Michael watched the gleaming white fish-shaped craft rise rapidly, its thrumming roar drowning all other sound and its down-draft flattening all vegetation that was not already bound in the dried threads. Petra's excited thought patterns did not diminish even as it disappeared from view into the clouds. In contrast, David's and Rosalind's were a subdued blend of awe, relief, trepidation, grief and exhaustion.
Petra's communication maintained a presence in his mind for some time afterwards, giving a running description of what she could see from the craft's windows, punctuated with pulses of images. But it was far too exhausting so he lay across his mind's surface a need for withdrawal and silence.
A short moment later Petra came back in and conveyed "the Zealand woman says I need to leave you alone now, I'm getting far too loud for everyone. But she says in a few years I will learn how to send thought shapes to you and Rachel again all the way from Zealand. I might even learn how to help you pick up Rosalind and David" she added kindly. "Everyone here says goodbye until then. Rosalind says I need to sleep now."
With those hopeful thoughts, Michael continued his search for a horse.
After wandering for several hours, his bow at the ready, it was with great relief that he found a light bay mare with her reins tangled in a thicket. Her rider also half-lay there, foot still in the stirrup, his leg at an impossible angle, dislocated or broken. He had an arrow through his throat. His finger twitched to show Michael he was still alive. His breathing was ragged and halting. He watched Michael with dull eyes under heavy lids. Michael remembered him vaguely, one of the many hot-headed young men out for a big reward and the sadistic sport of shooting down some of the miserable Deviations of the Fringes.
Michael considered his options. If he tried to save the man's life, he would probably not survive a journey on horse. Michael had no way of splinting the leg, or bandaging the neck wound, let alone heaving him up onto the horse and keeping him upright. If the arrow came out he would bleed to death most likely. So Michael bent down and did the simplest thing he could. Grasping the arrow gently by the feathers, one hand stabilising the man's head, Michael tightened his grip carefully and yanked it out quickly. The man flailed and blood began to pour from his neck. Michael looked away.
After a few minutes, Michael turned back and managed to twist the dead man's foot out of the stirrup and began the task of calming and freeing the horse. Once done, he led the horse away some distance and into a patch of green grass and a pool of water. He kept by the horse, getting it used to him, adjusting its stirrups and tack while it ate and drank.
It was coming on to late afternoon by this time and Michael had perhaps three hours of twilight before he would have to bivouac. Once on the horse, he headed back as truly as he could in the Waknuk direction, carefully avoiding rocks and picking a way through the trees.
It was only two hours later that he was challenged and a pair of sentries approached him, muskets at the ready. In the gathering darkness it was hard to tell whether they were norms or Fringes folk, so except for saying he was unarmed, he didn't say anything until they demanded to see his identity disk.
He found he had fallen in with a mixed band of men from Waknuk, Kentak and nearby districts. They were trying to gather all the last survivors could before they returned home. There were about fifteen. Some had been directly involved in the battle against the Fringes community. Others had played sentry, or searched in nearby areas, similar to the farm that Rosalind had taken the great horses through.
In some ways it was good to have company, for the return journey was going to be a sad and lonely affair until he and Rachel were in range of each other again.
Talk was scattered between the wild reports about the flying machine that many had seen from higher ground as it had come in over the Fringes, the fearful talk about walking abominations, almost as if physical deformity was a disease that could be transmitted. And then of course the wild rumours about Joseph Strorm's son, daughter and niece and possibly others… with powers of mind control. Michael had heard this distortion on the way in and deliberately avoided these discussions.
Michael received some suspicious glances from the men he had fallen in with but consoled himself that a few others were getting the same treatment. However, it meant that he was surrounded by people who were oscillating between a desperate need to trust each other in the great unknown and an anxious disquiet that potentially nobody could be trusted. It felt like a tinderbox. Everyone had a knife. Anything might happen, especially after the murder these men had been committing.
An interesting and slightly disturbing turn in the conversations he was hearing related to the Strorms. Joseph had stamped and thundered his way across the Waknuk community with fire and brimstone too hard and too many times for him to be loved, even though many enthusiastically followed and rightly feared him. The fact of his own children and niece being classified as outlaw abominations and the likely death of the lay preacher had removed some of the fear. Others from neighbouring communities had heard of the man. All, at one time or another had had to suffer grief, denial or deprivation when the animals, plants or children they produced had been deemed unfit. It was being said that maybe the most outspoken god fearing types might be the ones with the most to hide. There was speculation upon what else might be being harboured inside the walls of the hallowed Waknuk homestead.
