On her tenth birthday Nessa overhears an argument in her parents’ bedroom. She knows nothing about the Three Minutes yet. How could she? The whole of society is working to keep its children innocent. She plays with dolls. She believes the lies about her brother, and when her parents tuck her into bed at night – her grinning dad, her fussy mam – they show her only love.
But now, with ten candles on a cake in the kitchen behind her, that’s all supposed to change.
Dad can’t know his daughter is right outside the door, and yet he whispers. ‘We don’t need to tell her,’ he says. ‘She … she isn’t able to run anyway. She’s a special case. We could give her a few more years to be our baby.’
Baby! Our baby! Nessa bristles at the thought. She’s struggling to stand still, because with her twisted legs she makes quite a racket when she walks. However, once her mam, Agnes, starts sobbing, she decides she’s had enough.
‘Oh, for Crom’s sake,’ she says, ‘I’m in the hall. I’m coming in and you’d better not be kissing!’ She means that last part as a joke, but it falls flat.
‘Come in then,’ Dad says. He still possesses enough greying hair to cover his scalp. Almost. He’s even older than Mam, and on a bad day Nessa wonders if that’s why she was born weak enough to catch polio. Her cousin told her that once, and Nessa often thinks of it.
‘I know about Santa Claus,’ she says, walking in. ‘If that’s what this is about. I’ve known for years already, but—’
Agnes starts heaving like she’s been punched in the stomach. She shakes hard enough to rattle the bed beneath her. Dad wraps her tight with his long, skinny arms, and for a moment it’s like this hug is the only thing stopping bits of her from flying off.
A chill steals up Nessa’s spine. She can’t know it, but this is the first hint of the fear that will never leave her again; that will ruin her life as it has ruined the life of everybody in the whole country.
Now Dad is crying too. His tears barely show: a hint of moisture about the eyes, his sobs thick, as though squeezed through a wad of cloth.
Nessa takes a ragged breath. ‘Whatever it is …’ she says – and deep inside a part of her is begging her to shut up, to stop, to turn around! ‘Whatever it is, I want to know.’
So they tell her. About the Three Minutes and what has happened to her older brother. And she laughs, because that’s her nature and the whole situation is absurd. It’s one of her dad’s stupid pranks! Of course it is.
But they keep the horrible story going and the fear builds up and up inside her until she screams at them, hysterical, horrified, ‘You’re lying! You’re lying!’ She falls, her awkward left leg giving way.
For the next two days Nessa refuses to play or to talk. But she’s too intelligent not to recognize the truth. The clues have surrounded her for a lifetime already, and only the monstrousness of it, allied to the trusting nature of her now-ended childhood, has allowed her not to see it before. She has never asked herself where all the teenagers were. Or why she has almost never spoken to anybody who is seventeen or eighteen or twenty.
But if she refuses to let the doctors put her to sleep, this is the future: some time during her adolescence, the Sídhe will come for her, as they come these days for everyone. They will hunt her down, and if she fails to outrun them, Nessa will die.
On the third day her twisted legs carry her out of her bedroom. Her eyes are dry. She says, ‘I’m going to live. And nobody’s going to stop me.’ She believes every word of it.
Four years have passed, and Nessa is standing in the sunshine at the bus station in Letterkenny. Everything is old and everybody is old too. Except for herself and the red-haired, red-cheeked Megan, openly smoking ‘greenhouse’ tobacco and daring the adults around them to interfere.
Nessa wants to say something to her friend. Along the lines of: ‘We need to stay fit if we’re to survive.’ Only one in ten children makes it through their teenage years as it is. But the warmth on her face is too nice to let her spoil the mood.
They buy their tickets from the granny in the office and head outside to get seats.
‘Will you look at that bus!’ says Megan. The tired engine burps fumes of recycled vegetable oil so that everything smells deep fried. ‘We’ll be lucky if it can hold the weight of the rucksack you brought. It’s gonna strand us halfway to nowhere.’
A big, middle-aged sergeant waits by the bus, brandishing an iron needle ten centimetres long. Sweating under his cap, he swabs it with alcohol and jabs it into the arm of everybody getting on.
‘Do I look like a Sídhe to you?’ growls one old woman.
‘I hear they can look any way they want, missis.’
‘In that case, they wouldn’t want to look like me!’
‘True enough,’ he says.
She curses as he stabs her anyway.
He grins. ‘My apologies! Iron’s supposed to hurt them.’
When it comes to Nessa’s turn, the guard stares at her legs and can’t keep the pity off his face. Didn’t your parents love you enough to kill you?
Nessa’s own expression stays bland. ‘Was there something else?’ she asks.
Megan butts in. ‘Sorry, Sergeant.’ Her tone is polite and respectful. She has the sweetest face in creation: rosy cheeks and sparkling green eyes. ‘What my friend is trying to say is, Mind your own business, you goggle-eyed turd sniffer.’
When Megan steps up to face the needle, the sergeant makes extra sure that she’s no spy. She takes the iron well enough, but the second he withdraws it, she kicks his feet from under him and twists his arm up behind his back so that the adult, twice her size, is on his knees before her.
‘Megan,’ cries Nessa, ‘enough!’
‘They train us pretty well,’ Megan says with a wink. She releases him and gets onto the bus.
The coach rattles off towards Monaghan, with Megan chatting every step of the way, mostly in English. Nessa tries to keep her own responses in Sídhe, not because she loves it, but because her ability to speak the enemy’s tongue may one day save her life.
