blanche.
The road became a path as it crossed into the shadows of the old forest. Ada was gleaning sweet musty blackberries and bitter-bright burdock greens (too late in the season, but there they were, and thus worth trying) until Blanche saw the feathery little leaves of kippernuts tucked close to an oak tree’s roots. Ada squatted to dig the tiny tubers from the ground, and carefully brushed them free of dirt. She had two for each one Blanche took, which they agreed was only fair, for she was bigger and had done the work.
Ada had eaten six-and-twenty kippernuts (and Blanche thirteen) when they heard someone running along the path-that-was-a-road. The news that comes on fast feet is seldom good but is always important, so Ada leapt up, and Blanche scurried from her bug scratching to press close, peeking past her legs. But it was just a boy that burst into sight, heaving and panting and out of breath: older than she, thin and dressed poorly (for he was an orphan as well), and running on bare feet beaten hard as boot-soles.
When he saw Ada, he paused, gasping until he could speak at last. “Where. Is your mother? I have. News that is. Worth. A penny or more.”
“I have no mother, but I have an aunt. She lives that way.” Ada pointed along the path.
“Is there a. Village? I don’t want to. Waste my time.”
“There’s a church and a miller and a blacksmith,” said Ada, looking up at him. “What news is worth a penny?”
“Do you have a. Penny?” said the boy.
She shook her head. “I have a chicken, and I have this pin. My mother gave it to me before she died.” She pulled it from her collar to show it to him: fine as a hair and straight as a thread pulled tight, with a tiny silver knob at one end.
“A chicken’s too heavy,” he said but plucked the pin from her fingers, though she had offered neither. “It’s wastoures! They came through Newton and Blackhill and killed everything, and then they split into two big groups and one turned north, and the other’s coming here. I stay ahead of them and earn pennies by warning people.”
Wastoures. Perhaps you have not heard of them, you people born a thousand years after Ada and Blanche and this runner—whose name is Hardourt, though his part in this story is nearly over: his name will not matter to you, though it matters to him. In your time they are gone, but in the twelfth century, every child knew of them, and adults as well. Wastoures: scarce larger than chickens but unfeathered and wingless, snake-necked and sharp-beaked and bright-clawed, with little arms ending in daggery talons. For long years there would be no wastoures (except in memory and dread), and then a population bloom, like duckweed choking an August pond, or locusts after a dry spring, or cicadas rising from the ground each seventeenth year. For reasons unknowable, they emerged in their scores of thousands from some unknown cave or forgotten Roman mine, and seethed like floodwater or plague across the land. Eventually they died off, plunging heedless from cliffs or drowning in waters too deep to cross; or else autumn made them torpid, then dead—but not before they had eaten every breathing creature they encountered. They were in everyone’s nightmares, and small children feared them more even than wolves or orphanhood. These were dark times, wastoure summers.
Wastoures. At the sound of the word, Blanche fluttered into Ada’s arms. The girl shivered and said, “Take us home! Please, I’m too little to run fast enough by myself.”
He eyed her. “You’re too big to carry. How far is it?”
“Very far,” she said sadly. She had walked all morning and now it was early afternoon. If she ran home—if she could run so far—she would not get there before the midwife’s cow began complaining to be milked. And Marjory would not notice her absence until dusk, when there would be no one to chivvy the chickens to their coop. The wastoures would catch her before that.
“Then I can’t take you,” he said. “You’re too slow. They’d catch us both and eat even our bones.”
Ada knew hard truths. She was raised in them. “Take Blanche, at least.”
Blanche clucked and tightened her feet, pinching at Ada’s arms.
The boy snorted. “What, that? It’s just an old hen.”
Ada fired up indignantly. “She’s the cleverest chicken that ever was! And she talks.”
“Lying is a sin,” said the boy; “You’re a crazy little girl”—though he was not so much older than she.
She freed one hand from Blanche and pointed down the road. “At least go to my aunt and my cousins and tell them? And the priest and the blacksmith. I’m sure there are many pennies there.”
“Good luck.” The boy took off running, and did not slow nor look back. And now he is gone from this story.
Ada stood in the path-that-was-a-road, tightly holding Blanche. When the patter of running footsteps had faded, there were no sounds but the humming insects and the air soughing in the forest. She looked back the way the boy had come, but there was nothing to see yet, only trees and plants: high above them all the towering clouds of August, uncaring about the tiny affairs of people and hens and wastoures.
“What should I do?” asked Ada aloud.
And in her light, sweet, gabbling voice, Blanche said: “We must climb the highest tree and wait ’til they’re past. He told the truth. They’re coming.”
Did you think that Ada had lied to the boy to save Blanche? She is a very honest girl. Because no chicken has spoken within your hearing, do you assume none ever has?
Ada put down Blanche and they looked about. The old forest was dense with staunch oak and shivery beech, saplings and shrubs, coiling ferns and little low groundling plants. Everything was either too big to reach or too small to save them. Ada hopped for the nearest branch of a low-slung oak, but it was much too high.
Blanche said with decision, “Not here, but there will be Somewhere.”
Was that a sound? Yes. It was the ripple of running water, where a brook ran along the bottom of a clearing clotted with grasses, and encircled by young trees. Across the clearing was a pile of stones that had once been a house: French or Saxon or Roman, or any of the races that had swept across England’s face. Gone now, all gone: absorbed into Englishness, into legend and folktale.
Was that a sound? Yes. It was a rising wind in the trees, from the east. Ada carried Blanche through the head-high grass to the pile of stones. It was ringed by nettles but she paid no heed, only pushed through and heaved Blanche to the top of a fallen wall. (Marjory had clipped each hen’s right wingtip, and Blanche could not fly but only flutter.) Ada crawled up after and hoisted Blanche onto an overhanging elm tree branch, but she could not reach it herself.
Was that a sound? Yes. It was a great red buck crashing through the underbrush. Ada saw him flash across the clearing, wall-eyed in panic, heavy-footed and careless of sound. Blanche said, “Stack the stones,” and so Ada did, heaving onto the wall the biggest she could move until she could climb to the top of her teetering mound. She jumped for the branch and scuffled her feet up the trunk to sit at last beside Blanche on the rough gray bark.
“Higher,” said Blanche, and Ada climbed, up and up, and the hen jump-fluttered along. Up and up, until the branches creaked ominously and bobbed like osiers from even their small weight.
Was that a sound? A scream, or sudden wind, or a cart wheel complaining? Ada looked but there was little she could see, only elm leaves and a bit of the clearing, and one glimpse directly down, of the pile of stones and the ground, a great way below.
Blanche said, “Let me see what I may see.” She hop-fluttered to the tippiest branches of the tree.
Ada peered after her. “What do you see?”
Blanche said: “I see sky and clouds. I see the sun setting, and the steeple of our own church: that’s the west. I see a flock of birds rising where something has frightened them: that’s the south. I see trees moving in the wind and I see smoke from chimneys. I see trees moving, and it is not the wind. That is the east. I see smoke from a thatched roof burning. I see a meadow covered with darkness, and the darkness is coming toward us.”
She hopped back to Ada. “I see wastoures. Use your shawl to tie us to this branch so that we don’t fall in the night. They are coming.”
Was that a sound? Yes. A low wail, a storm-sound, a surf-sound of chattering nattering shrieks, louder than crows in their murders and rooks in their parliaments, louder than a myriad of hawks fighting for blood. A thousand talons pounded the ground. Blanche ruffled her feathers and buried her face in Ada’s arms, but still the sound.
The wastoures came. The trees shook and the tall grasses shivered, first from animals fleeing, every deer and mouse and marten and vole running for its life, but then from the wastoures themselves. They trampled the grasses as they poured like a flood across the clearing, eddied wherever they found some living thing to eat, crashed against the trees and scoured the bark with their claws and talons, until swarming they swept past. But always more.
The night was bright-mooned, alas. Ada saw a fallow doe pulled down in her flight (for she would not run faster than her fawn) and skeletonized quicker than a hen lays an egg, and the fawn even faster than she. The wastoures swirled around a pile of stones in the clearing until they unearthed a fox den and ate the kits. There was a great anguished roaring in the forest, which Blanche whispered surely was a bear pulled from her hiding place and killed. The wastoures could smell Ada and Blanche, and some spent the night leaping at the elm tree’s trunk. But wastoures cannot fly, nor could they jump high enough to reach that first low branch. After a while Ada saw that they could not get to her.
Hour after hour; the moon set, and still they churned below, a seething darkness in the dim starlight. Ada feared she and Blanche would fall, for she was not very good at knots yet, but nothing bad happened. She was only rocked gently like an infant in its cradle, far above the tossing sea of wastoures, and at last she slept, for a child cannot always be awake even in a time of terror.
But Blanche did not sleep, watching from her bright golden-black eyes.
By first light there were fewer wastoures. The crushed grass was red with dawn and more than dawn. The lingering wastoures bickered for the chance to pull the blades through their beaks, for the blood.
Ada whispered to Blanche, “I have to pee.”
“So?” Blanche had no great opinion of the things people worried about.