He gradually began to wonder if this built up resentment might explode once they reached Waknuk proper and he found, despite his stark political awareness, that he very concerned that families such as the Strorms might suffer the consequences. Michael had been almost past caring about such an event until he remembered David's Uncle Axel. And there was Rosalind's poor mother too. She may not even have been able to hide that she had helped her daughter escape.
He reflected. In its way, the Zealand woman's summary about the new people surviving and the primitives eventually losing the battle was all very compelling in its clinical approach. But the fact remained that there were good people at risk in Waknuk besides Rachel and himself, now that Katherine, Sally and Mark were gone. As far as Michael was concerned, if these allies were going to offer free support to the think-together people, and risk inquisition or worse themselves, then they deserved something better than what might be coming. Michael worried it might be the torch.
It was the captain from Kentak who approached him, after they had finished the last shallow grave that they mounded with stones. Fringes people and Norms had been buried separately along their journey. There was weeping amongst the men as they laid out the corpses and stacked the final stones. Some were also remarking that many of the Fringes folk looked quite normal if half-starved and wondered why they had been sterilised and sent away at all. For Michael tried to be staunch, but the emotion of what he had witnessed, lost and suffered (and had yet to face), was too much to bear and he began weeping too.
Also, as they slowly got thirty or so miles closer, Rachel was finally been able to pick up Michael's thought shapes and project back to him. She offered him warmth and love and sought it back plaintively, longingly, which he gave freely. This sharing, which had once been a vague group exercise, was intensified now by their recent experience and by the fact that they only had each other. Michael's hard-as-stone resolve that this was war, softened inside Rachel's warm clasp and it was in the midst of his tears of grief and blessed relief, that the captain tapped him on the shoulder. It was early evening.
He made a commitment to get back to Rachel later that night and begged her to take care and be patient.
"Michael isn't it?"
"I know you, I think."
"You probably do, but I'm afraid we haven't had much to do with each other before this hunt began."
"My name is Forest, Abe Forest. I've seen you in Kentak. You attended the senior college there didn't you son?"
"Look, I want to thank you for your hard work over the last couple of days. Some of the men here have lost their fathers, brothers or sons in this miserable affair and I've noticed your calm support. They're mostly working men from around Waknuk and the district to the northwest. Their communities will not be the same for some time I think. But what ails you? Did you lose people too?"
"Yes", he dissembled. "The posse was made up of people I have known all my life. I lost some of my closest friends in the battles and then the other day when that machine came down from the sky."
He described what he had witnessed, the descending sticky threads, the drying, the death, without saying who his friends were.
"It was terrifying." This was very close to the truth.
"I ran into one of the caves in the settlement and watched from there after Strorm was shot down. That's how I escaped it sir."
He paused. He was determined to not tell too many obvious lies.
"I also saw Joseph Strorm shot dead in the chest. It was a very tall Fringes dweller. In the face they looked so alike I think they must have been brothers...but it's not just that", said Michael miserably, pausing to gather himself.
"He was a strong man and I daresay it was a terrible shock to him to discover his own son was outlawed. Waknuk won't be the same without him. But I was in the lead posse, with him. I wanted to make sure the outlaws were caught and questioned and not killed. But I came to realise Joseph Strorm was out for vengeance against his own son whatever his supposed deviation. It was terrible to witness Mr Strorm's mood."
The captain looked at Michael gravely. "You can hardly blame him. A deviation living under his God-fearing father's roof for 20 years?"
Michael sighed, sick of this talk. "Maybe, but all this talk about mind control seems very odd to me. If anyone had asked me who in the Strorm family was the most likely person to have been imbued with powers of mind control, hands down I would have said it was Joseph Strorm himself. I knew his son a little through church and I never ever experienced anything of the sort from him. From my observation, if anything, his father mind-controlled him!"
"So some of the men here are inching towards, from what I have heard Michael. But that is dangerous thinking and could result in violence back in Waknuk. I'd like that to be avoided."
"Then why don't you challenge them directly here and now? You're the captain!"
"I am a captain", clarified Abe Forest, "but these men only recognise my authority enough to hold them together here. Most are not from Kentak. I am not a local figure to them. I am doing what I can to help them accept their losses but I may not be successful and the communities themselves will have their own opinions. With some of these fellows, I fear my own life could be in danger, if I push too hard right now. We're only a few days hard ride away."