She knows she should find a better friend: somebody who won’t smoke or grow her hair dangerously long. But Nessa’s not quite ready to sacrifice all the world’s happiness and fun to the ancient enemies of her race. Not yet.
Shortly after Lifford, they roll over a bridge into what used to be Northern Ireland. Nobody cares about that sort of thing any more. The only border recognized by the Sídhe is the sea that surrounds the island from which they were driven thousands of years before. No human can leave or enter. No medicines or vaccines or spare parts for the factories that once made them; nor messages of hope or friendship; nothing.
A veil of mist hangs off the coast, and all those within, whatever their passports used to say, now belong to the same endangered species.
The boy gets on at Omagh. He’s fit-looking, of course, with the body of a runner. Most teenagers are the same, but it doesn’t look awkward on him, despite the fact that he has more growing to do. He smiles at the sight of them. ‘Off to Dublin, girls?’ The Sídhe words spring naturally from his tongue. Nessa likes the look of him, and his bright, friendly confidence. He likes her too, she thinks, but won’t have seen her legs yet.
As usual it’s Megan who answers. ‘Our survival college is in Roscommon.’
‘The one in Boyle? Aye, I heard of that one. Didn’t one of their boys make it through two nights ago?’
The girls gasp. ‘Who?’ says Nessa.
Twenty-five years ago, when the Sídhe began taking teenagers, less than one in a hundred survived. These days, with constant training, with fitness and study, with every spare cent in an impoverished country aimed at keeping them alive, the odds have improved tenfold. But it is still low enough that the thought that somebody she knows has made it through fills Nessa with excitement.
‘Ponzy, I think. Is that even a real name?’
‘No way!’ squeals Megan. ‘Not Ponzy! Not that wee turd!’ But she’s laughing, because she likes Ponzy – everybody likes him. Nessa is smiling hard enough to hurt her own cheeks, and the strange boy lights up in response, but not as much as he should.
‘It’s just …’ he says. ‘It’s just he came back a wee bit … different.’
‘Different how?’ asks Nessa. Behind the boy’s head they pass a neat little bungalow with trimmed hedges and a lawn full of lettuce. She’ll never forget it, because rather than answering her, the boy disappears and his empty clothing falls to the floor.
Everybody else takes a second to gasp, but not Nessa; she’s on her feet straight away. ‘Stop!’ she screams. Then, realizing she has spoken in Sídhe, she repeats the command in English.
‘We’ve had a Call,’ she cries. ‘Driver! You have to reverse! Reverse!’
Megan, proud owner of a wind-up watch, has already started the countdown. ‘Twenty seconds,’ she says. ‘I … I may have missed a few at the start there.’
Half a panicky minute has already passed when the bus starts to go backwards and Nessa has to hold on for dear life. A government car has come up behind them and the passengers at the back of the bus wave frantically to make it move. A whole sixty seconds are wasted in this way, but soon they are back beside the house with the lettuce garden and Nessa calls the halt.
Was it here? she wonders. Or were we a little further on?
‘How long?’ she asks aloud.
‘Two forty-five,’ Megan says watching the murderous second hand. ‘It’s three minutes now!’
That’s when the boy returns. Strictly speaking, the famous ‘Three Minutes’ are three minutes and four seconds. Everyone knows this, because many Calls were caught on CCTV cameras in the first terrible year.
The boy’s body reappears and thumps down hard onto the floor. Nessa is relieved to see that it’s not one of the really awful ones. There’s nothing to churn the stomach here, other than a little blood and a set of tiny antlers growing from the back of his head. The Sídhe can be a lot more imaginative than that, and they even have what experts refer to as a ‘sense of fun’. Nessa shivers.
‘They didn’t catch him for a long time,’ Megan whispers. ‘Didn’t get a chance to really work on him.’
A few of the old people are crying and want to get off the bus, but it’s not like the early days any more. They might disturb the body as they try to step over it, and that’s just not allowed. The antlered boy will lie there until the Recovery Bureau agents have examined him properly in Monaghan.
‘These girls have to get to school,’ says the driver, and that’s all there is to it.
Megan glares the weepers into silence, then sits looking straight ahead. Nessa too strives to appear calm, to gaze out at the passing countryside, trying not to think about all the murders committed by one faction or another in order to farm it.
She jumps as Megan grabs her by the shoulder and hisses, ‘Stop!’
‘Stop? Stop what?’
‘You were banging your head again. Against the window.’
‘Oh, yeah.’ Nessa can feel the bruise forming on her forehead. She finds that she’s gasping for air like a hooked fish and more aware of the handsome boy’s body than she has ever been of anything in her life.
The Sídhe stole him away for a little over three minutes, but in their world, the Grey Land, an entire day has passed, panic and pain in every second of it.
‘Is it because he looks like Anto?’ Megan asks.
Nessa suppresses a shudder. ‘He looks nothing like Anto.’
The redhead shrugs. She doesn’t care. And neither should Nessa. Not if she wants to live.
They carry their own bags through the gate and go barefoot to toughen the soles of their feet. Nessa knows her friend is walking slower than she needs to, in order to spare her embarrassment. Neither speaks. It’s a beautiful evening, coming up on autumn. The hooded crows, croaking as loud as they can, have filled the trees with grey and black feathers. Now and again a group of them will wheel out over the ivy-covered dorms and the monastic buildings that cower between them. Yes, Boyle Survival College is a clumsy hotchpotch of old and new, but Nessa is always relieved to see it. Much as she loves her parents, this is her real home, where everyone faces the same danger and fear, and shares the same hope too.
