London wasn’t always a dusty, ghost-filled monument to the dead. It was once an intense city with toxic air and the constant din of millions of people talking, consuming, shoving past each other. Perhaps it’s impossible for you to imagine so many people alive in this place but, I assure you, it’s true. After all, where do you think all the bones littering the streets came from? Each one of the skulls you step over every day was once a person, alive as you are now, and that skull was filled with dreams and fears just like yours. Terror was probably the last thing all those poor souls felt. God knows it was for me.
I can only guess that you’re in London, unless this book has had its own adventure too. For a moment more, indulge me, I like to try to imagine who you are. Of course, I can only make some educated guesses. It’s likely that you’re older rather than younger, as so few children read now. But perhaps you are young, and if so, you must have one of the survivors caring for you, someone kind enough to teach you how to read now that there are no schools. I hope so, it makes you one to treasure.
Perhaps you’re trying to decide whether to burn this book now or read it first. Are you weighing up which is more important to you: a few more minutes of heat or the hours of another person’s voice reaching up to you from these pages?
Wait! Let me speak to you, let me tell you this tale! Don’t you want to know about the Red Lady’s rise to power, or perhaps how she fell? Have you heard the name “Joshua” whispered in dark places and wondered what exactly he did? Or is it David the King who fascinates you? No, what am I thinking? It must be the Four you want to know about, the four who changed the world. Well, I was there, watching as it all happened, so if you burn this now, you’ll never know.
I shall start after It happened, some twenty years later, when London was divided between the gangs: the Gardners, the Bloomsbury Boys, the Red Lady’s Hunters, to name but a few. Yes, I shall start in the place where it all began: Miri’s garden.
You may not have heard of her, but one of the most important people you need to know about is Miri. In the year I begin this account, she was in her forties. I’d like you to try to picture her, hair long and dark with some silvered strands. Some of the lines around the edges of her large brown eyes were no doubt left by the horrors she experienced when It happened, but most of them were carved by smiles.
Miri’s garden, at the centre of Queen Square, Blooms-bury, was one of the most beautiful places in London. Not dangerous and wild like the big public parks with their beasts and thorns, and not overgrown like the small house gardens are now. Well kept and orderly, Miri’s garden kept her and many others alive.
Her home was part of an old school with arched windows where the housemaster once resided. The other choices were old offices (too impersonal) or one of the hospitals that surrounded the square, but nothing on this earth would make Miri step into a hospital for a second time since It happened, let alone live in one.
The old schoolmaster’s house was where her son, Zane, was born and raised. Ah! I can imagine your eyes widen and hear you say: “Yes, I’ve heard of him!” Well, yes, of course, everyone alive has but, at this point, very few knew of Zane. He learnt about the healing arts at her side, which is why I start with her. Without Miri, there would have been no Zane as you know of him.
Zane was always a sensitive child, with his mother’s dark, soulful eyes and the thick brown hair of her youth, uncut since the day he was born. At the time I have in mind, he was almost fifteen and his hair reached his lower back. He was becoming a handsome young man, so yes, everything you might have heard about him in that regard is certainly true.
At that age he knew very little of life outside the garden, but despite everything his mother did to protect Zane, his innocence was still taken from him. Not by one dramatic event, but gently, like each day steals one’s youth. The first little piece was stolen the night the Giant came.
On the night Zane first saw the giant, the summer moon was almost full. A figure approached Miri’s house slowly and fearfully, keeping well within the shadows and ducking behind anything nearby whenever the clouds parted. The visitor crept up to the house and paused, looking carefully at both ground floor windows several times before finally making a choice. Standing on tiptoe, he cast one more fearful look around the shadowed square before tapping insistently on the glass.
After a few moments, Zane opened the window as quietly as he could, held up a lit candle and peered down with sleepy eyes.
The trespasser bounced on his tiptoes. “Hullo!” he whispered.
Zane smiled at the Bloomsbury Boy standing in front of him. “Hi Dev, what’s wrong? It must be the middle of the night.” The candlelight shone off Dev’s teeth revealing the large gap between the front two. Even though it was only illuminated by one candle, Dev’s shock of unruly hair was clearly bright ginger.
“Come with me,” he whispered. Dev was shaking, as if scared as well as excited. The Bloomsbury Boys’ territory was only five minutes to the west from Miri’s garden, in Russell Square, but Dev rarely came over at night.
“But it’s dark!” Zane said, looking past Dev. The garden in the square, so familiar in the daylight, looked forbidding. His mother never let him go out alone once the sun had set, and that had never bothered him at all. The routine was always the same; packing up tools half an hour before sunset, then filling three buckets of water from the pump in the garden. Once everything was safely inside, she had taught Zane to go to every door and window in the house, locking and checking each one, before lighting candles in the kitchen and living room. It was then Zane’s responsibility to ensure that all of the curtains were closed perfectly, lest the candlelight shone out of a gap into the darkness. He had never asked why, it was just the way things were. Unlocking the window to talk to Dev had been bad enough, the thought of climbing out and into the moonlit garden was just … absurd.