Ada wrinkled her brow. “They’ll smell it.”
Blanche tipped her head as though listening through the feather-edged pinholes of her ears, though what she listened to was not the air. “By now, most are far to the west. These are the little lame ones that cannot keep up. They’ll leave soon enough.”
“They don’t seem any littler than the others,” said Ada, dubious, but she peed over the side of the branch anyway. One came sniffing over and looked up, eyeing them from its sideways-tipped head before it ambled off to the west. The others followed.
Ada was very hungry (for burdock and blackberries and a handful of kippernuts had been yesterday’s dinner, and today’s breakfast, too). But still she waited until Blanche said at last, “We can get down now.”
“Are we safe?” said Ada.
“We are never safe,” said Blanche.
It was worse descending. Blanche flutter-jumped from branch to branch, but Ada had to lower herself carefully, and the bark that had seemed so sturdy under hands rushing up now broke away under the same hands creeping down. The lowest branch was higher than she remembered, and it was a long time before she could bring herself to drop onto the tumbledown wall.
At the sound, one final wastoure emerged from a pile of fallen stones. Not all the blood drawn in the long night had that of forest creatures; this wastoure had been slashed accidentally by a fellow and itself became prey. It limped toward them, hungry and curious, but Blanche spread her white wings and snapped her short rose-pink beak. To her surprise it turned away and limped westward into the forest.
And now it is gone from this story as well. Imagine its ending as you would. If you are kind, see it dead quickly in the jaws of a hungry young wolf a short league from this place. If you are as cold as the world, then see pain, infection, hunger, and death a mercy at last.
Ada picked up Blanche and recrossed the clearing to the path-that-was-a-road. The wastoures had crushed the ferns and trampled the shrubs, gouged the beech and staunch oak with their claws, scattered blood and shards of bone everywhere—but the road home was easy to see, for the deep-trenched ruts were a thousand years old, more permanent than any horde.
It was afternoon when they came at last to the forest’s edge and saw their little church across the trampled fields, and the handful of houses and huts, but the chimneys were unsmoking and the doors agape or gone. There was no sound: no churn or quern or clattering loom, no hammer on iron or chisel on wood, no oxen or horses, milk-cows or sheep or chuckling chickens. Ada had always been a little afraid of the village’s big dogs, and even more afraid of the geese, but neither came buffeting down the lane to bowl her flat.
Marjory’s cottage was at the far end of the village. Three wastoures had clustered around something gray and red in the lane between here and there. They did not look up.
“Will they eat us?” whispered Ada.
Blanche said, “I think they are no longer hungry.”
Perhaps she was right, for they sidled into the woods, leaving their dinner half-eaten: Father Alfred’s donkey. Blanche fluttered from Ada’s arms and ran across to peek through the gaping door of the nearest cottage, where Ada’s only friend Giles lived, with his siblings Armand and Geoffroy and Natalie and Marie, their mother and father and aunt, five goats and a dog, two cows, and the chickens and ducks.
“Is anyone there?” asked Ada.
Blanche said only, “Do not look inside the huts. Do not look closely at anything.”
Everywhere was the same. There were corpses or parts of them, and sometimes Ada could tell who it had been. Other people were just not there and there was no telling where they had gone, or how. The donkey was partially eaten, but his short gray face was for some reason untouched, and his eyes were closed as though he were sleeping. Ada had always longed to stroke his nose but she had been scared to put her hand so close to those long yellow teeth. Now she stroked it at last, and it was as soft as she had guessed, like kitten ears.
You ask, Where is her grief? Why does Ada not scream and wail, as you might, or I? Why does she not fall to the ground in despair, run weeping in circles? She has seen horrors before this, horrors at six, orphaned and alone. She has been here before. She has learned that adults always fail—if only by dying—so what’s new?
At least she has Blanche. Not every lost child does.
The door to Marjory’s cottage was closed but the thatch had been torn through and the oiled oxskin that glazed the window was in shreds. When Ada reached for the door, Blanche pushed her white head between hand and iron latch. “Best not,” she said.
The coop door was agape, and the sunlight streaming in filled the air with golden flecks. The chickens were gone, dead or fled or hiding deep in the hearts of trees they had managed somehow to ascend. There were only torn nests, broken eggshells, and splashes of blood clustered with busy flies; but the air still smelled comfortingly of Blanche’s kin, feathers and fluff, millet and shit.
And what of Blanche’s grief? Do you think she feels none? I have known a chicken who pined to death, waiting by the gate for a dead coopmate until she starved. But sometimes grief is a luxury. But Blanche is practical, and there is Ada to look after.
Ada’s little bed of hay and rags had been ripped apart. She plumped it back together and cuddled down, with an eye on the open doorway. Blanche tucked herself carefully onto her favorite roost, just above, and said: “We must plan.”
They could not stay. Wastoures did not come every year, but when they did, it was in waves. Tomorrow, the day after, next week—they would come again, and keep coming until winter came and they died or found secret caverns. Also, there would be scavengers: foxes, rats, and others on two legs, scrounging through whatever was left behind. Ada would not be able to hide here.
There was no point to following the wastoures’ path, for everywhere they had been would be the same: ruin, loss, the clustering scavengers. And the lands they had not yet touched would be overrun with fleeing people and animals, lost or afraid to go home. No one would care for a small barefooted girl and a clip-winged white hen.
“What can we do?” Ada asked. She was drowsy with eating. They had gone out again and found food everywhere, in lavish and unguarded profusion. The wastoures ate only flesh, so there were tarts and turnips, cabbages and tender new carrots. Ada had filled her skirt with apples and bread (nibbled, for some mice had survived) and carried them back to the coop.
Blanche said, “Wastoures cannot swim. If we cross a lake or a river without a bridge, we’ll be safer. Maybe. A town with a moat would be best.”
“What’s a moat?” Ada knew what a town was; it was more people than she had ever seen in her whole life, all in a place.
“A river that runs all the way around a town. A ring of water,” said Blanche.
Ada nodded, as though she understood. “What do we do?”
“Find a new home. Find a family and make ourselves part of that.”
“I suppose,” said Ada, dubiously. Her experience with families was not so happy as Blanche’s.
“First you must do a thing for me,” said Blanche.
Ada nodded; she was so very tired.
Blanche dropped to the floor beside Ada and stretched out her right wing. “Pluck the clipped feathers.”
Ada sat up. “But you won’t be able to fly!”
“I cannot fly now. If you pluck them, they will grow back whole.”
“How long will that take?” Ada asked.
But Blanche did not know, for it had never happened to her. It was only a sort of legend in every henyard. It was an uncomfortable business, for Ada was afraid to hurt Blanche and it required a strong pull, and Blanche could not help twitching away, but at last it was done and there were four feathers piled beside Ada’s bed. By that time it was dark.
And, because Ada was after all a very small girl (and Blanche a chicken), in spite of the dead, the smell of blood and the loneliness, they slept. They could not have in any case kept their eyes open, not even if the wastoures had run ravening in and devoured them down to the bones.
In the morning, Ada filled a basket with white bread, a hard cheese wrapped in a cloth, and butter in a tub she had found sunk into a pail of water at the midwife’s house—all finer than anything she had eaten since coming to Marjory’s cottage. She did not think to bring a knife nor money until Blanche reminded her (Blanche was old for a hen and accordingly wise), and then she took a dirk and eleven silver pennies from the blacksmith’s house, and put on a blue gown that had belonged to his middle daughter—for her own was ruined and there was no sign of his family, no sign at all. They walked south into the new morning.
A small girl and a hen are not built to travel fast nor far, especially when they must often hide. Their path traversed the wasteland the wastoures had left behind: ruined fields and orchards, collapsed huts and trampled copses. Pillars of ravens and rooks circled above the wastoures’ leavings—but even amid all the ruin were places that had not been damaged, as though the wastoures had been a wildfire, razing one field and leaving the next untouched.
They passed a village the wastoures had missed, but there were men with bows and short swords everywhere about it. “Leave it,” said Blanche. “That is no home. We’ll find somewhere better.”
They saw other people like themselves (but adults), lost and stumbling or moving with fierce purpose. Some carried food. Others carried things that made no sense: a mirror, a silver candlestick, a roll of vellum, a fine cape too warm for August. Once there was a woman with her head uncovered and her hair a tangled mat down her back, cradling a bundle and weeping; she saw Ada and folded to her knees, reaching out, and the bundle dropped forgotten from her hands: not a babe in arms but a crumpled wad of rags. Later a man chased them, snatching for Blanche until she attacked, flapping into his face; and he stumbled back with a scream, hands laced over his eyes and blood seeping past his fingers.
And now they are gone from this story, as well, the blinded thief and the grieving woman and these other hard-faced or frightened roamers. I have not told you their stories. They do not matter; they die alone, unremembered, pointless except to make a point. All authors leave a swath of destruction. We maim and move on. The privilege of the happy ending is accorded to few.