A hundred metres away from the main entrance, and Anto comes out to join them. He grins, a little shyly, Nessa thinks, and she has to clamp down hard on the smile that threatens to take over her own face. They can’t be together, and that’s all there is to it. They can’t.
‘How’s tricks?’ he asks, his Dublin accent stretching the vowels in all the wrong directions. ‘Seen any nice puddles up in Donegal?’
It doesn’t matter that he’s handsome, that he has a face full of mischief, Megan rolls her eyes at him. ‘I have that Crom-twisted study to hand in to the Turkey,’ she says. ‘Can’t be wasting my time on the likes of you, Anto, you filthy Dub.’ And off she strides, leaving the other two to fall back into embarrassed silence together.
Nessa likes that Anto doesn’t offer to carry her bag, that never once has she seen pity in his eyes. Mostly he just likes to laugh, a viral happiness that spreads wherever he goes.
But he’s not laughing right now. They are walking closer together than they are supposed to, their breathing synchronized, their gazes straight ahead, and both of them are remembering the same thing: the time she accidentally kissed him for ten full minutes.
It was the day Tommy was taken. The first time she ever witnessed what the Sídhe could really do to you, could do to her. And all the pointless longings broke free at once, shattering the dam she had built to keep them out. She has rebuilt it since then. Stronger than ever.
They have almost reached the main entrance when he says, ‘Why not?’
Nessa doesn’t need to ask what he means. She stops, forcing him to stop too.
‘You told me you liked my hair,’ she says.
‘I did.’ His left hand is fiddling with the crucifix his mother gave him. He already knows he’s not going to enjoy this.
‘I shaved it off.’
‘Of course, Nessa. Nabil advised all of us to do so. I cut my braid.’
‘Right, Anto. And I liked having hair. When I go home, my mother cries to see me bald. But now, nothing … nothing can grab it, you understand? When the Sídhe Call me, that’s one less thing to worry about.’
‘Of course.’ His face is pale. He hates this. Hates to talk about the inevitable day they will all be taken. But avoiding it is the problem everybody has here. They daydream. They sneak around forming bonds and distractions. Eating too much. Training too little. Speaking English instead of Sídhe.
She tells him the same thing she once told her parents: ‘I’m going to live.’ Her voice is as cold as she can make it, which is very cold indeed. ‘That was a one-off, that time with Tommy. I’m not interested any more.’
Anto is not allowed into the girls’ dorm. She leaves him at the bottom of the stairs, and her face is as blank as a new sheet of paper. She doesn’t look back; her hands don’t tremble even slightly. She’s getting so much better at this. Nessa knows Anto. She can trust him to leave her alone.
Miraculously she is still holding it together by the time she reaches the top of the stairs. There’s a lump in her throat, but nobody can see that, and the speed of her breathing will be put down to dragging such a heavy bag after her.
The thing is, that in spite of what she has said about distractions, Nessa is far more of a risk for Anto than the reverse. Of all the people she knows, his spirit is the most gentle. Stupidly so. Pointlessly. By Crom it makes her angry! Nobody who thinks as he does will last a minute in the other world. He’s going to die, and it won’t be quick.
Stop it! Stop it! She can’t afford such thoughts. More than once they have made her … reckless, made her do that stupid Romeo thing.
She passes through the swing doors into a long, welll-it room of thirty beds. Twenty-six of them are still needed, but this is Year 5, the crucial year when most of the occupants will be Called. The proof of this can be found one floor further up, where the girls’ dorm for Year 6 boasts a mere ten beds, of which five are still in use. As for Year 7, it has lost all but two boys and one girl and none of these will see Christmas.
But nobody is acting like they believe any of that. Antoinette is even smoking out the window, grinning back at the rest of them with dark pudgy cheeks. At least fifteen of them are here already. Athletic girls from every part of Ireland, whose birthdays happen to fall in September or early October.
Nicole natters at Marya; Squeaky Emma fades into the background while Liz Sweeney scowls at everybody from the far corner.
They’ve all been home for two weeks and have plenty to chat about. Aoife holds up a bag of sugary treats baked by her Polish grandmother. She got her blonde hair and a ridiculous level of generosity from the same place, but her accent is just as much dirty Dub as Anto’s. ‘You hear Ponzy made it?’ she asks Nessa.
‘I did!’ and finally Nessa feels the tension easing from her shoulders. ‘Good old Ponzy! Will he come back as a veteran?’
‘Dunno … He’s stayin’ home for now. Can’t wait to read his account. Hey, you having a biscuit?’
Nessa, of course, never has a biscuit. She shakes her head
As promised, Megan has gone to drop in her report to Ms Breen, the school principal – a.k.a. the Turkey. So Nessa can dump her gear on her friend’s bed until she gets organized.
First out of the bag is her History of the Sídhe: a mere hundred pages that contain all human knowledge of the species that has sworn to make the Irish extinct. There are larger books about them, of course, running to thousands of pages in some cases. But their writers have little more to offer but fear and speculation. Nessa prefers facts, and there isn’t a paragraph in the History that she doesn’t know by heart.
The next book is a heftier one. It consists of last year’s Testimonies: the accounts of boys and girls who returned from the land of the Sídhe alive and with enough of their sanity intact to report on what they saw and heard.