"And it's about that I want to talk to you", Abe added. "I'm very concerned about the stability of Waknuk itself, now Strorm has been killed. He was the dominant force in the neighbourhood... and the magistrate. There will now be a power vacuum."
"I think someone has to ride helter-skelter to Waknuk homestead and warn the household. There's going to be hell to pay and I think it's possible the community might rise and lynch them, from some of the talk I'm hearing from these men. If it hasn't happened already. You don't seem the sort to be engaging in rash behaviour, but I think the news about Strorm's death needs to be heard by his family before anyone else. And the Inspector also needs to be informed. You're an educated young fellow. What are your thoughts on the matter?"
"You could be right" Michael said. "Once they get home there may be enough wounds to lick and crops to plant that not much will happen, but even if these mind reading deviations (he groaned inwardly) have no other examples living in the community, the fear of them will have its own consequences. The Morton family may therefore be at risk and I believe some others in the district were implicated...", he trailed off, thinking of Sally and Katherine's families.
"That's more or less what I was thinking" said Abe. "Someone has to go and give word, to at least the Strorms, before the full news of this disaster arrives back."
"Are you asking me to run the errand?" Michael asked.
"Better it be from some-one who directly witnessed his death, than some wild rumour. Can you manage it?" Abe asked
This was the chance Michael had been waiting for. It would have been difficult to slip off without some suspicion and there may have been consequences back at Waknuk before he and Rachel had a chance to really make a break for it.
"I'm happy to ride now. I have a good horse. There is plenty of water on the way, I just need some food so I can keep going and not need to hunt."
Back at Waknuk...
Michael came into the house-yard late morning. He'd ridden as hard as he could for nearly three days and it was rough country. Old Jacob was out raking muck. He gazed at Michael sourly. Then Michael realised he had several bows trained on him from various directions.
Michael dropped the reins and held up his hands. "I come bearing news!" he called loudly. "I must speak with the family."
That raised a few eyebrows and someone darted off.
He dismounted and was escorted to the door. Two men took him in and sat him down in the parlour. They stood guard behind him. Mrs Strorm, Mary, Sarah and Axel were called for.
The maxims from Nicholson's Repentances stared back from the walls. "Cursed is the mutant".
All three women came in together. They took their seats wordlessly. Uncle Axel sidled in a few moments afterwards, trying hard to not make his stick thump on the floor. He stood at a slight distance away from the women leaning on a small table.
"Mrs Strorm, my name is Michael. I have been sent by the Kentak captain Mr Abraham Forest, ahead of the main party who are returning, to give you grave news".
"Your husband was killed in action".
David's mother blinked and her complexion greyed a little.
Mary gasped and ran to her mother's side, but she was brushed off.
"How did this occur?" she demanded.
Michael had been hoping he would not have to describe the event but it seemed he would. "It was one of the Fringe dwellers. We rode into their settlement after breaking their ambush and a very tall long limbed man singled him out and shot him in the heart. It was a quick death."
Mrs Strorm's hands shook a little and she licked her lips. Her gaze became unguessable.
She went suddenly "Was the battle won?"
"No, there were heavy casualties on both sides."
"How could that be, over one hundred men were sent?"
This was the difficult part. "We thought the battle would be won after we detected an attempt at ambush and we got behind them. Then, moments after your husband's death, a cloud of sticky threads descended from the sky and clung to everything. Everything they touched died. Those of us who saw but were not touched, fled and we dared not return. Even if we had done so, I am afraid we could not have retrieved many. There were too few of us left..." His voice trailed off.
The room was tense. This kind of other-wordliness was utterly outside the local imagination. He knew it sounded unbelievable. Michael was not going to mention the flying machine.
"The devil does indeed strut his wide estates in the Fringes then", asserted Mrs Strorm.
"So where is my husband's body then?" she added bleakly after a few moments of silence.
"I am afraid it remains where he was shot, covered in the deadly threads that fell from the sky. About 120 miles from here."
"And... what became of... of the fugitives? Those..." her finger twitched and picked at a thread, "those whom I called son and daughter and the one I once called niece?" Her voice was tight, almost asthmatic in quality.
Sarah and Mary were both weeping. They could see what this was costing their mother.
This time Michael had to lie. "I do not know. We had been close on their trail but we did not find them amongst the few survivors or amongst the dead. All I can assume is that either they were also covered by the strange threads, or that the Fringes dwellers killed them before we arrived and hid their bodies. Or they effected their escape under cover of the battle and the confusion of it all."