That night, Ada and Blanche slept in an empty sheepfold under the bright-mooned sky. In the morning they went on, though the soles of Ada’s feet burned with the friction of calluses on dirt. In time they came to a brook. Ada lay down on the bank, paddling her feet in the cold water as Blanche scratched for worms.
“What do we do now?” Ada asked.
Chickens do not much note the expressions of people, but even to Blanche the girl looked pale and tired. She dropped beside her and rubbed her small feathery face against Ada’s.
“There will be a place for us. I know it.”
The wind shifted, and as though she had summoned the sound, they heard the distant sound of church bells: a single low bell rung nine times, then a pause, then nine more.
Nine, and nine again. Blanche said, “Nine tolls for a man, and seven for a woman—” the distant bell was tolling seven; seven; seven—“and three for a child of more than four years.”
Ada was six. “What if you are smaller?”
Blanche’s voice was a soft clucking. “For an infant, a single bell to remind men of the soul reaped early, and to comfort the mother.”
Three, three, three: a long pause, and then a single toll.
Blanche said, “Someone still lives, to climb the church tower and pull the rope. There is order there. That is where we must go.”
“Will they want us?” Ada asked, for Marjory had not.
Blanche smoothed a feather with her beak, heaved herself back onto her sturdy claws. “If they do not, we must find a way to make them want us.”
They followed a sunken lane, smooth with use and pounded smoother by the recent four-toed prints of wastoures. They hid from a youth limping the other way, and from two hard-faced men dragging a high-piled handcart. They hid from a double file of silent monks bearing a dead man on a litter, and from a half-grown wild boar so lost in the pain of its torn flank that it stumbled unseeing down the middle of the lane. In the afternoon, Ada shared the last of her bread with Blanche, leaving the pot with the remains of the butter at the base of a beech tree, for even ants grow hungry.
They were still trudging along the lane when the bell tolled again, so sudden, close, and loud that all they had to do was turn left and climb a hill. And there was the Unlucky Village.
Perhaps the wastoure’s numbers had been greater here, or their hunger. From the breast of the hill the village seemed no more than huddled ruins: houses and cottages destroyed, stone walls and chimneys toppled, roofs collapsed. The outbuildings were torn apart entirely, and only piles of stone, thatch, wood, and withy marked their locations. The fences had been trampled into the ground, the gardens razed. A wasteland of stained, crushed grass was all that was left of the common green. Only the little parish church looked intact, though the lead roof had buckled in one corner. The bell had fallen silent again.
Blanche scuttered a few steps down the path to the village, but Ada did not follow. Seeing this, Blanche said, “Come,” in the tone that had once brought her chicks running (grown now, grown to hens and cocks: grown, gone, and dead).
Ada chewed her lip. “No.”
What is the hen’s equivalent of a sigh? A puff of breath and an impatient shake of wattle and comb? Blanche gave it. “It will be night soon, and there will be wolves and bandits and perhaps wastoures, too.”
Ada’s head shook, no no no, though she did not seem to realize it. “There’s nobody here.”
Yet there was white smoke rising from a chimney, and the sound of iron on wood, and the drifting scent of an oak wood fire and barley porridge on the boil. Blanche sighed again, that complicated act, then harried Ada down the path, the girl stumbling and her lip trembling. But what choice did they have?
They passed the first fallen fence, and at last they saw someone, a woman leaving one of the ruined cottages to hurry across the green.
Ada did a very brave thing then. For all her fear, she called out, “Wait!”
The woman did not stop, only averted her face as she ran past, vanishing round the corner of a paling half-erected to surround the church. Blanche fluttered into Ada’s arms, and they tumbled after her and saw other people now: a woman stacking wood salvaged from a ruined house, a man digging a grave. Another, holding a paling upright in its hole, looked up grim-faced, but he also said nothing, and turned back at a sharp word from the man trying to set the post in the ground—as though that would stop the wastoures when they came again; as though anything would.
Ada stood uncertainly in the middle of the claw-flattened lane. “What should we do?” she whispered, though she knew that Blanche would not speak in front of these hard-faced people. The hen in her arms only shook her head.
“Who are you?” asked a voice, unexpected and very close. Blanche fluttered to the ground with a squawk, but Ada looked up into the face of a man they hadn’t noticed. He had been rehanging a nearby cottage’s door; he still held a mallet and the new-forged pin for the hinge.
Ada looked at Blanche for advice, but the hen said of course nothing. “Are you ghosts?” she asked at last.
The man put down his mallet and stepped back from the door. He was very tall, and wore dusty black shoes. “We look it, I guess,” he said. “Are you?”
Ada shook her head. “No, I am a girl, and this is Blanche. She’s a hen, not a ghost either.”
“You’re alone?” The man walked across.
“No!” said Ada, indignantly. “I have Blanche. But we don’t know what to do.”
The man looked down from all his great height for a moment, then knelt and reached out a hand to her. “You might stay here with me and the boy. I’m Robert. I have room for you if you want it.”
After disaster, when we are adults, we survive if we can. We are hungry, we are cold, we are sick or injured. We save what and who we can. There is fear, loss, and crippling grief, but we do not have time or energy yet to fully reckon our dead. We must think about tonight and tomorrow: portioning out the phone’s charge and our only bottle of water, tallying the last seven doses of our heart medication, now six, now five. Periods start whether we have tampons or not. Diapers need to be changed even when there are none.
But someone will come. We will hear helicopters, trucks, see red crosses and crescents. We will be safe.
When we are children alone in the heart of horrors, we do not know this.
There had been no warning for the Unlucky Village, no boy earning pennies until he felt the wastoures’ talons scything the air at his heels. Robert had been a farrier (but the horses were gone) and a husband (his wife, as well: walking back from the Egendon market where she had gone to sell her weaving) and a father (daughters dead with their mother, and his son in the churchyard’s fifth new grave). Robert was an old man, though he had not been so a week ago.
He gave Ada the loft his children had shared. “But no chickens inside,” he said, so Blanche slept in the henhouse, which was empty except for her own quick heartbeat, for the wastoures had found them all. Each night Ada crept out to cuddle with Blanche, until Robert brought her back in.
There was another child that he had found: a boy a little older than Ada. The day after the wastoures had passed, Robert had gone searching for his wife and daughters, though he found no signs of them but a ribbon that might once have been blue. On his way back, he heard a hopeless, unaware moaning from within the hollow trunk of a fallen oak tree and opened the trunk with his axe. There was a boy, wedged as deep as he had been able to get. His right foot was shredded where the wastoures had worked for a while at pulling him out. Robert brought the boy home and laid him in his own bed. The boy’s name was Ulf, though Robert will never learn this.
This, then, was Ada’s family in the Unlucky Village: grieving Robert substituted for bitter Marjory, raving Ulf for the cruel sisters, and Blanche. There was plenty of food (though no meat) and blankets enough for everyone who was left. Robert was gone all of each day, trying to set the fields to rights without oxen, guarding against looters, working on the paling—for always the Unlucky Village worked in fear of the next wave.
It was Ada’s job to watch the porridge pot and the fire, and also to watch the boy. When Robert was not by, Blanche crept in and sat with her. Her plucked feathers were growing back, little sharp quills so delicate she could feel air moving like fingers on them.
Watching Ulf was not an easy thing. He was feverish and kept reaching down to paw at his leg above the ruined foot, where it was mottled the color of marsh water. He gabbled Mother and Father, Jesu and Mary; the names of his sisters and brother, his dog, and his family’s cows.
On the second day, he started up in his fever and grasped Ada’s arm with a hot hand like a claw. “You don’t belong here,” he hissed. “He’s my father now.”
Blanche flared her wings and snaked her white neck forward, but before she could peck him, he had released Ada and fell back delirious again, crying and repeating, “The Lucky Village, the Lucky Village.”
Blanche settled on Ada’s knee, one wary golden-black eye on the boy. Ada whispered, “What’s the Lucky Village?”
Blanche contemplated, in the way she had. “It’s a true thing. There is a village where the wastoures don’t come.”
“Is it a town with a moat?” asked Ada.
“No,” said Blanche. “It is just luckier than others.”
“Where is it?”
“Somewhere near.” Blanche kept no maps in her head, though she could find places once she knew they existed.
“Your chicken talks?” said the boy abruptly. He had a habit of sudden lucidity.
Ada said, “No.”
“I know it did! I’m sick but I’m not deaf.” He pushed himself upright in the bed.
“You dreamed it,” said Ada fiercely, “and if you tell Robert, I will stick you with a pin”—for she had forgotten that the running boy had taken the pin her mother had given to her. But when Robert returned at dusk (and Blanche in the yard, meek as a nun, as though she had never seen the inside of a house), the boy had fallen back into terrors and seemed to remember nothing of their talk. A line had begun creeping up the boy’s leg like a streak of oak-gall ink, ankle to calf.
“He’s going to die,” Blanche said softly once when they were together, and Ada nodded. She remembered the smell from when her parents had died.