The final book, a present from her mam when she first left home, is Dánta Grádha – a collection of love poetry. It’s exactly the sort of thing she told Anto she has no truck with. She knows most of this one by heart too.
The double doors swing open again. Sarah Taaft stands there like a single block of muscle. The US Marine must be in her late forties, weathered by wind and sun, but it hasn’t softened her in the least. ‘We’re going for a run,’ she shouts in English – she has never learned a word of Sídhe. ‘Tracksuits on.’
Nessa feels a moment of dread as that pale gaze swings her way. ‘You coming, Nessa?’
‘Of course I’m coming.’ She feels herself turning red, all the more so when Taaft rolls her eyes.
‘We won’t hold up for you.’
‘You never do.’
Nessa doesn’t need their charity. She is the first one changed. The first to reach the double doors. And nobody can catch her down a flight of stairs. She has developed a technique of locking her legs in place and sliding down from step to step on the tough soles of her feet. She is never more than a breath away from disaster, with only her arms on banister and wall to keep control.
Taaft shouts down after her. ‘No frickin’ stairs in fairyland, kid! It’s not gonna help you there!’
Nessa hits the ground floor at enormous speed, falling with precision to slide along the polished tiles almost as far as the main entrance.
Chuckwu is just arriving with his bags over his shoulder. ‘What’re you doing on the floor?’ he asks.
‘Going for a run of course.’ She refuses a hand up. Already she can hear the rumble and laughter of the rest of the dorm charging down the stairs behind her. ‘Gotta go.’ From here to the trees she can only limp, and in no time at all the class passes her by. There’s Antoinette, grinning and blowing her a tobacco-scented kiss, while Liz Sweeney tries to muscle past. Even Megan has arrived, one arm still out of her tracksuit. ‘That dirty wee bitch of a turkey! Tell you later, Ness …’
And finally here comes Taaft, jogging past her, ‘Seriously, kid …’
Then they’re gone. Nessa’s legs ache by the time she reaches the trees, but she doesn’t allow herself to rest. ‘Stick to the rules,’ she mutters. ‘Stick to the rules.’
She’s an expert at this by now. She spots branches that are just the right size and knows too exactly how they should be broken, until, moments later, she has created a pair of springy crutches for herself.
Nessa has stronger arms than anyone she knows. Over short stretches she can keep up with most of the runners in her class, male and female alike. But not today. This is going to be a loop run, as they call it.
It takes her an hour, down into the dip between the hills, her crutches skidding dangerously on the first fallen leaves of the year; then curving up the switchback, along the ridge, until, as twilight falls, she reaches the formation known as ‘the Old Man’; the lone figure of Sergeant Taaft is sitting there, an illicit bottle of beer in her hand.
Nessa halts before reaching her. She trembles and sweats, panting far more than any of her classmates would have by this point.
‘Just give it up, kid,’ Taaft says. ‘Go home.’
Nessa bites back the first reply that comes to her. It’s dangerous to antagonize Taaft. There’s a reason she’s the only member of staff without a nickname.
‘Why are you out here, Sergeant?’
Taaft looks up. She has an angry face, made of toothaches and crab apples. But amidst the pine smells and the forgiving rays of a dipping sun, she is as serene and lovely as the Madonna. ‘Maybe I’m hoping to catch a fairy.’
‘One of the Aes Sídhe?’
‘Sure. You think I don’t know that word, kid? The “People of the Mounds”?’ She takes a long swallow from the clay bottle. Several more lie at her feet. ‘I even know where they got the name. I read that Book of Conquests of yours. How you drove them out of their homes and forced that treaty on them—’
‘I wasn’t even born! Nobody was!’
‘Your people sent them “under the mounds”. Whatever the hell that means. And thousands of years later they turn up again and they’re gonna wipe you out.’
‘They won’t!’ Nessa takes a deep breath. The sweat is starting to cool on her skin. She knows she should go, but will not give Taaft the satisfaction of rattling her. ‘More of us are surviving all the time,’ she says. ‘It’s up to one in ten from one in a hundred twenty-five years ago.’
‘The fairies won’t stand for it, kid. You can bet your life they’re working on a plan right now to turn those odds back around. Whatever they come up with, I only hope it brings them here where I can snap their scrawny necks.’
And that’s exactly what she does to the clay bottle. It cracks as loud as a gunshot, spilling beer onto the soil.
Nessa swallows. ‘I have to get back, Sergeant.’
Stopping to chat was a mistake. She’s given her arms time to remember how tired they are. She skids down the slope, her legs catching on stray roots and stones. By the time she makes it into the refectory, everyone else has showered and their spoons are already scraping the bottom of their plates.
Anto looks relieved to see her and then pretends not to notice as she heads for one of the girls’ tables and squeezes in between Megan and Antoinette. Conor Geary, on the other hand, has followed her with his eyes all the way from the door. He towers over everyone at the boys’ tables. He could squash her with one blow of his fists and always looks at her as though that’s exactly what he intends. She will find out why soon enough, but it won’t be today.
‘By Crom, but you stink!’ says Megan. ‘Luckily this filthy stew is slowly killing all my senses. Look! I saved you just enough to keep you in the bathroom all night.’
‘Why should I go to the bathroom at all, Megan, when your bed is right beside mine?’
‘You’re calling me a turd, Nessa Doherty.’
‘If my bed is a toilet, and I’m in it, then—’
Antoinette interrupts them. Her plate is so clean it looks like it has just come out of the shop. She dips a fork into the rapidly cooling sludge. ‘Always happy to help, my darlings,’ she says.
