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Salt of the Earth

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Martha Tyler had always seen things other people hadn’t. Time slivers had danced around her crib, and from the very start, she’d shivered at the abyss at the edge of the woods that her mother happily walked right through.

It was when she was seven that everyone found out that she had the second sight. Her mother caught her crying because Mr Jones, their neighbour, had died. Summat horrible had got him, she insisted, for all everyone told her nothing had happened. She’d seen it, she told them. She’d seen it. And after Mr Jones turned up, half-eaten by some wild beast the next night, they had to believe her. It was the first time that anyone else knew of her visions, but it wasn’t the last: in years to come, they’d all come asking her what she could see, even the sceptics. A walk in the woods round here would do that to a body.

When she was ten, she was pestered for months by two lost spirits in the bedroom she shared with her sister. They wailed and wept and kept her awake on a night, and her sister never saw or heard, not really, not quite. Maybe she didn’t want to. It left it all up to Martha, who did then what she would always do from now until the very end, and shrugged and tried to find her own way to deal with it.

Her sister went away to their grandmother’s to help there, so Martha thought about comforting lost creatures in the dark, and sat up half the night with a candle burning and told them tales that other people had told her. The next night, she led them through the woods with the candle still in her hand; back into the invisible abyss, where they belonged.

She got a scolding for it and a larruping with the hairbrush, but the bedroom was quiet again and Martha was allowed her dreams once more: they were full of odd, dark things, but also far away, beautiful places that she thought, childlike, might even be fairyland or heaven.

***

She learned the old ways as she grew, from everyone and everything around her: her mother, her grandmother, the neighbours, the woods themselves, and by trial and error. It was hardly even learning, not like the way they did it at school. She knew that parsley was unlucky and peony was for protection, and that you used salt to ward off the devil. When she saw the troubles coming, she knew what to find to make the right charm to keep others from harm. And it always was trouble she saw. Funny that.

Her first consultation was and wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t, because she’d felt it bad that time – a nightmare that seized her from sleep and left her cold and shaking from what she’d Seen, enough for her to risk the anger of her parents and creep down the stairs to put the kettle on in the middle of the night. She clutched the cup and shivered again as she drank it. There was trouble up at the church. There wasn’t usually, not too bad, because the bells warded off the worst of the spirits that crept into places round here, but sometimes the things that got into the woods were cunning and elusive, and they’d burrow their way in anywhere if they took a mind to it.

What was unexpected was old Reverend Dewhurst turning up to ask for her help. She’d seen him out and about sometimes, but mostly to her he was a distant figure in the pulpit on Sundays, with a grand, booming voice for a sermon, but quieter for talking to folks at the door. But then he’d been in the parish a long, long time and it was a funny old church: there were things in it that oughtn’t to be, and he always made sure the bells were rung – rung them himself if there was no one else to do it.

She’d made a charm for her friend Phyllis (hemp seed, to tell her who she’d marry, if she would, the silly thing). Not proper work, but there was no harm to it, except Phyllis’s Mum hadn’t thought so and she’d told the Vicar, which was what had led him to her.

“Something’s got in,” the vicar said. He sat down in one of their old wooden chairs as if he might fall out of it, and put a hand up to rub his temple, clearly finding it an effort to explain. Tired, he looked, Martha thought, as if everything were a trouble to him, and much older and frailer than before. “I thought you might understand – might have something to help.”

She nodded, and they looked at each other. He didn’t have the Sight, but he’d been here long enough with his eyes open that he almost had the glimmerings of it, enough to recognise her at least. Or maybe he just had more sense than most, perhaps that was all. Then she smiled at him, because she’d made the charm already after that awful vision (rosemary and salt, and buttercups sewn up together in a small purse): she hadn’t thought he’d make things easy by coming to ask for it.

“I wouldn’t try fighting it alone, vicar,” she said, touching his arm, everything evened out between them in the seriousness of the matter. “Take everything out of you, it would. Even with that.”

He gave her a small smile and said that he had a feeling the bishop wouldn’t appreciate him asking for help with an exorcism. Might think there was a hint of Rome about it, he added, and sounded wearier still.

“I could help,” she said, and gathered up the salt she’d used to make the first. “If you’d wait a bit.”

“The bells won’t ring,” the vicar said. “I don’t think it can wait very much longer.”

“I’ll come now, then,” she said, though she was supposed to be back up at the Priory soon. She went with him, and scattered salt about the church, saying her charm under her breath, and Reverend Dewhurst said he didn’t suppose the bishop would appreciate that much, either, but he didn’t object. Martha didn’t think all that much of his rites, either, except there was some sense in them at bottom: candles for light against the darkness, and there was salt in the holy water, and words to banish evil things, whether spells or prayers, weren’t so far apart. She fought the devil with the things of the earth, not the things of heaven, because she knew that way, and she knew it worked.