But Robert did not know that smell, or chose to ignore it. The boy would be fine. He needed time. He needed herbs. He needed charms hung over his bed and painted upon his leg. He needed to be kept cool, to be kept warm, to be poulticed with nettle infusions, to sleep, to be prayed over. The line crept up and up. When Ada could not sleep for the sound of the boy’s sobs, she crept into the henhouse and cuddled Blanche close, nose deep in her sweet, earthy fluff.
On their third day in the Unlucky Village, there was news: a boy not running but trotting loose-kneed with exhaustion, who told them that a wave of wastoures had passed in the night, to the north. “Is Woodend safe?” asked a woman whose daughter had moved there to wed; but the boy shook his head.
“I started in Berton, and I ran through Tirborne and Nutley and Chatton, and I hid in a tree when they went past, and now I’m going back. I came past Woodend last night. There was nothing left.” He thought. “Nothing to recognize.”
But the woman was screaming already and she beat him with her fists until two of the men pulled her still screaming away; and instead of staying for the night as he had hoped to, the boy left—though with a wallet full of fried porridge-cakes and new apples slipped to him (but secretly) by one of the other village women. For it was not her bad news he carried, and it might have been.
Now, this boy also is gone from this tale. He will return safely to Berton with thirty-two pennies, apprentice himself to the blacksmith (who has lost all his sons), and in time become blacksmith himself. He will have three daughters and two sons, and mourn his first wife when she dies in childbirth, but not so much that he will not wed again. He will not have nightmares. He will not dream. Horror does not strike all equally.
That night Robert said, “The boy needs meat.”
He and Ada sat at the little crooked table beside the fire, eating porridge stiff from a day’s cooking, with hazelnuts and some lettuces that had survived the garden’s ruin, and drinking small beer. Ulf had rejected everything. He tossed in the corner bed, moaning in his sleep.
“There is none,” Ada said sadly. Her mouth watered as she thought of stewed beef, duck meat pressed until it was tender, trout fried and sizzling; the sweet flesh of such chickens as were not Blanche.
Robert gestured outside. “We have the hen.” Blanche was pecking for insects just beyond the cottage door; she looked up, her white feathers aglow in the sunlight, plump, bright-eyed, and hale.
Ada shook her head.
He rubbed his eyes. “We have to be reasonable. It isn’t laying and it’ll have no chicks. And the boy needs to eat. A good broth, some stewed meat—”
“He’s sick, girl. We need to get him better.”
“He’s not going to get better,” said Ada: too young to know what should not be said. “He’s going to die anyway.”
Robert slammed his fist on the table and stood, and the room loomed with his shadows, cast from firelight and the late sun shining in through the door. “The boy will be fine!” he said.
Ada began to cry, and Blanche scuttered through the door and flutter-hopped ground to bench to table, and launched herself at Robert’s face. Robert threw up his hands to protect his eyes and grabbed Blanche by the throat. She hung, fluttering and squawking.
“You can’t eat her,” Ada cried. “She is a talking chicken.”
“Lies are the Old Gentleman’s work,” Robert said sternly.
But Ulf had been awakened by the fight, and said, in the quick feverish voice that came in his moments of clarity, “It does! I heard it yesterday. And she said she would stick me with a pin if I said anything.” He jabbed a thin finger at Ada.
“Hens do not speak,” Robert said, and held up Blanche to look at her, no longer struggling but hanging loosely in his hands. Blanche gave a sudden writhe and dropped to the table, and said:
“If I did, would you not eat me?”
This was the end of Ada’s family in the Unlucky Village.
Robert stopped his ears against Blanche’s words and Ada’s tears, and dragging the girl to the coop, threw her inside, the hen scuttering protectively after her; slammed the door shut and left them there. A talking chicken must be some trick of the Devil. It might even in some fashion attract wastoures, for hen and horror were likewise two-legged and claw-footed, snake-necked and bright eyed. In any case, Robert had no room in his life for things he did not understand yet could not ignore. The hen would be killed and made soup of, that was understood, though first the priest must expel any demons, lest they enter the boy. That would be a task for the morning. The girl would get over it. What choice did she have?
But in the night, as Ada clutched Blanche tight in her arms, the hen said to her, “We must go.”
“Where?” asked Ada. “Everywhere will be like this.”
A chink in the back wall admitted a blade of steel-colored moonlight. “The people of this village see nothing but badness. The Lucky Village will be different.”
“Will it?” said Ada dubiously. “Shouldn’t we go to the Town With A Moat?”
But even a talking hen that sees truths may ignore them, and decide instead that the easy path is the only one. Blanche said, “The Lucky Village will be fine.”
The coop had been built to keep chickens in and foxes and weasels out; still, fear and fingers found a way to pry loose a board in the back. It was noisy but no one of the Unlucky Village (not even Robert) opened their tight-sealed doors to learn what new ill thing the sounds augured.
Ada squeezed out, and Blanche after her, and for the rest of the night, they hid in a ravaged cottage nearby. At first light, they started to walk. There was no food and no blankets, only the eight remaining silver pennies and a shawl which had once belonged to Robert’s oldest girl, which he had given to Ada, soft as a chick and blue as an August sky.
The raving boy, Ulf, will die in two days and be buried on the third. Robert will die later, and it will not matter when or why or how, even to Robert.
Blanche and Ada walked for a day and another, and in the night between, they slept in the house of a woman who said not a single word, only wept steadily as November rain, even while she put out fresh-baked oakcakes and honey for them both and arranged a blanket into a little nest beside the fire. Though there was room enough and the walls were firm, neither girl nor hen spoke of staying. In the morning, the unspeaking woman gave them the last of the oatcakes and a skin to carry water in.
Things happened, horrors and little beauties.
When it seemed prudent, Ada asked after the Lucky Village, but no one had heard of such a place until an ancient man mumbled past his five remaining teeth, “That’m Byfield.” He pointed with a finger so bent it seemed to turn back on itself. “’Along o’ there. An’ east o’ the Hangin’ Cross an’ west at the River Bye an’ on for five, six miles. But they don’ like strange folk”—and he pointed to a scar on his arm, many decades old.
On for five, six miles. They ate worms and honey cakes, purslane and dandelions, and berries from inside a bush where the birds had not gotten to them. They ate beetles and a loaf of barley bread that Ada purchased from a blank-faced man with one of her pennies. They grew hungrier. They hid. They hid. They hid.
At last they came to a narrow lane with a signpost Ada could not read, but—“This way,” said Blanche. They turned and came down through a copse of oak trees between fields amazingly untrampled.
And there it was. The Lucky Village was cradled in a curve of a clear, swift-moving stream, and the green before the gray stone church was clustered with fat sheep—for in these troubled times, it seemed safest to keep them close. There were chickens (though none who spoke) and geese and even a farrowing sow. There was a parson and a miller, a blacksmith and a harness-maker, a baker and a woman who gave herbs and treated injuries, a man who rented out his strong back and a woman born foolish who could not speak—and what was her use in the village none would say (though we guess and do not guess wrong).
The Lucky Village had never been attacked by wastoures. They did not understand what accidents of landscape and circumstance protected them, so they interpreted their safety in their own way. They were lucky because they were good—but they also had to be careful: virtuous, discreet, cautious, slow to change, swift to assess sin and exact punishment. They were wary of strangers at all times, but during a wastoure summer, the Lucky Village turned everyone away, with weapons if need be.
Ada and Blanche were intercepted by a man scything a field and brought to the steps of the church to stand before the parson and the blacksmith. The rest of the Lucky Village gathered around them. They asked questions: What did a very small girl in a sky-blue shawl, carrying seven pennies and a chicken as white as a pearl, have to offer that they could not simply take from her (had they not been good men)? Was she good? Did she know her prayers? Did she honor the Church? Did she work hard?
Ada, confused and tired and hungry, wept.
The Lucky Village said, Well, we don’t need more of that.
Ada scrubbed her eyes against her shoulder (for her arms were filled with Blanche) and said, “My chicken is magic. She does tricks.” Blanche gave a sudden start.
The Lucky Village said, What sort of tricks?
Blanche was looking as wary as a chicken can look, head tipped sideways to see Ada fully from one golden-black eye. Ada only lowered Blanche to the stone stairs.
“Blanche, count to nine.” Nine was a lucky number.
Blanche tapped the stone delicately with one ivory-nailed foot. Nine times.
It’s a sham, said the Lucky Village. You always say nine, or you gave her some secret signal.
“What is three plus four, dear Blanche?” said Ada.
Blanche spread her wings and resettled them. Arithmetic was hard until she imagined beetles scuttering across the ground and snapping them up, first three, then four. Seven.
Exclamations; a spattering of hands clapping.
“And she can dance, and she can talk, and she can tell the weather. But she will only do it if you let us stay.”
The woman who gave herbs to the Village knelt. “Poor little things!” she said. Her voice was kind. “You may stay with my husband and me. We have never had children.”
“And no one will eat Blanche?”
No one, promised the Lucky Village.