There are eight to a table here in the massive hall, with each class in its own section, boys and girls separate. The biggest cohort consists of the Year 1s, the ten-year-olds. They look so tiny, so puny and sweet. They freeze like rabbits whenever the bell rings or when one of the burly instructors so much as looks at them.
At the top of the room lies the survivors’ table, where three of those who have come back from the Sídhe eat in the company of the instructors. Nabil is there tonight, although he doesn’t touch pork. His great dark eyes always seem so sad in such a gentle face. Maybe the scars running through his beard hold the reason for that. He doesn’t impress Taaft, however, who scowls on discovering that the only free seat is on the Frenchman’s left.
Then there are the teachers’ tables, where Alanna Breen holds court. A famous scholar, she wrote History of the Sídhe and speaks their language like a native. She is joined this evening by the cadaverous Ms Sheng, teacher of field medicine, and the portly, red-faced Mr Hickey – another actual survivor, one of the early ones – who instructs in hunt theory. He’s laughing about something, but whatever the joke, he’s the only one who gets it.
Many of the remaining teachers prefer to eat alone or in the nearby town of Boyle.
Alanna Breen clinks her glass and silence spreads through the room. She stands, uncaring of the way the folds on her neck wobble when she moves, even though this particular feature has earned her the nickname of ‘the Turkey’ among the students. Her appearance isn’t helped by a tiny chin cowering in the shadow of a great ski jump of a nose. However her voice is strong, and the words come easily, each one a perfect grammatical jewel of case and gender or tense and number.
‘You’ll all have heard by now that one of our own, that Ponzy, survived a Call.’
She waits for the cheering to come to an end. ‘He won’t be returning to join us here at Boyle, but his account will be published early next week. There’ll be copies in my office, and Mr Hickey –’ she bows to the red-faced gentleman at her side – ‘Mr Hickey will be sharing the relevant parts with you all.’
‘The relevant parts, miss?’ This was from Bartley, one of Ponzy’s two remaining classmates in Year 7.
‘The relevant parts,’ she confirms, and so stunned are the audience that nobody else speaks for a while. Survivor accounts are always published in full. But the boy on the bus this morning, the one who was Called, said something about Ponzy, that he had been … changed.
‘We all knew Ponzy,’ says Ms Breen, ‘or Jack Ponsonby, as I suppose I should say. He has asked … he has asked that we remember him as he was. And having read his account, and in consultation with our master of hunt theory, I have agreed to leave out the final paragraph and any photographs of Ponzy’s … um … injuries. Now, that’s the end of the matter. We’re glad to have him back. To have another living soul to keep the future alive for our dear country. We’ll be serving dessert in a moment. But first the toast.’
And she raises her glass, they all do, and cries, fervently, passionately, ‘The Nation must survive! The future is ours!’
Nessa sees that the ten-year-olds haven’t joined in, but instead they are resting their heads on the tables.
‘Poor darlings,’ says Antoinette. ‘They’re sleeping. They’ve been given the Welcome Tea.’
‘It’s pretty sick, if you ask me,’ says Megan, and Nessa nods, despite the fact that she disagrees with her friend. The Year 1s are about to get the most important lesson the survival college can teach. In a few hours, each of them will wake up naked and alone in the forest. It is an experience that will terrify them, that will mark them for ever. It is meant to, because if it ever happens again, it means they’ve been Called by the Sídhe.
History class is a chance to doze right up until, out of the blue, the Turkey asks Antoinette, ‘Why do you think you’re here?’
‘Who? Me?’ Antoinette practically jumps out of her seat. She hastily covers up the heroically proportioned male torso she’s been scratching onto her desk. It’s not really the sort of thing Ms Breen appreciates, what with being the head of the college and all. ‘Um, why am I here, miss? Uh … the Sídhe want to kill me?’
‘Oh, they mean to do more than kill you, child. They want to twist you. To crumple you up like an old sheet of paper. I’m here trying to save you, and you don’t listen to a word I say!’
The principal doesn’t normally take class herself, but Chapman is having one of her ‘days’ and won’t recover until her stash of alcohol has been exhausted. Ms Breen already has the paperwork ready to fire her. And several other teachers are on the list too.
But Ms Breen is made of sterner stuff.
She herself is of the lucky generation that passed through adolescence just before teenagers started turning up with terrifying, impossible mutilations. She remembers aeroplanes leaving Irish airspace, only to fall empty from the skies. She recalls reading about the last ferry to leave Dublin, about how it ran aground on the Wicklow coast with no life on board apart from rats and lonely pets. And she had a younger sister, Antoinette’s age, whose body she was never allowed to see after the Sídhe called her.
Ms Breen wants to scream at her students, but what would be the point?
‘It’s just, miss,’ says Antoinette, ‘I don’t see what that man … Geng … Geng …’
‘Yeah, him. I don’t see what he has to do with us.’
Ms Breen grins. She holds up a picture of the man himself. ‘Antoinette, I’d like you to meet your ancestor.’
‘Him? He looks nothing like me! My dad’s Nigerian! And my mother is—’
‘I know exactly who your mother is, child!’ An incredible woman, though far less charming than her daughter. ‘But you’re right. He looks nothing like anybody in Year 5. Yet he is ancestor to all of us. Every single one. I know you don’t believe that, and you don’t see what this has to do with the Sídhe, but I will explain. Now, let me start by saying he had a great many mistresses.’