She remembered, though, the darkness of her vision, and kept awake in her attic room at the Priory long after she’d left the church, lighting a candle of her own till the bells rang, and she could sleep, happy in the knowledge that she must have helped.

It took it out of the vicar, though, like she’d told him. When she saw him, she didn’t say it, but she gave him another charm to replace the other, although while the magic of the earth worked against evil, she didn’t even then think it could halt time. It would be all wrong if it could.

“It’s what’s important,” he said, evidently seeing her dismayed look, and she smiled because he expected her to understand, and she did. She learned the old ways, and already folks laughed at her sometimes, or walked on the other side of the road, but it kept people safe: that was what was important.

***

Everyone knew the woods were haunted, and so they got all sorts of people coming down to see them, that was half the trouble. The worst were always the ones with guns. She didn’t hold with them, though most of them took no notice of her. Mind, even one of them came to ask for her help, that once, years back: a dashing Captain who turned up the same year that she got wed.

She wasn’t bad looking when she was young, though always practical, never the glamorous sort. She left that to those who had too much time on their hands, and when Joe Tyler said one day in his unromantic way that he thought they’d suit, she agreed, and never regretted it, either.

It was lights and wisps of fancies that they tried to tempt you away with, the other people, the fair folk – whatever silly name you wanted to call them. She saw things in the woods sometimes that were more beautiful than terrible, but she knew too well that no matter what, no matter where, somebody’s got to do the work: life is life, after all, and it all ends up the same. She kept her feet on the ground, stuffed wool in her ears and used whatever charms would work against such things.

It was much the same with that Captain. Handsome is as handsome does, and she didn’t trust them that were too good-looking and silver-tongued with it. Flattery was only a way some folks used to get what they wanted.

She was still up at the Priory as a kitchen maid, then, which was all right, though the master of the place – Mr Hemmings it was, then – got a bit funny about her hanging clover-charms in the kennels. He tore it down when he found it, and said what they all said at some point: they used to burn witches, you know, as if they were sorry they’d stopped. But, there, educated folk never did know what mattered, after all, and he’d not be there long. Families came and went at the Priory. Someone always meddled with something they oughtn’t and it never went well.

It wasn’t ghosts or things in the darkness that she’d Seen this time, but some creature got out into the woods. She Saw it tearing its way through the Priory and its people, and it was almost too late for a warning this time. She had to gather what was to hand for a protective charm – a small piece of coal and some of the table salt – and went to wait for it where she’d Seen it, armed with a shovel. There was always strength in the earth against its invaders, whether leaves and flowers and roots or a bit of solid old oak and iron.

When it turned up, it was enough of a sight to give her pause – hairy, wiry, and standing on three feet, not two and armed with sharp teeth and claws. Then she made herself move – keep the advantage of surprise, or it’d have her, the rotten thing that it was. She hit it with the shovel, giving it all she had. She could be practical when she needed to be; it wasn’t all muttered spells and herb-gathering.

She remained standing there, shaking and trying to recover her breath from the effort, and looked down at the body that remained real, and thought with a heavy sigh that now she supposed she’d have to bury the horrible thing as well.

“Well, Martha, colour me impressed,” said a voice behind her.

She swung round, and glared. “You didn’t ought to go creeping up on folk – might give ‘em a heart attack!” Then she frowned even harder. “How d’you know who I be?”

“People are talking about you,” he said. “I guess I can see why. And I bet now you’re wondering what to do with the body. Can’t have everyone else staring at it. They’d panic, wouldn’t they?”

She didn’t stop glaring at him, though she knew him now. He’d come to see Mr Hemmings this morning – Captain Harkness, he said he was, and he’d had the housemaids swooning after him, silly things. “Maybe,” she muttered.

“Allow me,” said Captain Harkness and pointed his oddly shaped gun at the body. It fired a beam of light that made her gasp, and the creature vanished into dust.

She glared at the spot where it’d been. She didn’t mind not having to dig a hole for it, but she didn’t trust new-fangled ideas and showy tricks.

“So,” said Captain Harkness, “how about you repeat that with the other one? I’ve got my men out there looking, but you seem to have a knack for this that beats our detectors hollow. You could make my day a whole lot easier.”

Martha said, “Why should I? I don’t know who you are, and if you’re with all them men with guns, I don’t want to.”

“There’s another one of those things out there,” he said. “And if you can find it, you will. Won’t you?”