It all looked very much as Ada’s little home had looked. Her new mother and father were kind, if stern, though they gave her much to do and were very serious about her prayers. In her home with her own parents (before they died), Ada had not yet learned the church-word prayers, just little English rhyming versions; after their death, Marjory had not cared much about Ada’s eternal soul, but now her new father demanded she learn the Pater Noster and Ave Maria, and he beat her when she was slow—though not hard: a swat merely, to keep her alert. Blanche, who was always close by, ruffled up at this but did not peck or claw.
Even on the warmest afternoons, Ada wore the blue shawl and carried with her the seven pennies, her little knife, and some bread—for after leaving the Unlucky Village, she had learned to keep close everything that was hers, plus whatever food she could. Her new mother gave her an ancient mended leather pouch for this purpose, to reassure her until she settled in.
There was a bed for her inside the cottage, but Ada slept with Blanche in the coop. “It’s not right,” said her new father, but her new mother only said, “Peace, husband; she has seen things. Give her time.” And so it was permitted (for now), and in the meantime Ada learned the church-word prayers and worked hard.
There were other chickens. None of the chickens of Marjory’s flock had ever spoken save Blanche, but who knew the natural rules of talking among chickens? Not Ada. When she asked Blanche, the hen disdained them all as silly creatures saying nothing worth hearing. But this was the price for staying in the Lucky Village, Blanche knew: sleep safe, surrounded by fools who are not even kin.
In the long blue August dusks, the Lucky Village brought out a rough table from behind the alehouse and placed it on the green, and Blanche hop-fluttered onto it and answered questions. At first she only added numbers for them, tapping the worn wood with one white toe.
Then the Lucky Village asked, You said it talks? That it tells the morrow’s weather?
Ada and Blanche looked at each other. Robert had cast them out for speaking at all, let alone foretelling anything: why should the Lucky Village be any different? For Ada had not lied: The weather was one of the truths that Blanche knew, though she had never bothered to speak of it before the wastoures came. It could not be changed and she’d had her coop to retreat to, so why bother? But it had been useful as they wandered, since the wastoures.
“Yes,” said Blanche finally. Her voice was a sweet gabble that cut through the rattling twilight insects and the never-quite-gone murmur of the Lucky Village’s talk. “Tomorrow will start foggy down by the stream, but it will clear, and after that it will be hot and bright. The trout will stay cool in the hollow below the willow tree. The bees will cluster on the goosefoot and the meadow saffron. Beetles will hide, but the little grass-snakes will lie in the sunny lane and be easy to catch.”
Exclamations, uneasy laughter, surprise. Some thought Ada spoke for Blanche through a clever trick, though she was very young to have such skill. A few groused that anyone could predict all that at this season. One or two wondered whether this was the Devil’s work. But on the whole, the Lucky Village was pleased. Knowing the weather was indeed useful, and perhaps this hen was yet another proof that they were not lucky but blessed.
Days passed. On the Feast of St. Alcmund, wastoures seethed across the countryside a few miles to the south. Jesu preserved the Lucky Village, yet again.
A few days after that came a running boy, warning of another wave from the west, half a day away and headed straight toward them. He made no pennies from the Village for, safe in God’s arms, it knew it owed him none; and in any case he was a coarse, ill-favored child that stirred no compassion. Cursing them for heartless, he turned to go, but Ada ran after and gave him one of her pennies. Now she was down to six.
His name is Piers, this running boy. He has a birthmark shaped like a hare on his face, and an expression in his despairing eyes that no child should bear. His ankle hurts, from when he stepped on a rock and it shifted underfoot, but he still can run. How likely is it that he survives? How real do you want your fiction?
In the indigo twilight after vespers that night, the Lucky Village crowded close to Blanche. The nights were growing cold, so there was a bonfire that cast a shuddering light across them all. The Village would be fine, of course it would—though there were some who thought they might have shown more compassion to the running boy, given him bread at least.
Naturally we trust our benevolent Lord, said the Lucky Village. But. Is there anything we should be doing, anything more? Are we failing at anything?
“I am a hen. If you want sermons, go to Parson John,” Blanche said, a little tartly, for her new-growing flight-feathers were itching. Parson John paused from sweeping the first fallen leaves from the steps of his church, just in earshot though not a part of the ring of listeners. He was one who believed Blanche was a temptation instead of a reward, but he trod warily. His flock’s willingness to be led was inconstant in wastoure summers. They might cast him out.
Well, say something, said the Lucky Village.
With what was very near a sigh, and knowing they found comfort in such things, Blanche spoke the church-words Ada had been learning. “Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum. Benedicta tua in —”
“Profanation!” Parson John cast down his broom with a clatter that startled Blanche into Ada’s arms; who stood beside the table. The Lucky Village exclaimed, murmured, and looked uneasily between man and hen.
“Did she get them wrong?” asked Ada: she was not as good with the church-words as Blanche.
“Abomination!” he bellowed, and the Village’s murmurs grew louder, became mutterings. Ada’s new mother stepped forward, but her new father placed his hand on her arm: safer to wait and see how this would arrange itself. The ring of watchers parted to admit the parson as he stomped to the table, stabbed a finger toward Blanche. She eyed his pointing finger rather as though she might bite it, feathers ruffled in the hot wind of his shouting. “A beast must not speak the words of angels!”
“She’s not a beast!” said Ada, looking up, indignant. “She’s a chicken.”
The parson towered over her. “A soulless beast!”
Parson John looked around the ring, and shouted, “Our Lord gave us dominion over such! And we throng to this beast, like the Israelites in the desert before the false idol of the Calf, and we listen to heresy. He will not forgive.”
Ada’s new mother stepped backward, into the circle of her husband’s arm, and turned her face away.
This is how Ada and Blanche were cast from the Lucky Village that very night, into the path of the ravening wastoures.
What of the Lucky Village, cradled in a fluke of geography and conditionally cruel? You blame them for sending children to die alone. But they have their own. They must be prudent; they must be reasonable. They must make a choice, and so they do what is right for their own children, and not these strangers—though of course there are some that are merely cruel, or selfish, or too absorbed in their own fears to spare thought for others.
Their God does not seem to mind, but we little gods that are writers: we mind. Imagine the Lucky Village destroyed at last, if it comforts you. Or, if you are kind, imagine it learns its lesson and is rewarded with long lives and rich harvests. Imagine there is a lesson here. Still, why is fiction held to a higher standard than reality?
Dusk was fading into darkness. Ada fled headlong, for the men who had driven them away were still outlined by the bonfire with their cudgels and staves, and they scared her. Blanche scurried alongside, calling in her distress. They ran over the curve of the hill and then farther, until they were in a lane between trees, where not even starlight could reach them (for the crescent moon was not yet risen) and it was utterly black.
They ran until Ada stumbled, fell headlong into the unseen lane and sprawled there, grizzling and crying. Blanche huddled close.
“Hush,” said Blanche, with the soft chuckling of a hen soothing her chicks; but her ears were open.
Ada wailed; she had hit her chin and was seeing stars, green flaring bursts behind her eyes, though it was so dark.
“Hush,” said Blanche, but it was no longer a chuckle: it was a sharp snapping cluck.
Ada wept. She was six.
“Hush,” said Blanche, and this time it was a terrified whisper.
Ada’s breath caught in her throat.
They heard it over their own hurrying heartbeats: still distant, the storm-sound of chattering nattering shrieks, the thunder of clawed feet.
“Not under the trees. Not like this. We must get into the open,” said Blanche.
They stumbled through utter-filled utter darkness; and still the sounds, behind them and to their right. There were other noises now: splintering wood, branches torn, an animal’s scream so tormented that it could not be identified as man or beast or bird. They tumbled on until they saw a lightening ahead, and suddenly they were out of the trees and fleeing beneath a star-scattered sky. The lane ran between fields too dark to see as more than textures, but smelling of barley to one side, scythed hay to the other. No houses, no lights, no shelter, no convenient tree; and still the sounds. Closer, louder.
There was a ragged wall on one side of the lane, a bit taller than Ada’s head. “Here,” hissed Blanche, and terror pushed them up the rough stones.
They crouched on the wall’s top course, which was scarcely wider than Blanche’s body. Everything was dark still. The gabbling sounds came from across the lane and beyond the barley field; as much as they could for the darkness, they watched the trees there. But now sounds came down the lane as well: a thundering of hooves and alarm-calls. A herd of fallow deer raced heedless in their hundreds, so close that Ada could have reached out and touched their heaving flanks as they passed. The wind of their flight smelled rank and peppery.
They could not see what pursued at first, but they heard them: the gabbling and screeching of wastoures. It was not the main wave, only a few score that had smelled the deer and broken from the larger group to stampede the herd. They hurtled past, and above them Ada and Blanche crouched, frozen, soundless, and as flattened as they could be on so narrow a perch.
The wastoures’ heads were lower than the fence’s top edge and perhaps they would not have bothered with Ada and Blanche, or even noticed them. But an adolescent bringing up the rear hesitated as it passed. It rocked back on its haunches, listening. Its head was a long dim wedge anchored with flicking eyes so pale they seemed to glow in the starlight. Ada was still as wax, yet it swiveled suddenly toward them. It scrabbled at the wall but couldn’t get purchase, then opened its long muzzle to bare a fringe of sharp teeth and a hot rotting smell, and gave a call that was a cross between a kestrel’s screech and the tuk-tuk-tuk of a hen calling her kin to food.
