I

“What’s your name?”

“Rachel”

“Rachel what?”

“No, Rachel Wells.”

“Very funny. Don’t lie to me, it won’t do you any good. You’re Gordon Beer’s sister, aren’t you!”

Another voice. “Who are you, then, Mister? What you bothering my friend for?”

“What’s that to you? You’ll keep your nose out of this, if you know what’s good for you.”

“Hah. Sorry mate, not a good day for you, is it? You’re a pig, that’s what you are... Were.”

“Well! Thank you, whoever you are. I suppose that solves my immediate problem, but now what?”

“I don’t know. Depends why he was after you, or why he was after your brother. They’ll never know what happened to Charlie-boy here, anyway. I’ve seen you before, though – that was your brother you used to come to talk to? He went a few days ago, just a couple of days after the last time I saw you talking to him. Heading south, made it across the gorge okay, Celia saw him well up the other side all right, mentioned it to me. I think Celia had her eye on him. Hah.”

My new friend looked at the cop’s body, put the toe of his boot under his shoulder, and rolled him over. “A pretty boy. What a pity, Celia would have liked him, I think. If he wasn’t a pig. Silly boy, coming in here. Plain clothes? Not plain enough, but no-one would have touched him if he’d kept his mouth shut. Now what? What would you have done if he hadn’t been following you, or if he’d left you alone?”

I didn’t know what to say. At least Gom had got away, at least as far as South London somewhere. I felt terrible; I’d had no idea I was being followed. If Gom hadn’t left yet, I’d have led the cop to him. And then if my new friend hadn’t been around, he’d have got him.

“You’re shaking. Cheer up! It’s a good day. One down, only another ten thousand to go! And your brother made it past the gorge. Charlie boy followed you, trying to catch your brother, and I followed Charlie boy. You and your brother timed that just perfectly.”

My new friend put his arm round my shoulder and squeezed. I thought I should have been worried, but I wasn’t. It just felt okay. He wasn’t anything like the beasts in the brothel.

I’d just witnessed a killing. A second one. If anything, this one was more unsettling than the first. No mess, and swift and silent, not at all like the chaos when Clara managed to get the kitchen knife into Herbert before he killed any of us.

“If you hadn’t been around, and the cop had realized my brother wasn’t here, what would he have done?”

“He might have assumed your brother had seen him following you. He might have grabbed you, in the expectation that your brother would then show himself. Not a happy situation. He came on his own, so he must have been pretty sure your brother isn’t dangerous. But you still have a problem anyway. They probably won’t think Charlie-boy’s disappearance has anything to do with you, but they might think it’s got something to do with your brother, and I guess they know where to find you if they want you for bait. I guess you have a home somewhere not too far from here. You mustn’t go back there now. Plenty of room here in the Ruins!”

“Did my brother say anything about where he might go?”

“Not a word. Quiet as the grave, your brother. I don’t think he talked to anyone except you the whole time he was here. Safest way, if the pigs are after you. Well, the pigs are after me, but I’ve been here forever and I don’t think the pigs even know what I look like any longer. In the end you know who your friends are. Us old hands don’t worry, we know who we can talk to.”

“But you didn’t talk to my brother?”

“He didn’t want to. We don’t hassle folk. He wasn’t a pig, we knew that.”

We talked for a while. He didn’t press me for information, and I didn’t offer any; he didn’t give me much, either – just a bit of advice. Most of which I ignored, which may not be the wisest thing I’ve ever done. I went home. I didn’t want to give up my midwifery training, and I didn’t realize that I really had no choice.

Aunt Agni soon put me right on that. “Cop followed you into the ruins, and you came out without him? Your new friend didn’t think the cops’d suspect you, but he didn’t know your history. The cops surely know you worked in a brothel for a while, they’ll think you’re probably pretty handy with a blade. You’re in worse trouble than Gom was, my girl. We’ve got to get you away from here before they’ve realized what’s happened. Pretty damn quick.”

We all had to get away in fact, and it’s just as well for the rest of my family that I did go home. If the cops couldn’t find me, any of the family would do as bait. Clara disguised herself as best she could and went to tell Belinda what had happened – and returned in less than an hour with Belinda and her boys.

“Hughie will have to go his own way. We don’t have time to wait for him to come home. I’ve sent Joe from next door to Hughie’s work to tell him not to go home. I’ll miss him; the boys’ll miss him even more, but what can we do?”

Belinda couldn’t tell him somewhere to meet up with us, because we didn’t know where we were going, and anyway, sending a message like that would just risk helping the cops find us.

If all that sounds harsh to you, yes, it was. Life in London in 650 L.C. was harsh. And no, we’ve never seen Hughie again. I hope he’s okay, and I hope he’s having a good life, wherever he is. He’s a good soul.

We left by the back way through the woods.

So we were on the run. My two big sisters Belinda and Clara, Mother, Agni, me, and Belinda’s two wee sons, Will and Tom. Looking back now, it was really quite funny. It didn’t seem so funny at the time.

We knew Gom – that was what I called my little brother Gordon when I was so little I couldn’t say “Gordon,” and the name had stuck – had gone south, and we were sure he’d be intending to leave England altogether. We didn’t think we could do that, but we knew the cops would put out our descriptions and names all around the country. Disguising a tribe like ours didn’t really seem possible. We just had to be as invisible as possible until we were a long way from London, and then try to find a niche in a place small enough and remote enough not to warrant any police presence at all.