She sighed, and closed her eyes, and Looked again. The first one had been nasty enough, and she hadn’t stopped to See anything more. Now, she did, and it was an effort: she opened her eyes again, shaking and cold and sweating all together. “Gart’s Copse,” she said, and then watched his face remain blank, and heaved a sigh. “Don’t suppose you know where that is, do you? I’ll have to show you.”

“Martha, you’re wonderful,” he said, and gave her that too-perfect smile. She distrusted it even while she was pleased to have won it. “Lead on!”

They were nearly there when they heard gunshots echo through the trees, followed by all the rustling and cries of startled wildlife. The Captain turned, about to run in that direction when he stopped and looked back at Martha. She shook her head.

“Wrong way,” she said. “Straight on, Captain. Only a yard or two ahead now – here, do you see it?”

He nodded, and then moved ahead of her, even as the second beast emerged from behind the trees. The Captain swung round, and fired the odd weapon of his again, making her wince – it wasn’t right, it wasn’t natural – and the being was light and dust again.

“Well,” he said, brushing down his long coat. “That wasn’t half as hard as it should have been. Don’t want a job, do you, Martha?”

She shook her head again, as emphatically as she could. She was still wondering what they’d shot at if it wasn’t the creature.

“How do you do it?” he asked. “You’re not alien, so what is it with you?”

She was far shorter than he was, even as she drew herself up, but she nevertheless managed to give the impression that she was looking down on him. “I know the old ways is all. And I got more sense than some!”

“And the second sight, too?”

Martha gave a smile of acknowledgement. She was proud of it.

“This little rift’s been here a long time,” he said, talking to himself more than her. “A scar in the earth – maybe it finds its own way to fight back, hey? Like an organism, adapting to fight the infection, you think? Or it’s just strange what things don’t go down well with alien intruders.”

She shrugged. She only Saw things and knew what had to be done. Him, she thought, giving him a closer look, now he wasn’t right at all. “Stolen coat,” she said, narrowing her gaze, “stolen name. You’m seen death, too. More times than you ought.”

“Full marks for observation, but never mind that,” he said, and then kissed her hand, much to her mingled indignation and pleasure. “You don’t want the job, I know, but that’s fine – I could think of better things we could do!” He winked at her.

“I’m spoken for,” she said, all the more gruffly, because even if she didn’t trust flattery, it didn’t often come her way, either, and she didn’t mind knowing that someone would trouble themselves to make the effort. “Wouldn’t be right.”

Captain Harkness gave her another one of his dazzling smiles, scarier than the abyss. “Hey, that’s okay – I wouldn’t dream of leaving the lucky gentleman out of the fun – if it is a gentleman, of course.”

“Get along with you” she said, shocked. You never knew what would come out of that dratted place. “You talk like some heathen – get on and go, and don’t you come back here again, neither!”

 

She found out, after she got back, that his people – all the men with guns – they’d shot at the first thing that moved in the woods, and it turned out the first thing that moved was Mr Hemmings. It was no good, she thought again, as she had before, sending in men with guns, not in those woods with unearthly things lurking about. It only led to more trouble, and she didn’t hold with it.

***

It wasn’t only men with guns that came: it was all sorts. Reporters who wanted a story, or scientists with all their odd machines, or tourists who thought it was a joke, silly folk as wanted to worship evil, and government people in suits, doing surveys. Some of them found nothing and others found more than they bargained for. She did the best she could, but you couldn’t help some folk.

She did the best she could with folk she could, though. She was always ready to come in and work at the Priory – cleaning or cooking, or both – and that put her ready on the spot. Not long after the war, she worked there as the daily help for a couple, the first people who’d lived in the Priory since before the War. The government had had it for a few months, but then they’d left again in a hurry. (They hadn’t let her come near when they’d been there – that was probably their downfall.)

They were famous, people in Fetchborough said. He was Jonathan Argyle, a director or producer – Martha didn’t know or care what the difference was and only had the haziest idea what they did, since going to the pictures was a rare occasion in her life, the theatre even more so – and his wife was an actress. Martha’s son had heard of her, but despite his excitement, the name Hilary Gold meant nothing to Martha, no matter where it might have been up in lights. She called her Mrs Argyle, and kept a careful watch over her.

Some people picked up on things at the Priory and others didn’t. The husband was there for the worst of reasons, Martha soon decided. She’d been getting odd aches and pains ever since he arrived, and that meant trouble. He was one of the folk who thought it was fun to try and raise a ghost or an evil spirit. Maybe he thought it was a joke, but at Fetch Priory, it never ended well.

She Saw it; the shadow stealing over him, but belatedly this time. Sometimes it was difficult; you couldn’t always force the visions. It was too late for him, she could see, but she decided that she wasn’t having anything happen to Mrs Argyle, no matter what sort of fool husband she’d married.