“Jump down on the other side of the fence,” said Blanche. “Then run.” But Ada did not move: calcified in fear, trapped tight as a chick in its shell.
After a moment, a larger wastoure joined the first. The smaller one sidled away, lowering its weight on its narrow hips and twisting its head to the side: a silent language unlike that of chickens, and yet Blanche understood it well enough. The higher-ranked wastoure clawed at the wall, long neck stretching up. Closer; but it could not reach, either. It lifted its head and called that screeching tuk-tuk-tuk.
Others loped back: perhaps twenty of those chasing the deer. Looking down, Blanche saw a swarm of backs and reaching necks and snapping long jaws. Ada still did not move, though her eyes were open and gazing at the milling wastoures.
They scraped and jumped at the fence. One, longer-necked, used its chin as a balance point to scratch its way up the wall, forelegs scrabbling along the stones. Blanche flared her wings and stabbed with her beak at its nearer eye, and it fell screaming down among the others, leaving a sticky smear of vitreous humor on the stone and the taste of slugs on her tongue. The swarm attacked the fallen wastoure, but the leader still watched Blanche, as though thinking something through. It made a sound, an abrupt clatter rising from its throat.
Blanche understood it well enough: no longer a sound that summoned others to food, but something like a hen’s challenge-call to a strange pullet brought into her flock. She had not been lead hen of Marjory’s kitchen yard without reason. She growled a chicken’s growl, an angry rattle she had not had to make since her laying days. “Back away,” it was, and, “Who are you to use that tone with me?”
The wastoures went silent and retreated a little, leaving the shredded remains of the fallen one humped against the foot of the wall. Every wedge of a face angled toward her, smeared with blood that looked black under the moonless sky; every pale eye gleamed flatly, like a silver penny rediscovered in a dark corner. The leader snapped its head from side to side and chittered a clattering throat-sound: a clear challenge.
Blanche growled again, louder, and this time it was, “Go.” She opened her wings and stood tall: a rooster’s stance. The leader reared in its turn, slashed the air with its gaping jaw, and chittered.
Was she afraid, fierce Blanche, facing down these monsters? The wastoures were taller, toothed, smelling of fresh blood, with claws sharper than a fighting cock’s spurs; forelegs that reached and grasped in a way that wings could not. More: there was something of cunning in the leader’s eyes. But Blanche was clever, too—and she was so angry that her fear was a mere background hum in her heart.
“Go,” growled Blanche, and she snapped forward with her beak, though the leader was too far away to peck. Nattering, the swarm recoiled. The leader lowered its weight a little on its narrow hips, still looking up. The dialect of its posture was unfamiliar yet understandable: confusion, wariness, skepticism.
Blanche looked down, small and sturdy and strong as a queen with a naked sword in her hand; and, hunched low, the wastoures peered back at her. She said, in words and hen-sounds and manner, “Turn. Turn and run. Run until you drop in your tracks, run until you die. And do not return. Go.”
The leader stepped backward, swiveled, and ran arrow-straight across the barley field. The others collected into a ragged mob behind it and vanished under the trees. In a moment even the sounds of their feet were gone. The only noise was the rustling of leaves: a night wind rising.
Ada still did not move, and when the hen pressed against her hand, it was cold as death. “It’s all right, dear one,” Blanche crooned. “They’re gone.”
The wastoures run, twenty-three of them, driven by a strange compulsion. They run and do not deviate, past farmhouses and villages; and when they come to the ford in the Wendle, where the water breaks knee-high on a riding-mare, they run into the water, lose their footing, and are swept away. Dead, as she demanded of them.
As for Ada, Blanche will not tell her that the wastoures have died. She is a child. She should not have to imagine how they fought the Wendle as it pulled them down, how their lungs filled with weed-foaming water, how their fear was as great as the world.
“What was that, hey?”said a voice behind Ada and Blanche.
His name was Pall, he told them: an orphan who with certain fellow spirits had cobbled together platforms in the trees where they could sleep safely. They were seven in number, and they scavenged for food and other things. “Why, we’re rich!” he boasted to Ada, who had roused at his voice, begun crying, and now followed him, still grizzling, across the cut hayfield with a somewhat limp Blanche in her arms. “I have a silver candlestick, and three shillings and a lady’s fine gown and a gold piece with a lion’s head from some foreign land and a bridle for a horse and—”
The list was a long one, long enough to take them to the beginning of the forest. He stopped at the foot of a tree as he ended, “—an’ I’ll go to the King and he’ll make me a lord, I’ll be that rich.—Here.”
He pointed to a rope leading up into the boughs.
“I can’t.” She started to grizzle again. Ada was a brave girl but she had just seen terrible things. Also, she was tired and hungry—and in any case, she could not climb like this: six and small for her age.
“Rules are, you have to climb to be one o’ us Dead Squirrels,” said he. “But still, that hen o’ yours . . . ” He gave a low whistle and a loop of rope dropped from the heights. “Put your arms through an’ hold tight. I’ll carry that hen.”
“No,” said Ada and held Blanche tighter, squeezing from her a squawk.
“I can take care of myself,” said Blanche. Presumably, the boy had heard her speak already, so there was no point to concealment.
And so it was that they were lifted into the treetops, Blanche clinging to Ada’s shoulder (and trying not to dig in too hard); Ada spinning and bumping until she learned to walk her feet against the trunk as they ascended. Pall shinnied up the other rope so quickly that he was already at the top to hoist her onto a rough platform scarcely bigger than her own little bed had been, back when there had been such things as parents and homes. A single candle in a horn-paned lantern cast grimy light onto the faces and hands of the boys as they sat in the crooks of branches or leaned back into the boughs. The oldest might have been twelve; the youngest was scarcely older than Ada.
“Why’d you bring ’em up?” said the Oldest. “We could have talked to ’em below;” and the Youngest wrinkled his face, adding, “They’re not Squirrels!”
“There’re still wastoures about,” said Pall. “Seemed safest. They got skills, men. From right up here with your own eyes, you saw it. She sent ’em all away somehow, that hen.”
“How’d you do that?” said a Squirrel, as another asked, “Where?” and the Youngest said, “Make them all go away!”
“I didn’t send them away,” said Blanche, who was literal-minded. “I only sent the chief of them. The others followed her. I think that’s their way—like chickens, only not so clever.” She preened a little.
Surprise at her soft gabbling voice. “You talk?” said one; while, “But what did you do?” said the Oldest; and the Youngest shaking his branch in excitement until leaves cascaded down into the darkness, crowing, “I saw! You stood up tall and flapped and shouted and they got scared and ran away.”
“That hen,” said Pall to the others. “She’s got skills, see.”
The Oldest Dead Squirrel looked down at them: Ada, curled tight in the exact center of the platform and still crying a bit; and Blanche standing beside her, small, round, and sturdy, her head tipped so that she could look back at him with one appraising eye.
“Can you send them away?” said the Oldest.
Said Blanche, “Yes.”
“Well, then,” he said. “You can stay.—But not if that’n’s gonna cry all the time.”
And after they tied Ada loosely onto the platform (so that she would not fall off in her sleep), each Dead Squirrel tucked himself into whatever nest he had fashioned in the branches close by, cradled in such wealth as he was able to rescue from the ruins of the world. The Oldest blew out the candle, for candles were scarce (wastoures ate tallow and wax), and in the darkness, the Dead Squirrels spoke. They had names from before or that they had given themselves: Pall and Red Paul, Stibby and Renard-the-Fox, Weyland and Edmund Blue-Toes and Baby Jack. Ada was half asleep and Blanche did not care about such things, and yet the names stuck in their minds and were not forgotten.
And they had stories: a monkey from the Holy Land that Stibby had seen at the last-but-one Michaelmas Fair (but maybe that was a lie); baby pigs that came when you called, and swallows that slept snug as housecats at the bottoms of millponds for the winter (“I saw it myself, so it’s true as true,” said Red Paul); digging out a badgers’ cete in the spring (when sisters and parents still lived), and finding a scrap of tile old as old, painted with a single half-closed eye like a wink. As Squirrels nodded off, stories became whispers, became wishes. Family, family; home, home. No one said safety. They knew there was no such thing. As for the Youngest, he told no tales at all, nor wished, but only cried silently now that he could not be seen.
Soon all were asleep save Blanche, tired as she was and late as it was.
It seemed that she could keep the wastoures away from Ada. Knowing this was like November sunlight in her breast. And Pall was right: she might be able to preserve these boys, as well. A roost in the trees might be home to hens, but people were not suited to it. Come soon, come late, they would need to come back to the ground where their flat sturdy feet served them so well, and when they did, she could keep the wastoures away from them, also.
Ada, safe. The Squirrels, safe.
And the rest. The boys who brought news, running for pennies until their feet or their hearts failed them. All the children: alone, or crowded with family into brief havens, or defended by parents who died before their eyes. And even the ones who would live long lives without seeing a wastoure, but were hunted across the decades in nightmares. All save the silent children already underground and feeding worms in the churchyards. For them it was too late.