Michael could not help but flick his glance towards Uncle Axel as he said this. Axel's eyes narrowed momentarily but that was all. Michael's guards were able to see everything from behind his back.
"I also wanted to warn you of something else. It's partly why I have come on ahead"
"Of the survivors returning to Waknuk and surrounding districts, there are some who are muttering that if it hadn't been about Joseph Strorm's son and daughter, and the reward attached, that the following would not have been as great and that the deaths would have been far lower. There are many families apart from your own who have lost both sons and fathers at the same time. I suspect levels of resentment may be high. I am relieved you have set a guard. You may need to maintain it for some time to come."
He left the women-folk kneeling in prayer.
It was Uncle Axel who insisted on accompanying Michael back to the stables. Michael's horse was clearly exhausted, so he offered Michael his own horse in fair exchange. He dismissed the guards and made sure no-one else was within earshot.
"Are you the same Michael that David spoke of to me over the years? The one that went to school in Kentak?" Axel asked in an undertone.
"Well, you were in a tight spot there son. I've been around a long time, and seen much of the world and I know it when someone is trying to say something without saying it in front of other people. What is it?"
"I wanted to let you know that David and Petra and Rosalind have made the best escape that anyone could have imagined. They were rescued in the nick of time by some people from the other side of the world."
"The other side of the world?" Axel was aghast.
"Yes, there is a very large mind speech community there which has redeveloped some of the knowledge and skills of the old people. It seems Petra's mind speech is so powerful, that they detected her and came to take her away to safety. She is unique in the whole world they said. They flew a machine to Labrador. It only took them about two and a half days. They landed right in the middle of the clearing in the Fringes community. David, Rosalind and Petra were sheltering in one of the caves in the cliff face".
There was still no one else about. Axel led him to his own brown gelding with a tear in his eye.
"That Davey was always such a dreamer. Sometimes I used to look at him and think he wasn't cut out for the job, but then he could have made such a difference to Waknuk if he'd been able to keep his cover up for long enough. He was in line to be head of this community and was a soul who craved for things to be different".
He sighed. "Never mind. He's found his people at last. That's so very good. I'm actually heartened more by that than I can tell. Even more than I am to hear of my dread brother-in-law's miserable death and that's saying something..."
He paused considering, then asked, "So why didn't you go too?"
Michael voice cracked slightly. "There wasn't enough f-f-fuel left in the flying machine to come back to Waknuk as well. Rachel remains you see."
Axel's face fell. "So you thought you'd play the heroic fool and deny yourself the greatest opportunity in your life. Come home and rescue the fair damsel in distress?"
"Something like that", said Michael sadly.
Then he added, "Hang on a moment, I thought there were more of you?"
Michael was crying now. The comfort of having an older man to safely share this with was overwhelming.
"They tortured Sally and Katherine to death!" Michael moaned softly. We couldn't block it from our own minds. We think Mark committed suicide from the horror of it all. I've tried to contact him since I came within range again, but it's a blank. He's not here anymore. I had to come back. There were only 8 of us after Anne committed suicide. I couldn't leave Anne's own sister to face things alone. Not now. Not ever."
Their discussion continued for a few more minutes. Finally, Uncle Axel gave Michael a warm hand clasp and showed him to the door of the stables, his eyes grave.
"Good luck Michael. Thank you for the news" was all he said.
Michael did not know how long it would take to safely and honourably extract Rachel from the Waknuk community. There was no point in having her family hunt him down for abduction, not to mention making them suspect the truth. He would have to begin paying serious court as soon as possible. But he left the Waknuk homestead, with a warm feeling in his heart.
Axel had offered to discretely pass the word to Mrs Morton that her daughter was alive, safe and sound and in a better place. That made Michael's immediate plans slightly simpler. And Axel, with all his sea knowledge had offered to help guide Michael and Rachel on at least the first leg of their journey to safety.
Rachel hesitated between carefully and secretly packing, just in case, item by item; and not taking any risk of this being noticed. It seemed that on the day of Petra's horse being attacked, that she had departed in time to not be observed by that Jerome Skinner. There had been no knocks on the door in the dead of night. Since being in contact with Michael again, she was now not living in fright day-to-day. She was now feeling calmer and more confident. She had been able to stop feigning illness to cover her distress. Her dear mother had been bringing her broths and comfits for more than a week now and Rachel felt it her duty to return to her household and farm duties as normal until such time as she and Michael could work out what to do. She was determined she was not going to follow in her own sister's footsteps, but it had been a close thing several times recently.