 

Martha crept back into the Priory that evening, armed with what protection she could lay her hands on, as charms for her and for Mrs Argyle. She didn’t have any trouble finding the woman: Hilary Gold ran into her in the hallway, and gave a gasp of relief when she saw who it was. There was a young man in black robes behind her, and he stopped short on seeing Martha.

“Mrs Tyler! Oh, thank God!” Mrs Argyle said, and flung her arms around Martha.

Martha stared past her at the young man, and looked him up and down. “James Wright, if you don’t get out of here this instant, I’ll curse you so bad you’ll wish you’d never been born!”

To her satisfaction, he hesitated only for one brief moment before he turned on his heel and ran. Martha turned her attention back to Mrs Argyle, who was still hanging onto her in relief. “There, there, my lovely,” she said, and then: “We better go, or there’ll be trouble.”

“Jonathan,” Hilary Gold said in agreement, looking up, her face tear-stained. “I don’t know what he was doing. I knew he was playing at some game of – of – black magic, I suppose, but – it isn’t a game at all, is it?”

Martha shook her head, and took her hand. “We’ll get you out of here. Where are they?” she asked. “T’others.”

“The rest were in the cellar,” Hilary said. “After I got out, I locked the door. They’ll stay in there – we can go to the police. He would have killed me, you know. Jonathan! He’s always been arrogant and obnoxious, but I’d never have dreamed –”

Martha shrugged. “Power do go to some folks' heads bad. And what be in here’s the worst sort. A door’s not enough – except maybe –” Then she gripped Hilary’s hand and led her into the kitchen, and passed her the container of tea, while she hunted round for her stash of used tea leaves – she never threw them away lightly – and took them back to put them round the door to the cellar.

“What will that do?” Hilary asked in bemusement.

Martha led her away again. “Might keep the worst of it in,” she said. “Some of they things don’t like it at all, and it’s to hand, which is summat.”

“Tea is of the angels?” asked Hilary, with a nervous laugh. “Is coffee of the devil?”

“None of that now, my lovely,” Martha told her, taking her hand again. “We ought to go now – get you well out of here.” They were an odd pair: Martha in her worn, practical clothes and Hilary, in an elegant suit, still perfectly made up and as beautiful as Martha’s son had said she was on the screen, even if her darkish blonde hair was falling slightly out of place. “You come with me – I’ll keep you safe.”

She had to think, then, what to do. The police could deal with murderers, but they couldn’t cope with darkness and evil; she’d seen that enough times by now. She took Hilary to safety, and then sat down in the woods, and risked trying to See, even there, and what she did made her gasp, and she opened her eyes in sudden, wild alarm. “Fire!” she said, and had to hurry away to find someone to get the fire brigade out.

She saw all sorts of people going in and out of the Priory later. Even she never knew this time, whether it was their own foolishness that had caused the terrible fire in the cellar, or maybe it was some of those men with guns again who’d put an end to it that way. Whatever the truth, and whatever had been in there with them, she knew in her bones that if she hadn’t gone and got Mrs Argyle out, she’d have shared their fate.

People didn’t ought to meddle with what they didn’t understand, Martha thought. They should leave it to her, and then there wouldn’t be half this trouble.

***

Sometimes, in later days, she saw the Doctor again, as if he couldn’t keep away after the time he’d flattened the Priory. A funny man, but he knew about tea and fruit cake and the things that mattered. He looked different each time he came, and her grandson Jack reckoned the Doctor was a code name, and wondered again about that girl (she’d be all right, that one, Martha said) but she’d seen so many things now, that she knew it was him. She didn’t hold with all this unnecessary swapping of bodies, but she grudgingly allowed it in him.

Sometimes he stopped by to put the kettle on, sometimes to help out in a crisis, and sometimes he even took to flattery when he came, but she didn’t mind it so much from people she liked. She didn’t do it to be thanked, but it was nice when folks did.

“Everything changes,” the Doctor said. This time he was greyer, fiercer, but maybe not so much older at heart. “And what happens one day when you’re not here to guard the door, Martha?”

That was a rude question, she thought, and told him so. Then she went to put the kettle on, and told him that there’s always one or two about who keep their eyes and ears open. There’d always be someone. She couldn’t go round thinking she was indispensable – where would it end?

“Irreplaceable, though,” the Doctor said, with a glint of humour showing suddenly. “And you know it, don’t you, Martha?”

She shook her head at him, but still she gave a pleased smile. There’d be others – of course there would. The old ways never died out, not really; there was always someone else coming along to pick up the threads, but maybe sometimes she did think they might not be quite as good at it as she was.