The only way to protect them all was to stop the wastoures altogether. Was that possible?
There had been a leader among the wastoures she had sent away. Blanche’s understanding of hierarchies was subtle in ways no human can fathom, but call it alpha. If the swarm that had trapped them at the wall was led by an alpha, then all swarms had alphas. Bring two swarms together, and there would still be just one alpha, for the lesser would fall back. So: gather all swarms together, and there would be a chief of all chiefs, an alphamost alpha. Send that one away and the others would follow.
Where would it be, such a leader of wastoures? And once she knew to ask, this was a thing she knew without learning, like the weather. She felt her, as iron filings feel a magnet: an aged uttermost queen whose cunning was as sharp and strong in Blanche’s mind as the smell of yew in a churchyard. The way to the queen was as clear as home to a salmon in June: some leagues, south by southwest. She ruled in a cool damp cave of limestone that breathed the salt smell of a sea dead and gone long before hens or wastoures or any air-dwelling thing. Her court surrounded her, all the other egg-laying females, also grown old; and beyond them, the last lingering juveniles still too egg-tender to collect and ravage forth.
All of this sensing thrummed with the uttermost queen’s demand to her flock: grow/go forth/find caves and flourish/there is no returning. It was hard to comprehend but not impossible, in the way a traveler in a foreign land can pluck meaning from signs by their shape and placement. It thrummed like a pulse, like surf on a shingle beach.
Could she stop this uttermost queen? Blanche knew truths but not all truths; still, what choice did she have?
The night sky brightened as the crescent moon rose. It found a way through the leaves and shone onto Ada, who jerked upright, looking about wildly.
“Hush,” said Blanche in her gentlest soft chuckling-to-chicks voice. “We are in the trees.”
Ada nodded. “Are we safe?” she whispered.
“We are never safe,” said Blanche. “But from the wastoures, perhaps. I know what to do.”
Ada would not stay with the Squirrels, despite all her fear. She had been afraid since the day her mother died (and the baby with her), which had been five months after her father had died in the fields, cut almost in half by a plough. The people you loved failed you in a thousand ways, not least by dying out of your sight while you were doing what they told you to do, collecting walnuts in a basket or pulling weeds in the garden. After such lessons, who would not keep her eyes fixed on her last loved one? So Ada would not stay behind—and she would not again freeze in fear.
The Dead Squirrels did not want to let them go, but Blanche had a certain voice they all remembered, though their mothers were dead; and in the end, they lowered Blanche and Ada from the tree, with gifts: a stale honeycake they had been saving and a waterskin that was just barely manageable if Ada filled it only halfway.
The Squirrels: three will die, one by a fall, one of the flux, one killed by a man driven mad by this world. Which live? Which die? You have your favorites. Pall, because he is named and has shown kindness. Baby Jack because of his tender sobriquet, and we are sentimental about the young, though the world is not. The Oldest, though you do not even know which Squirrel that is, whether Weyland or Renard-the-Fox or even Edmund Blue-Toes. And if you knew that Stibby used to beat his little sisters and steal their food, and that Edmund once threw stones at a kitten until it died, would that change things?
The remaining four will live for a while, and then die, like everyone else.
Are you counting the deaths in this story, keeping a roster, keeping score? Is it higher or lower than The Wizard of Oz? There are more than I have told you.
Things happened, and other things.
Blanche and Ada backtracked along the path the wastoures had carved, past St Giles’ and Coombe Pastor and what was left of Rufford. Everything was very lush from where the blood had soaked into the ground, and flies clustered like clouds at the thickest-growing places. Blanche scratched for her own food, but Ada needed more: bread at least (there was no meat or milk), and someone to help her when she got a sliver in her heel that she could not reach. She gave more of her pennies away, and soon there were only two.
At midafternoon on the sixth day, as the sky darkened with rain to the northwest, they came over the shoulder of a raw-rocked hill and saw a ruin in a clearing of the forest below them: the pale crumbling walls of what had once been a Roman villa, destroyed not by wastoures, but by weather and centuries of people stealing its stones for their own chimneys and fences—though it had been long ages since any had come to this place.
Blanche shivered. The uttermost queen was stronger now that they were so close, and her demands scratched at Blanche’s mind the way growing feathers prickled in their sockets: grow and go forth/eat/do not return/do not stop until you find new grounds/if you can. Walking into the compulsion was like wading against flowing water, but Blanche marched on, and Ada close beside her.
They picked their way down the slope toward the villa. There were no plants beyond a few dusty shrubs, for anything smaller had been trampled flat by the waves of departing wastoures. There was no sound of living creatures, not so much as a fly; but when a rumble of thunder made them look up, they saw two birds circling against the heavy clouds. Blanche cast one golden-black eye on their braiding flights and knew them for carrion crows. Ada only wondered whether they had babies and how they kept them hidden.
A lone wastoure came suddenly around a collapsed wall, gawked, and gave a stuttering cry that was fierce cousin to the tuk-tuk-tuk of a hen summoning her chicks. A second popped from a hole in a leaf-covered floor. A third. More poured around corners and up from holes, and loped toward Blanche and Ada, calling. Tuk-tuk-tuk.
“I wish I had not brought you,” said Blanche, but Ada laid her hand on Blanche’s broad back and said, “Where else would I go?”
The first wastoure paused some paces away, wary and weaving, twisting its neck to peer from each eye in turn. Tuk-tuk-tuk. The others streamed past it, until—
“Stop,” Blanche said, with her rattling growl.
The foremost wastoures halted as though they had slammed into a wall, so abruptly that the rest crashed into them and they all fell together in a shrieking, bickering mass. Blanche flutter-hopped on, Ada alongside, and the wastoures scrambled out of reach; but more kept appearing, and more, until chicken and child walked through a crowd of them, in a clearing an armspan across.
The wastoures were a cohort not yet full-grown and mostly the same size, a little taller than Blanche and waist-high to Ada. In her small experience, the only thing like this had been coming into Marjory’s kitchen-yard in the morning, when the hens would swarm toward her, hungry and loud. This was so much worse. She could smell their hot breath, a mix of sweetness and rank meat, like flyblown bacon hanging in a chimney before the smoke has cured it. Their claws beat on the hard-packed earth. She felt a touch on her heel and though she wanted to be brave she gave a little scream.
Blanche said, “Back.”
The wastoures stumbled away, though they still kept pace, and Blanche fluttered up into Ada’s arms.
Down the hill, and into the tumbledown villa itself. Blanche’s eyes were on the wastoures, but Ada was watching her feet, for it would not do to fall. A single perfect circle appeared on the dust: a raindrop, and then another. The ground changed as she walked, claw-pounded dust to rain-spattered dirt to flagstones, and finally to a ruined mosaic peeping through the leaf-litter. Ada saw a golden-red fish against waving blue lines, and then more, a school running in a river of blue and green. The rain-wet colors were startling.
Ada tightened her grip. “We found it!” she whispered. “The Town with the Moat!” Blanche only ruffled a little, a hen’s equivalent of a frown.
They crossed the pavement to where two ruined walls met. “Here,” said Blanche, and dropped from Ada’s arms.
The wastoures stopped, a tight chattering circle that blocked all ways. All ways but down: there was a triangular hole at Ada’s feet, where a flagstone had broken in half and left a gap.
A wastoure popped up its head, a quick lunge away.
“Go,” said Blanche, and it fell back as though it had been struck.
Ada did not like holes: not cellars, not caves, not even the thought of safe happy busy burrows full of baby rabbits and their tender mothers. And this was none of those, but a gash, a ragged breach fringed with dirty broken mosaic that looked like teeth. (She did not think, like monsters’ teeth. She knew what the teeth of monsters looked like.) Through the hole, she could see a second floor some feet beneath the first, heaped with leaf-mold and sticks, and the fallen flagstone, tipped at an angle that made it look like a wet, pale tongue.
The young wastoures jostled closer, snake-necked and sharp-beaked, narrow heads weaving and bright claws curling. Their eyes were hungry and curious.
“Back,” hen-growled Blanche, and they recoiled.
Ada looked into the hole.
Blanche said, “I know. But we must go there.”
Ada knew hard truths: had been raised in them. They dropped together.
In another version of this story, they do not come to the ruined villa, but instead find the Town With a Moat. Ada is collected into the heart of a family with three daughters, whose names are Charity, Kindness, and Patience. Blanche is given a gold collar and lives to a great age.
It was not a long fall, and there was a pile of litter at the bottom, pounded into a cushion by the claws of wastoures. Ada landed awkwardly, but Blanche fluttered down, white wings outstretched, and guarded her as she clambered off the leaves. They were in a broad low space, as large as the room overhead would have been, and just tall enough for Ada to stand upright. Irregular piles of rock served as pillars to hold up the . . . floor, it had been when they walked above; but here it was their roof. Daylight and silver rain filtered in through holes where the floor-now-roof had fallen.