She knew that with the huge loss of local men, that there would be many interminable and mournful memorial services to sit through and precious few dances and other social gatherings that could be used as a pretext for her and Michael to be seen paying court.
There was no doubt that her parent's farm was quite an inheritance as Rachel was now the only child and her parents had been eyeing several younger sons from some of the larger farms as potential husbands for Rachel.
They were not going to make the same mistake as before when they had allowed Anne to marry below her station. And with what consequences? There was equally no doubt that Michael's scholarly training would have landed him a job as an administrator or government official and her parents could not really complain about their daughter getting a marriage to such a one. Except there was the farm.
It was a horrible quandary. She had a very loving relationship with her mother and more so since Anne's death. It would be so hard to leave and her mother was very open about the consolation and support Rachel gave her in the present time and would be expected to provide in her eventual old age. But how easy would it be for her and Michael to just sail downriver to Rigo and on to the Straits of Newf and just keep going?
But to where and to what?
Michael had shared the visions and reactions of the Zealand woman to the Badlands and burnt out Black Coasts with her. Even she had been horrified and terrified of what she had seen by-passing in a matter of only hours. For Michael and Rachel, on a sailing boat it would be a matter of weeks or probably months. They would be risking their own lives a hundred-fold and what crews would ever be prepared to go that far? And that would only be the start of their journey. It was too dangerous to go that way, but as Michael had said, if the world was round, there must be another way.
Rachel considered the golden days when she and Anne had romped and played around their house and on their farm, learning to ride, making nosegays from roadside flowers in the spring, skipping with ropes, learning to read and write and gradually becoming aware of the mysterious others with whom they shared their gift. Those golden days were long gone.
Rachel wondered how long it would take before Petra would be able to get trained well enough to communicate with them again, this time across that vast distance. Clearly her thought shapes had projected that far before. But whether they could be heard by Petra in return was another matter. They could only wait in hope and hold strong.
Certainly, Rachel and Michael needed a new start, she was clear about that. She preferred Kentak or even Rigo as destinations for the time being; just to remove themselves from the places in which she had lived her whole life. She herself hungered for more of the knowledge about so many things and she didn't want everything to be second hand through Michael. It should be easier if they went closer to the capital she hoped.
Her mother interrupted Rachel's reverie, looking for help with the evening meal.
Rachel had been sitting in the whitewashed parlour ostensibly reading the Bible. The shadows were lengthening. It was nearly four. They only employed two staff in the house now. Both married to farm hands and one was bemoaning the fact that her dear one had not returned from the Fringes foray. She was getting teary and fretful. Rachel could hardly blame her.
But Rachel smiled at her mother, for the first time in a fortnight and went with her straight into the warm kitchen, briskly donned her apron and began kneading dough and forming small loaves and setting them to rise on the mantle. After that there was pastry to roll out for a kind of strudel of apples and pears. She attended to her tasks with dedication more than pleasure but it did feel good to be actively engaged with what she was good at.
Michael came in touch again.
"I've just left the Strorms. Mrs Strorm was staunch as expected. The elder sisters were more obviously rattled. David's Uncle Axel was actually pleased, though he hid it well. Somehow in a few days he is going to quietly reassure Mrs Morton that Rosalind is safe. He has a reason to speak to her. He was married to Angus Morton's half-sister after all. And she has just lost her daughter, the catch of the neighbourhood. Now that Joseph Strom is out of the way, the feud may begin to resolve itself. I'm sure they have many fences to mend. There was nothing much else I could do, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to go to the Inspector's house and make a report to him. I'm on my way there now."
Rachel didn't like the sound of it at all and said so. Her thought shapes were tinged with apprehension anyway and her acknowledged her feelings.
"If he is not there I will ask to sit and write a report for him myself. I've got the training for it. I'll still make the offer. I'm not keen on signing an affidavit on what I witnessed that's been written by someone else. I want to craft this myself."
"But Michael, you are so tired. I can feel it in my head. Why don't you come the next two miles on to our farm and stay the night here? It's on the way to your own home and you can rest and then spend tomorrow morning writing your report here, deliver it to the inspector and then go home. We need to see each other."
