Twenty-six

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Flick had already glimpsed what lay beyond the hills that enveloped the village. Cragside was in a depression between three steep and tall inclines, the largest of which plateaued to a wide, rocky outcropping covered with patches of forest and thick, twisting rhododendron, with a large, high lake continually emptying out into the smaller lake next to the village. The forest was always humid, always dripping - either with winter ice or summer rain. It only became uncomfortably cold for a month-or-two in the year, the rest of the time being entirely manageable. Cragside and its hills were a pocket of perfect balance: a survivable climate, even for Flick out on her own, and a plentiful supply of food.

There was only so long that such a relatively small area would retain Flick's interest. One day she'd hiked far from the village, up the eastern slope and through the Black Wood, emerging on the far side, her viewpoint higher than the surrounding landscape, and had seen a vast expanse of green: a swaying canopy of trees, all the way to the blue of the ocean. It had been both inviting and terrifying in its scale and she'd understood in that moment why the villagers stayed cowed in their yurts, happily doing nothing by the Tumble Lake, day after day. There had been a girl, back when Flick had lived in the village under her first name, who had showed an inquisitive spirit. Eva was her name; Flick still sometimes glimpsed her when she watched the village from the treetops. The rest of them had been so boring, concerned only with their own enjoyment and oblivious to the world outside their own tiny perceptions.

She trudged through the forest, crunching on some nuts she'd found. Every inch of the crag was familiar to her, having spent years tracing every path and locating every ruin, animal watering hole and fruit tree. It was her space and she felt as much a part of the forest as it was part of her. She had everything she needed, without having to rely on the Temple for assistance. All she was lacking was purpose. She existed, she continued, but there seemed little point to it all. Which wasn't to say that she in any way wanted it to end; it was the gnawing sense that there was supposed to be something more to life.

The Black Lake was anything but, being a clear, silvery-blue that perfectly reflected the sky and revealed the fish swimming among the reeds and rocks. Flick sat by the water's edge, cutting chunks out of an apple with her pocket knife. It was a shame that she only ever really saw Harry in the woods, away from the village. Everyone else remained close to the settlement and the fields, rarely venturing along the paths which wound their way around the crag to the top. Harry regarded the crag as his personal play area, treating as if it had been placed there and designed exclusively for him. He behaved on the assumption that the habitat would serve him - as it always did, of course, so it was a fair point. Whether falling from a tree, jumping from a cliff, pursued by a bear or flailing in the river, Harry would triumph and return to the village with a new story. The rules worked the same for Flick but she tried not to abuse that knowledge, or assume that it would always be the case. She detected an edge to the world, a limit to their understanding which posed a lurking danger that could come up to bite them at any moment. The veneer of safety was just that: a net to catch them, but inexplicable and unknowable in its purpose.

And so she lived as if the net was not there, and was careful.

The rhododendrons had taken over a huge area atop the hill, snaking and twisting their tortuous way over and under and around everything else. Flick had carved a path over the years, hacking deep into the thicket along a route that only she knew; it would be near-impossible for anybody else to find the entrance, hidden innocuously along the border. The trees and bushes varied wildly in size and followed an odd spiral pattern as they spread over the hill, as if they had once been planted deliberately but had since forgotten why. The branches were thick, gnarled, ancient; knotted so tightly in places that it was impossible to see through. The path was narrow and low, the cut branches closing overhead to form a tunnel through which the sun only barely penetrated. Flick walked for until she was deep inside the rhododendron forest, where she emerged into a larger space, also carved from the surrounding trees, with a roughly curved roof that arced high enough for her to stand. On the floor were a few blankets; a sealed box was tucked away to the side where she stored her food away from prying squirrels and mice. Remnants of a fire were in the centre, the branches above blackened and scorched, with a chimney hole cut up and through to the sky above. This was Flick's domain, unknown to those in the village below. Even Harry with his exploring had never stumbled upon this place, so hidden was the entrance.

There was a bird lying on the ground next to the fire, unmoving. It looked like a thrush. Flick approached and could see that the animal was clearly already dead. She looked down at its inert corpse, then up at the chimney hole. Perhaps it had died and fallen in, or flown in by accident and become trapped?

Picking up a half-charred stick from the edge of the extinguished fire, Flick tucked it under the bird and turned it over, making sure that it was really dead. It didn't respond and she couldn't see any signs of breathing. Nor were there any signs of decomposition, so it must have died recently. There were no evident markings to indicate it had been injured or attacked. She would have to carry it out of her camp, as it was too small to be worth eating and she didn't want a dead creature festering in the corner. She pondered whether she'd be able to aim a throw back out of the hole in the roof.

Prodding at it a little harder with the stick, she was startled by the bird's chest caving in, collapsing as if it were a brittle, hollow sculpture. The hole in its chest gaped at her, dark and seemingly absent of internal organs or a skeleton. Taken aback, she hesitated, took a breath, then moved the stick to another part of the bird's body and poked. The wing snapped off, falling away from the body. As it touched the ground it crumbled like ash. The head went a similar way, disintegrating under the slightest pressure. What had once been a bird lay strewn on the ground as a smudged shadow, dispersed like dust, its original shape barely discernible. All that remained were its eyes, still intact and glassy, nesting among the detritus of its former body.Flick stared down at the eyes, half-expecting them to blink. She dragged the stick through the mess of the bird's collapsed body, now unrecognisable as having once been an animal. It was a swirl of darkness on the pale dirt floor of the shelter.

Deciding that she didn't want to be out alone that night, Flick gathered up some supplies, stuffed them into her backpack and retreated back along the winding path. For the first time in years the warmth of the village and the camaraderie of its people called to her, while in the back of her mind she knew that the bird heralded something new, for which none of them were ready.


Thanks, as ever, for reading! The plot, as they say, thickens. Notes to come over the weekend. Keep safe, all. Votes and comments gratefully received!

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