‘Like me, miss!’ shouts Conor, and his status in the class has everybody laughing dutifully. Even Ms Breen smiles tightly.
But Nessa freezes, because Anto, the compulsive joker, can’t resist playing with fire. ‘Oh, not like you, Conor,’ he says. ‘I doubt the Khan’s mistresses were anywhere near as pretty as you are.’
Now the class is laughing for real. Even Conor joins in, in apparent good nature.
But after the lesson he turns his fury on Anto in the corridor.
The children have been trained to fight, to maim even, by the ex-special forces of half the world. And Conor has learned better than anybody. Anto is pretty good though: fast enough to block the first blow or two, but before some of the others can bring his attacker down, while Nessa is struggling to push forward, Conor has already blackened an eye and broken a rib.
Nessa feels her gorge rise. All she can think is, What if Anto is Called right now? In this weakened condition? What if the Sídhe Call him?
He may be thinking the same thing, because he’s shaking and blood is dripping from split lips. He’s desperately trying not to cry in front of everybody. Nessa wants to go him and lift him up. She wants to hold him close and it’s the right thing, the only human thing, to do.
She bottles it all down. It’s his own fault. His own bloody fault – he was practically asking for it. Nessa is here to survive. She cares for nobody and her face is as serene as the statue of a saint.
Anto must see her there in the crowd, as his friends help him up, but he knows the rules too and his eyes sweep over her. He limps away, the beaten dog.
Nobody speaks up for him. Nobody goes with him. Many, in fact, snigger.
Conor meanwhile shakes off his own gang like so many fleas. ‘Sooner he learns respect, more of his blood stays on the inside.’
‘Don’t worry,’ says Megan in Nessa’s ear. ‘That dirty wee shite will spend days in the Cage for this.’
Only if an instructor catches him in the act, because being a bully is somehow never as bad as being a snitch.
That night Nessa does the stupid thing again, the thing she swore she would never repeat. It has been building up in her since the boy from Omagh was Called on the bus, and the events of this day have made the pressure unbearable.
When the others fall into exhausted sleep, she slides out from under her quilt and puts the paper into the breast pocket of her pyjamas.
‘Where are you going?’ Megan whispers. She has a godlike instinct for knowing when Nessa is doing something wrong.
‘You never go after lights out.’
‘I do. You just sleep through it.’
‘No, I don’t, you filthy whore. I warned you about this last time, didn’t I?’
‘Go back to sleep.’
‘How do you expect me to sleep now?’ But Megan sighs and lies down.
As promised, Nessa heads for the bathroom, which is in a little annex at the end of the dorm. She meets Squeaky Emma on the way out. The girl only comes up to Nessa’s shoulder, but she’s one of the fastest runners in the year.
‘The … uh … You might want to wait a bit, Nessa. And open a window. Sorry.’
‘Sure,’ says Nessa.
The smell isn’t as bad as advertised, but she opens the window just the same. Then she removes her dressing gown and climbs outside in thin pyjamas. She’s three storeys up. Down below, cracked old paving stones are waiting to welcome her should she fall. They nearly get their chance when a leg catches on the windowsill. But after that her powerful arms do most of the work.
The cheap construction of the dorm buildings provides Nessa with plenty of handholds. Even better is the ivy that has had a generation to grow strong. She climbs crabwise, full to the brim with joy. This is not the act of a survivor. It goes against everything she believes, everything she needs to be doing. None of that can keep the smile off her face.
Now she’s at the corridor window. A yelp comes from inside and she spots some of the dogs wandering around. They’re supposed to patrol for non-existent Sídhe spies. But the students’ theory is that the authorities just want to keep boys and girls apart. Nobody pregnant has ever survived a Call. Not once in twenty-five years. But then why not just have us in separate schools?
The animals are snarling, and Nessa has a horrible realization: They know I’m here! She panics, pulling herself past and away until the noise fades and she finds herself at the window of another bathroom.
She is exhausted, her own breath as loud as any animal’s growl.
This is where she is most likely to be caught. Then she’ll spend a full day in the Cage with no food and nothing to do but reflect on how weak she’s getting and on how she could be Called at any moment.
But she calms her breathing and manages to force the window open. Minutes later, Nessa is in the boys’ dorm. Here she stands among their snores. It would be worse than the Cage to be found here: it would mean disgrace and so much ridicule she might pray for the Sídhe to rescue her from it! Her muscles are trembling, her legs won’t cooperate as she tries to move quietly. Count the beds: one … two … and three.
This shadow is Anto, who needs to forget her if either of them are to have a chance at life. Her nostrils twitch with the smell of the medicine they gave him for his injuries. She hears his soft breathing and strains to see the shape of him under his quilt. She thinks, as the sweat begins to chill on her skin, how warm it must be in there. But all she does is to slip the paper under his pillow.
The climb back is so much harder.
‘You’re a fool,’ Megan told her after the last time.
‘If I was a boy, you’d say it was romantic. Like Romeo on the balcony!’
Megan rolled her eyes. ‘I’d say no such thing! That was the stupidest film ever. It wasn’t even in English. I don’t know what that was.’
Nessa loses her grip and whimpers like a child, but her other hand manages to hold on at the cost of a scraped knee. When she reaches the window where the dogs were patrolling she sees something strange: five of the animals are lying down there together. All of them appear to be asleep, except … except their eyes are open. Is that normal? But she is too tired to worry about that now.