Michael's thoughts were clearly very attracted this idea. He considered this for a moment and then simply assented. "I'm on my way."
It was about five o-clock when the dogs barked and a horse could be heard trotting into the yard and being tied to the hitching post. Rachel tried to not look expectant. Her mother heard it too and dusting her hands off, went to answer it herself, one of the farm hands in tow as guard. Rachel's father had been out all day helping on a neighbouring farm which had sent several of their men to join the hunt. He had not returned as yet.
There was murmuring in the hall, a sound of doors being opened and closed. A short while later her mother appeared again and she took up her chopping knife.
"There is a young man just arrived. Michael Williams. You would remember him from church I think. He says he is the first to return from the Fringes. He was in the main posse and he has to report to the Inspector. He has asked for a desk and paper and pen to write his report and has also begged for a bed for the night. I've put him in the parlour for the moment. Your father should be in soon. He can sort him out. But I wondered Rachel, if you wouldn't mind taking him a hot drink and a bite to eat. He looks exhausted. I've told him he should join us for dinner. Tell him we eat at half after six, or when your father gets home, which-ever comes first."
Rachel tried to hide her relief and excitement, but noticed her mother was watching her closely and was not wholly deceived. Rachel knew her well enough to know that her tensions for the two weeks or so had been noted and duly sifted over.
Rachel had grown up being familiar, if not overtly friendly, with Rosalind and David to a lesser extent. All the children in the neighbourhood of a particular age range had. It was thus extremely difficult to maintain a believable and socially acceptable outward response to what had begun to happen around them and at the same time hide such a personal involvement in it. The news from Petra that a rescue mission from across the other side of the world had been mounted to rescue them had been like manna from heaven and Rachel had begun to hope like never before. This had quickly been dashed as she increasingly felt her isolation and developed the fear that they would all leave without her. Then the waiting for Michael to get back in touch directly had been interminable.
Part of Rachel's dilemma in staying at home on the farm in Waknuk was that she knew her mother would look for signs that she also was somehow caught up in the scandal surrounding the Strorms and Mortons. And the longer time went on, with the roller coaster of emotions that washed through Rachel, the greater she had felt her risk of discovery. She knew her mother was not an insensitive woman and would be able to piece together the rumours that had been circulating and think retrospectively about some of the behaviours and moods of both her daughters. Rachel had still not given a satisfactory answer to her mother about her sudden exit on horseback two or three weeks ago, so it was with great relief that she realised her mother may be recognising some of her true feelings about Michael.
"Well go on then, don't keep him waiting."
Rachel quickly made a pot of peppermint tea and laid a tray with a large cup and a few honeyed oatcakes. She carried this into the hall and down to the parlour. He closed the door immediately she came in and helped her put the tray down.
Their embrace was immediate, intense and rapidly over. They could not risk further liberties else their familiarity would be remarked upon, so they drew apart. But it didn't matter. They feasted their eyes upon each other from across the room, minds mingling. Both of them, their eyes filled with tears. After a few seconds, Rachel remembered to speak out loud knowing her mother could well be at the door, listening.
She coughed, then said "Mr Williams, I understand you have returned from the foray into the Fringes on the hunt for the fugitives. I trust you are well and praise God that he has seen fit to preserve you in this terrible series of events."
Michael responded. "Indeed, I do feel blessed to have survived the journey and the fighting and lived to return and tell the tale. To tell the truth I am very tired, but I feel I must sketch out a brief written report for the Inspector before I retire for the night".
His thought shapes when mentioning the inspector hardened and Rachel saw the familiar figure in dark uniform, with his charming smile, handing out hot irons to a cluster of faceless shapeless figures. They both felt the echoes of Katharine and Sally's terror, pain and despair.
Just at that moment Rachel's mother entered the room with the paper, inkwell and pens. Michael and Rachel were some distance apart but the grimness that they displayed was palpable and she started with apprehension.
"Whatever is the matter?"
They both decided there was nothing to be lost by a little semi-truthful subterfuge. "Michael tells me he saw Joseph Strorm killed," explained Rachel.
Rachel's mother turned alarmed eyes to Michael. "Oh my dear, God preserve us!"
Rachel knew her mother had never been overly fond of the man but he had been the stable heart of the community for nearly thirty years, and his loss meant changes indeed. Rachel allowed her tears to show, not for David's father but for Sally, Katherine and Mark and for her poor sister Anne, whose demise was still all too recent.