It was basically Agni who decided all that, before the rest of us had really taken the situation in, and before we’d even reached the other side of the North London woods.

“Life’s going to be hard and uncertain. But life is hard and uncertain. Your mother and I have been wondering whether we should get out of London for a while. This just makes the decision for us, stops us dithering. Don’t feel bad, Dempsey.”

I just wished we’d done it before Gom got himself into trouble, and we’d not had to leave Hughie to his own devices. But what’s happened has happened, you can’t change it.

We left in a hurry and didn’t take much. Agni and Mother had thought about the possibility before, so it wasn’t a completely unconsidered panic. There have been a few things we wish we’d brought, but how much can five women carry anyway? Will was three years old and Tom was two, so Belinda and Agni carried them most of the time, which left three of us to do most of the carrying.

My prize possession was – and still is – my stiletto. I’ve seen one used in anger just that once, when “Charlie-boy” got his comeuppance, and I didn’t actually see it then; but I’ve been well taught, with even some practice on an already-dead body. Don’t ask. That’s nine months working in a London brothel for you.

Clara was pretty handy with the big kitchen knife, and we’ve got that too of course, but I hope we never have to use it in a fight. We were pretty lucky that time, it could easily have gone badly, even with four against one. We’ve got all the little kitchen knives too, so that’s one good sharp knife each. They’d make fair daggers, not as good as my stiletto, but not bad.

You might wonder why I’m so keen on knives? Don’t dwell on it, and I’ll try not to. The world is a dangerous place. At least there are five of us, but having two small children with us makes us a bit vulnerable even so, apart from making us a bit recognizable to anyone who might have heard we’re wanted.

Had the cops worked out that the whole family had decamped? Had they worked out its composition? We didn’t know, but we had to assume they might have done. Probably Hughie had disappeared too, and with luck they might have thought our group would have him in it too and maybe Gom as well, but we couldn’t rely on that, and anyway we were a pretty noticeable group. That’s what we thought – what we worried – but whether we really were so special once we got a decent distance from London, I’m not so sure. We’ve met a wide variety of different little tribes of vagabonds since we’ve been on the move!

How many of them are on the run with the cops after them? Or think the cops are, or might be, after them? We don’t know; of course we don’t ask. But I’ve started to wonder.

We keep our knives sharp and ready to hand, but so far all we’ve actually used them for is preparing vegetables and fish – and butchery, of the food preparation sort.

Which reminds me of something Gom told me while he was in hiding. I know what will have happened to Charlie-boy: his clothes will serve someone well, he probably had at least one useful weapon on him, and he was quite a bit of good meat. They don’t waste good food in the Ruins, it’s not so easy to come by. Most Ruins folk wouldn’t eat human meat though, Gom said. Some won’t eat meat of any kind, but most won’t turn their noses up at well-cooked cat, rat, or bat.

I can imagine that we might come to that before long. We haven’t so far. We don’t see cats or rats so much out here in the countryside. Bats in old ruins, yes, but there are rabbits and pigeons so bats aren’t worth the bother.

Gom told me he thought the cops didn’t often brave the Ruins, and presumably those who did usually got out alive, with or without accomplishing their mission. The man who rescued me – I’ve no idea what his name was, he didn’t say – said “no-one would have touched Charlie-boy if he’d kept his mouth shut.”

But what’s the point in going into the Ruins if they’re not going to do anything while they’re there? Observation, I suppose – and then go in mob-handed if they find there’s anything they “need” to do. Need? To what end? Something on behalf of some toff, obviously. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Sometimes I feel sorry for the cops: a dangerous job, and the pay’s not much. But ordinary folk like us can’t afford too much sympathy.

Maybe cops aren’t the only source of man-meat in the Ruins, but I didn’t ask. I don’t know happened to the body from the brothel, for that matter. It won’t have gone through any official channels, but it won’t have got to the Ruins either. It’d be worth something when it got there, but nobody would have anything to pay for it with. The clothes, though...they won’t have gone to waste. Even the stiletto holes would be easily and unsuspiciously patched.

I do know what happened to Herbert’s body. Well, we weren’t going to be seen carrying him anywhere, were we! Sooner or later someone will realize our house is vacant and take it over, and maybe they’ll try digging the vegetable patch. Maybe they’ll dig a bit deeper than we normally used to – perhaps after realizing that we’d dug it quite deep for some reason – and maybe they’ll find Herbert, or what’s left of him by then. I’m sure they won’t tell anyone, it would just make trouble for them. Not that it would make any difference to us now if they did tell anyone.

When you’re on the run food is your biggest concern. We carried some of our stock from home but we couldn’t possibly carry it all. We left in too much of hurry, and too secretively, to be able to turn any of the stock into cash that we could have carried more easily. Whoever eventually takes over the house is going to think they’re dreaming when they go down into the cellar! It hurt to think of leaving it all, but what could we do?

So almost from the beginning, as soon as the load we were carrying began to diminish, we were looking out for food. Agni had been on the run with Eli for a while before he was arrested. She taught us all how to entice pigeons and catch them, and how to snare rabbits. Stealing vegetables off fields is easy! Cooking’s not too hard when the weather’s dry, or if you’ve managed to find a dry spot under a bridge or in an old ruin – but whenever you get the chance, you want to cook enough to last you a day or two, in case you don’t get the chance for a while.