A thousand years before, this space would have been heated by a furnace, and the villa’s owner would have walked through his rooms warm-footed and smug, but neither Ada nor Blanche had ever imagined such things as hypocausts. Nor had that owner (whose name was Fabricius, who died of cancer; at the end, he wore a red scarf concealing the tumors on his throat: not a vain man but tidy) imagined such things as wastoures, for they came down from the mountains only when he was gone.
The general darkness and the pillars made it hard to see far clearly. Wastoures dropped through the holes and crowded closer, more with each moment until—
“Back,” hen-growled Blanche.
Just out of arm’s-reach, the circle re-formed. The uttermost queen’s demand vibrated in Blanche’s hollow hen-bones, closer now, trembling in each feather like a maddening itch: grow/go forth/waste the way/find home and hole/do not return.
A young female pushed forward into the circle of space: clever and assertive, alphamost of those present. It reared tall and looked down on the hen, first with one eye, then the other, and Blanche read the challenge clearly enough. To gain the high ground, she hopped onto the fallen flagstone, though peering faces fringed the hole just overhead. Now she could see more clearly across the hypocaust. Ada, still as a stone, in a dirty shawl that had once been the color of sky. The sharp challenge in the young alpha’s eye as it swiveled to view her, the reflexive clench of its foreclaws. The wastoures in their scores, a milling chaos in rain-wet darkness and the streaks of light from above. There was a rough gash in the far wall of raw rock that led down into deeper darkness. It was there they must go.
Blanche opened her pearl-white wings and stretched her neck and hen-growled, “Leave. Die. Be gone.”
Her order beat against the queen’s demand. To the young wastoures, it was like the throb of two great bells tuned a quarter tone apart: a thrumming in their teeth, in the fluid of their eyes, in their hearts struggling to keep the beat. Some dropped to their haunches shivering and clawing themselves, but most attacked whatever was closest, pillar or kin—though never Blanche and Ada. Some seethed toward the holes and, pillaring over their fighting broodmates, fled into the rain. A hard-willed few did not seem much affected, the young alpha among them; they still encircled Ada and Blanche.
“Go,” Blanche said, with wing-mantle and head-thrust and hen-growl. In the end, the alpha snapped her jaws but stepped aside, and the remaining wastoures dropped back. Blanche and Ada crossed to the broken place in the hypocaust floor. Rank cold air breathed up at them. They crawled through.
A thousand years before Ada and Blanche, when the villa’s builder had selected his site, the laborers had discovered a hole. There was no telling what caves or hidden rivers might be there to undermine the villa’s foundation, and the hole was too small for an adult to pass through, so they sent down a child of eight. An orphan. The child did not return. They built there anyway, sealing the hole with a great flat stone.
The child’s bones are gone; should I tell you how he died?
Blanche and Ada stood on that fallen stone. They were at the highest point of a limestone cavern, a long, sloping-floored space barely touched by a rain-silver glow that filtered from two places, the hole behind them and a single high crevice off to one side.
Ada saw only glints and movement; faint light touching the curve of what might be an egg, the sudden spark of a kindling eye. She heard pattering claws, a dislodged stone, the breathing of the young ones clustered in the doorway behind them. She smelled water and earth and the memory of salt. And wastoures.
Blanche saw even less than Ada, but she understood more. The eggs of the uttermost queen and her court had been laid here, across decades, collecting until a current ran through them, like the chemical change that pulls a cicada brood from its shells, each seventeenth year. The eggs hatched and the young grew, then left in their legions, seeking new caves that would meet the needs of so stringent a reproductive strategy. This wastoure summer was waning, so only a few hundred eggs remained, clustered at the cavern’s far end. Beneath the queen’s demand—grow/go forth/find caves/and flourish—Blanche could feel the weak, unformed impulses of the restless unborn, pressed against their curving walls.
A score of females stood between Blanche and the eggs: the court. She felt the currents of their thoughts, as well: fear and anger, ambition for themselves and their eggs, but above all, pervasive and unstopping, a desperate hunger that wastoures thrive. They stepped forward, silent and snaking-necked. And among the eggs themselves stood the uttermost queen, the alphamost alpha: ancient, crumpled as wet linen, and marked with sores where her skin was shredding, for she was dying, her task nearly completed.
She did not advance: did not need to. Her underlying demand did not change, but there was another thread now, tenuous (for her kind had not changed their demand in long centuries) and specific: kill this unflock thing/do not let it be.
“Die,” Blanche said to the uttermost queen, though she knew already that she would not be stopped so easily. And she was right. The queen only shivered, as though shaking away a spiderweb; but the rest were confused—the court, the half-awake eggs, the young fighting overhead in the hypocaust or scattering in the gray rain, nor even the seething hordes long leagues away.
The queen above her eggs stretched her neck, stance broad, tail twisted high and lashing—kill/unkind unkin/unfriendly unflock. Even the strongest of the juveniles could not enter the cave against the ancient demand, go hence, but the females of the court were cleverer, stronger. They advanced.
Ada made a sound in her throat like the squeak of an infant mouse.
“Be gone,” Blanche growled. Two of the court broke and ran in a great curve around Blanche and Ada to the hole, but it was blocked with fighting juveniles. Ada saw none of this, only heard shrieks and claw-nailed feet running, and then smelled the bright fresh thread of blood.
And Blanche said: “Die. Kill your eggs. Kill your queen. Kill yourselves.”
The court’s advance fell into chaos. One attacked another and they rolled screaming down the long sloping floor toward the eggs, and as they tumbled past, others turned to fight one another, or dropped convulsing to the ground.
Deaths and more deaths, wastoures laid waste and wasting. At the still center stood the queen, splashed with the blood of her people, her eggs, and herself: too strong to fall but not able to counter Blanche’s demands.
you/kill all said the queen—who will kill me?/they cannot
“Well, then,” said Blanche. To Ada she said, “Cover your eyes, dear one.”
But Ada did not.
The uttermost queen is gone. The humming voice in the remaining wastoures’ narrow skulls is now Blanche’s: Die. Kill the eggs. Kill yourselves.
The final eggs are ripped open by the last member of the queen’s court, uttermost queen by attrition. She is too weak to kill herself before she tears open the eggs; the yolk-slick infants slide free and writhe in the cold air until she bites open their throats. Her death when it comes is a mercy.
Die, be destroyed.
And the wastoures die. They throw themselves from cliffs. They bolt into lakes. They ram headfirst against stone walls until their jaws dislodge, and still they do not stop. They tear one another to pieces, frantic and babbling with the blood of their broodmates in their throats.
Some hordes are driven by stronger-willed alphas, but even their strength fails. A few manage to avoid Blanche’s demand, alphas and their bands that have gone far enough that the humming lies less heavily. The hypocaust and the chamber of eggs are gone; but the task was always to find a new cavern and begin the long task of producing enough eggs to start a new brood.
One young, strong-willed female does find an apparently suitable cave, though it is chalk, not limestone. She is now the uttermost queen by default. She goes to ground with the band she has been able to save. It is not as good; eggs collecting in a chalk cave are softer-shelled than those laid in limestone. Grow and grow strong, she demands, but the shadow of Blanche’s humming voice sifts into the proteins of their yolks.
When after long years there is at last a new brood, many do not hatch. Some kill themselves or one another before they leave the nest. A few survive, raven forth. Still fewer, the next time there is a brood. There are five last wastoure summers, spread across a century, until they die off entirely and dissolve into memory. Such documents as recorded their ravages are lost, rotted or turned to endpapers and razor strops, mouse nests and tinder.
But in that last century, in those last broods . . . the ever-smaller courts and their weakening queens tell tales of horror to the dwindling eggs and the diminishing young. Pearl-feathered Blanche spreading her wings is a nightmare that everyone shares, stained into their genes, feared more even than skin rot or water. Hers is a name too dreadful to utter in daylight without blood spilled to wash it away. She is a monster, the Monster, Destroyer of Worlds. Waster.
Who calls a thing genocide? Not the aggressors, anyway. Blanche is monster and savior, depending on who you ask.
Here is where we stop, if you want a happy ending—for Blanche and Ada anyway. At the moment, Blanche and Ada are alive, triumphant. The wastoures are defeated.
If we go past this, things complicate again. Blanche is already old, a hen past laying. Ada will also die: plague or childbirth, an infected knife-wound from cutting mutton, dysentery, grief. Even should she die at ninety, safe in her goose-feathered bed and surrounded by loving descendents, she is dust.
Or, turn back to the first page and read their story again. Now they live on, though in darkness and fear. A happy ending depends on when “The End” is written, by whom, and for whom. For purposes of this tale, then: The End.
Kij Johnson is the author of several novels, including The Fox Woman and Fudoki, and a short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. She is a three-time winner of the Nebula Award, and has also won the Hugo, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, and Crawford Awards. In the past she has worked in publishing, edited cryptic crosswords, waitressed in a strip bar, identified Napa cabernets by winery and year while blindfolded, and climbed an occasional V-5. These days, she teaches at the University of Kansas, where she is associate director for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.