Like so many of the women of this community, Rachel's mother was not given to demonstrative behaviour but she reached out and put her arm around her precious daughter.
She added, "That is terrible news Michael. No wonder you need a quiet place to write. Come, Rachel. Master Williams will no doubt want to spend some time doing some noting before dinner."
She put the papers down on the parlour table and shifted the lamp.
"You will join us in about an hour won't you Michael?"
He had already made up his mind. The reason he was here at all, was to see and support Rachel.
He appeared to consider the invitation for a moment, then said,
"I shall certainly be grateful to sit down with you all Mrs Martin. But I may not be much of a conversationalist tonight. I have seen a lot of terrible things in recent days you see, and I would rather not speak too much until I have ordered my thoughts and put them to paper. I rather think I should have left the news of Mr Strorm's death to be announced by official channels. As I have already spoken directly on this matter to Mrs Strorm herself... well... I thought it permissible to share it with Rachel here. I would rather that too many people did not know just yet, so I would appreciate it if the news was not shared beyond your immediate family if possible."
Rachel's mother was quick to make her commitments and she and Rachel withdrew.
About 15 minutes before dinnertime, Rachel's father arrived home. He immediately was referred to the parlour and spoke with Michael before they both made a quick trip to the wash house before their evening meal.
He also offered Michael some clean clothes and it was a very differently attired Michael who appeared at the dinner table. Gone were the grubby and smelly riding breeches. Gone was the brown shirt and riding blanket. Instead he wore the slightly larger spare clothes of Mr Martin. A set of labouring pants pulled tight with a belt, an unbleached calico shirt with an embroidered cross, a short fleecy jacket and a set of thick sheep hide moccasins. His damp brown hair was combed back away from his eyes.
Rachel retained her decorum throughout the meal which was made easier because it was held in relative silence as was the custom and out of respect for Michael's stated wishes. However, throughout, both Rachel and Michael were in constant silent communication, offering comfort, warmth, reassurance and courage. Rachel's demeanour had changed slightly for the better over the last few days and at the table, she was visibly much brighter than she had been for some time. She was visibly much more relaxed and alert. Rachel's father noticed this and cast his eye over Michael, glancing appraisingly from time to time. Under the grimness related to Joseph Strorm's death, Rachel's mother looked slightly prim.
Michael and Rachel couldn't help but notice Mr Martin's regard and this deepened their sense of anticipation. Would this make their task easier or more difficult?
That night, Michael and Rachel slid off into blessed sleep with their minds entwined. Even their dreams stabilised each other and they both slept deeply and awoke refreshed.
Michael stayed most the next morning working on his statement to the inspector.
It was difficult to write about the tracking of the fugitives, but Michael had been at the forefront enough to know what signs had been followed, so he kept his statement as simple and matter-of-fact as possible.
He plotted the basic location and the scenario of the badly implemented ambush which had resulted in a rout and then the main force then descending upon the main Fringes settlement.
He described his vision of the demise of Joseph Strorm and an unambiguous description of the tall gangly Fringes man who had committed the act. Michael calculated on the inspector knowing from the records, exactly whom he was writing about, both the identity as Fringes ringleader and that of former heir to Waknuk homestead.
He described the descending flying machine in the superstitious terms that other men had used who had seen it from distance and the genuine wonder and horror of the threads and some direct lies about how he had managed to avoid them. Getting that to sound convincing would be a trick. He opted for simple panic, having seen Joseph Strorm get killed, desperately avoiding arrows and then the overwhelming terror of the descending machine. And then an estimate of the number of people in the force who had perished there and in the fighting earlier. He referred to Abe Forest as the source, where possible, for future information on their identities.
He then voiced his concern about the resentment building amongst those returning and hence the reason for his early return.
With Rachel's mind in contact throughout his composition, the result was smooth and efficiently accomplished. There were only a few minor mistakes, quickly corrected and he finished at about 10 o'clock in the morning. He signed and dated the document on each page as a true and accurate record of his observations. It was read and then witnessed by Isaiah Martin on the final page.
Michael rather hoped his statement would not propel him into speaking at a hearing of the enquiry that was sure to ensue and that it could stand on its own.
The trip to the Inspector's house was not far, based in the Waknuk township, and this time the inspector was home. It was a large, low slung house built of stone, with a thick thatch. There were horses outside. Michael knocked and waited. After about 5 minutes of repeated knocking, the door to the Inspector's house was finally opened by one of his men.
It was Jerome Skinner.