The first thing she does on making it back the girls’ bathroom is to lie on the floor for ten minutes. The linoleum feels like a carpet to her. She imagines Anto’s face in the morning when he finds the note she has left for him:
And it’s a long time since I’ve slept
Awaiting the taste of his kisses
He won’t understand a word of it, for the lines are in Irish. But if he can track them down in a country that hasn’t had internet access for twenty-five years, he’ll find they belong to a poem by a long-dead girl: ‘Young Man with the Braided Hair’. And maybe he’ll remember that his own hair was braided once.
There’s nothing else she can give him. Or herself. The giddiness threatens to bubble up again into laughter. But it’s time to seal herself back into the bottle. She actually lost her grip at one point! She nearly fell! This has to be the last time. It was a one-off. A second one-off.
Back in the dorm, the shapes of her friends are all around her. One of them moves. Seems to settle. The bed is suddenly flat, and Antoinette, the generous, the lovely, the foolish, is gone.
Antoinette was dreaming of home. Her father was one of the first people to survive the Call, but he has been eating ever since, and at the age of forty the doctors have told him he’s well on the way to a heart attack. It’s one of the reasons Mother, another survivor, doesn’t live with him any more. She moved in with another woman, but she always says, ‘I’m not gay. It’s just that I’m in love with Gillian. I love your father too, pet, but he wants to die and I want to live. And you too. I want you to live most of all.’
They’ve had this conversation more than once, and Antoinette always ends it with promises to stop smoking, to train harder. Above all she must study Sídhe – it was Mother after all, the famous Michelle McManus, who overheard enemy speech and remembered enough of it that when she came back, the scholars were able to figure out what it was …
For a second, Antoinette thinks she’s still dreaming. She opens her eyes and the entire sky is filled with whirlpools of faint light. Silver spirals turn sluggishly in the sky, brighter than stars but weaker than the moon. Her nose is already running with a burning, bleach-like stench.
They’ve been warned about this from their first night in survival college, when they wake up naked and alone in the middle of the woods. As Mr Hickey is always repeating in hunt-theory class: even in your dreams, act as if your life depends on it, because one day it will.
She rises onto her knees. There’s a ringing in her head. I’m not ready. I’m not ready. Oh, please, God …
She is in a slight dip in the ground. Around her lies a carpet of what must be slicegrass. It tears at the skin of any who walk on it. But plenty of stones break the surface, and less than a dozen paces further on the grass gives way to an ankle-high bonsai forest whose trees can’t harm her much at all.
Years of training are coming back to her.
And then a terrible screech tears through the chill air, with a sound so sharp, so bitter, that every tooth in her head aches with it. The dogs. The dogs are coming, and the first lesson Antoinette was taught at her first class on her first day was this: MOVE!
She stands, naked and goose-pimpled. She hops from rock to rock, the toughened soles of her feet feeling nothing, not stumbling until the dog howls again. But by then she has made it into the bonsai forest and is already clambering up and over the top of the first of the small hills, spitting from the bitter taste of the air.
The silver landscape falls away in front of her like a scroll with a map drawn on it. Fairyland in its entirety: lakes of red fire, the only colour here, spewing and bubbling in the distance; forests growing terrible fruits; tornadoes, that look like a giant’s fingers digging into the soil; scattered lightning; burning rains and murderous flora of every kind.
And Antoinette thinks, as a million have before her, We banished them here. No wonder they hate us.
It doesn’t matter that the event happened thousands of years before Antoinette was born. To the Sídhe, it is very real.
And so is the dog.
It screeches again, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand up. Is it closer already? Is it on to her? Another cries out far away to her left.
Antoinette runs, plunging and sliding down the hillside. Each breath of the acrid air hurts her lungs. She ignores it. If she can avoid them for a day, or thereabouts, she will return home alive and never have to see this awful place again. She has been trained for it, to run that long in rough terrain. She skids, falls forward and rolls perfectly to her feet. It’s almost fun!
Halfway down, dark flecks of ash start falling from the sky, obscuring the view ahead and hopefully foiling the pursuit too. She is within ten steps of a stand of knobbly grey trees when something flies past her ear and thuds into a trunk. The whole tree shudders and Antoinette sees an arrow buried in the bark. A black liquid spurts from the wound.
At the top of the hill she has just left, stands a Sídhe bow-woman, half-hidden by the falling ash. There is no doubt that she is young and beautiful – nobody has ever seen an elderly Sídhe. Nor is there any doubt as to her intentions, for she has already fitted another arrow.
It is some time before she sees anybody else, but she does not stop. Her breath is rasping in her throat. Why … why did I smoke? Why? Why? Why?
In spite of her parents, in spite of the four Calls she has personally witnessed up to now, she has never really believed this day would come. Not for her. Not Antoinette!
Panic has made her run too fast and now her limbs are wobbly with fatigue. What if she finds somewhere to hide? A number of survivors have managed that. Keeping out of the way until their time was up, but that will only work if she can throw the dogs off the scent.
Lucky for her, her path soon crosses a stream. She steps into it, walking along its slippery bed, pausing to cup her hands and drink. The water here is safe enough in small quantities. Appalling parasites make their home in it, but she won’t be here long enough for them to do her any real harm, and nothing that is not her own flesh can return home with her.
In the end, it is not the parasites that drive her from the water but the ‘fish’, with their disturbingly familiar shapes. They are gathering in a … a gang near to one bank and swimming hard with tiny limbs to keep up with her. They seem to be mustering their courage for something, an attack maybe. So she staggers back onto dry land just in time to hear the dogs again, howling loud enough to make her jump with an involuntary cry of alarm. They’re so close! How did that happen? Oh, God! Oh, Crom and Dagda and Lugh!
But they don’t have her scent. They can’t know where she is, and right beside her is a small pile of rocks surrounded by plants she thinks she recognizes as being mostly harmless. With no time to double-check, she slides in among the bushes.
Spider trees, she realizes now. They latch onto her, but they are young specimens and she should be able to break away easily when the time comes. The important thing now is to control her breathing to—
The first of the ‘dogs’ comes into view. She wants to cry out when she sees it, or to weep.
The creature was once a human woman. Now she pads along on all fours. Her back legs bend the wrong way. Her jaws have grown thick and large with massive teeth that don’t fit properly together so that the mouth can never fully close, and a constant stream of drool hangs down from her chin. Her paws are still recognizably human hands. Her all-too human breasts hang down, catching on rocks and bushes so that Antoinette aches to see it and wishes she could do something to help.
The creature is panting and whining quietly to itself. ‘Catch,’ it says distinctly. ‘Catch and master will love me. Catch. Catch.’
A nearby spider tree grabs hold of it and the monster explodes into a frenzy of savagery until its ‘paw’ is once again free. Then it passes on by, leaving Antoinette to force back her feelings of pity and disgust. She dares not move, and soon enough two more dogs pass, both male, with tangled beards and lolling tongues.
Something stabs her in the leg. There it is again! Harder this time, and it is only with the greatest of self-control that she stifles a yelp. Tiny people are running around her feet. Like the dogs they move on all fours, but they rise now and again to poke at her with matchstick-sized spears. Their voices are too high for her to hear, but they are organized and they definitely think they can take her.
She jerks a hand free and sweeps them away as gently as she can, but that’s foolish because already there are little numb patches around the wounds they have made. Poison! They’re using poison!
She pushes away, more violently now, feeling the grip of the spider trees holding her in place as dozens and dozens of the tiny tribesmen gather for a charge. She has absolutely no choice in the matter; she lunges to her feet, ripping herself free. She staggers from her hiding place and something, or someone, splats sickeningly under her feet.
And just down the path, less than fifteen metres away, is a gang of grinning Sídhe.
Their surprise gives her the chance she needs to run off the path and into the woods. But soon they’re sprinting after her, crying delighted encouragement, one to the other. Never, never in her life has Antoinette heard so much innocent joy in a voice.
She runs completely without thinking, faster than she has ever run in her life. A horn sounds behind her, and then the handsomest man she has ever seen charges in from the right. He has glittering skin, huge eyes and a spear that points right at her heart.
She slides under his attack. Turns perfectly – Nabil would be so proud – twists the shaft from his grasp. Don’t let them touch you! Never let them touch you! But even as she is remembering the warnings, her body acts of its own accord and shoves the point of the weapon right into his belly. A mortal wound. She has killed someone, a Sídhe, but a person.
He cries out joyfully. ‘Oh, well played, thief!’ He slides back against a tree as the blood comes. ‘A feisty one! I nearly caught her!’ His face is already growing paler.
The shadows gather and again she flees. She has nearly reached the end of the trees and she can hear the dogs again.
Beyond the last of the trunks lies a sight that almost kills her. It looks like a field of cabbages, but these are human heads. Hundreds and hundreds of them, laid out in a grid. The bodies cannot be seen, but here and there a hand has broken the soil.
The eyes of a man right by her feet swivel towards her.
‘Help me,’ he croaks in English. ‘Help me.’ And all the others hear and it becomes a chorus of desperate pleading, so loud that not even the howl of the dogs can break through it. But the Sídhe are coming and there’s nothing Antoinette can do for these people, nothing.
She runs for her life, wasting precious time to avoid standing on the heads and hurting them. The Sídhe have no such qualms, and Antoinette cries out in pain as the first arrow clips her shoulder and a voice calls, ‘Be careful not to kill the thief! We have hours yet to enjoy her!’
Antoinette’s limbs will not carry her much further. She knows this, she knows it, but can’t stop running. She looks for cover, for somewhere to hide or to make a fight of it. She’s killed one Sídhe already; she might be able to take some others if the dogs will leave her alone. In the distance a tornado seems to be coming this way. Such events have saved survivors in the past. She swerves towards it, knowing it may rip her to shreds, but willing to take the gamble. She is only encouraged in her choice when the Sídhe behind her cry, ‘No, thief! Not there! Don’t go there!’
Moments later, the heads are behind her and she is running into a bare stretch of mud.
A terrible wail of despair rises up from the hunters. This gives her the strength to surge forward, but the mud catches her, rising to her knees and then her hips.
The Sídhe are in a wide circle around her, hopping from foot to foot in their elaborately tooled leather clothing, their gold chains and holding their carved bows. One of them throws her a rope out over the muck.
‘Take it, thief,’ he begs. ‘We wish only to play with you. We promise not to hurt you as much as usual.’
They mean it. The Testimonies show that the monsters always keep their promises, and so, as the chilly mud rises to her bellybutton, Antoinette is tempted and terrified enough to reach for the rope. But then she imagines her parents seeing the state of her twisted remains and manages to turn away.
She doesn’t change her mind again until the mud has reached her mouth, but by then the Sídhe have lost their chance.