“But you got to come with me! I seen sommat … sommat weird …”
Dev’s apparent agitation stopped Zane from sending him away. “What do you mean by ‘weird’?”
“A light … in one of the windows, high up. I saw it. Was like it was movin’ too.”
Zane was fully awake in an instant. “A fire!”
“No, not fire. I know what that looks like, an’ it weren’t that. It weren’t like nothin’ I ever seen before. Weird light … we got to check it out, might be sommat important, we got to keep you and Miri safe. An’ I don’t wanna wake Jay up, in case it’s sommat … stupid.” Dev hung his head, recalling the last time that had happened. “You’re clever. I thought you should come look-see too. Jay’d be dead chuffed if you did.”
Zane considered this carefully. Within the Bloomsbury Boys, a strict hierarchy was in place. Jay, at the top, was the biggest, the one who had lived the longest and the one who had survived most fights with the Gardners. He could also be charming when he needed to be. Miri had once said he had Irish blood in him but Zane looked carefully the next time Jay was cut and his blood looked just like everyone else’s.
The only ways that a boy could impress Jay were to either fight a Gardner up close and win, or get a Token, a physical trophy to prove a Boy’s ability to steal from the enemy in their own territory and get away afterwards. Tokens earned a Boy status within the gang: the more Tokens, the more respect and the better claim to food, the ultimate Token being the black tie of a dead Gardner.
Dev, approaching fourteen (a guess, as none of the Boys knew when they were born and didn’t mark birthdays), didn’t have the dexterity or coordination to survive close combat with a Gardner and mercifully knew that fact. Unfortunately, he also didn’t have the luck or the wits to be able to obtain any other Token, and every day had to watch Boys much younger and smaller rise higher in Jay’s estimations. Jay was the axis upon which Dev’s world turned and Miri had patched Dev up several times after varied attempts to win his favour.
Zane frowned. “If there is something weird there, it might be dangerous.” He took a deep breath. “I suppose it’s up to us to make sure this isn’t a threat, right?”
Dev beamed at him. “Too right!”
Zane and Dev stood outside of the hospital at the far corner of the square. His house couldn’t be seen from here, the line of sight intersected by the dark garden.
Zane shook his head. “I’m not going in there.”
Dev, a good six inches shorter, looked up at him with large hazel eyes. “Go on, honest-like it’ll be worth it, you ain’t seen nothin’ like what I saw, you wanna see it too. Your Mum won’t know; she’s asleep.”
Zane tensed as pride tugged at a string in his stomach. “It isn’t my Mum I’m worried about,” he lied.
In Zane’s life, the rule to Never Go Into Hospitals was as fundamental as Don’t Touch The Fire and Wash Your Hands Before You Clean The Wound. Miri had instilled him with not only a respect for nature, but also a pathological fear of the dark concrete buildings that lined the square. It hadn’t taken much; only a few cautionary warnings, a tearful reprimand when she had found him entering the lobby to look for fuel on a bitterly cold day, but the Never Go Into Hospitals rule was proving hard to break.
“Then you must be scared,” Dev stuck out his chin as a clear challenge.
Zane thrust his shaking hands into his pockets and stood straighter as Dev pulled his favourite woolly hat out of his pocket and jabbed his hair under it. The ginger fuzz defiantly poked out of several holes across the crown as Dev meticulously tucked in wayward strands away from his forehead and ears. Everything that Dev wore had holes, like all of the other Bloomsbury Boys. The skill of the well-dressed Boy was to make sure that each thin layer had its holes in different places. Lots of layers not only kept out the cold, but also made them look stouter than they were. It no longer worked on Zane as he and Miri had dressed too many wounds on their scrawny arms and legs to be fooled by such a simple trick.
Dev took a deep breath, drew himself up to his full height as he faced the double doors and strode towards them.
Zane’s clammy hands clenched deep in his pockets. The old glass of the doors was filthy and cracked, beyond them the hospital was as black as the inside of a poppy. He read the words on the faded blue sign hanging lopsidedly over the door. “National Hospital for Nee-ur-ology and Nee-ur-osurgery,” he sounded out softly as Miri had taught him.
Dev, trying to seem braver than his clever and more handsome friend, reached out with shaking hands and pushed the doors open. He and Zane wrinkled their noses at the stale air that wafted out, carrying a fine dust on it that made Dev cough slightly.
Inside the lobby fingers of moonlight began to tentatively pick their way across the floor. A thick layer of dust covered everything in sight with gentle undulations immediately recognisable from some of the alleyways between the garden and the Boys’ square. Bones.
Zane swallowed hard, not noticing that both he and Dev were holding their breath. Their eyes darted around the space, taking in the strange looking doors, how so many things were broken. Internal windows and doors had been smashed and many were hanging off their hinges. Strange wheeled beds were further in, some blocking a corridor in their haphazard arrangement. There were many things neither of them had seen before: signs, symbols on the walls, fire extinguishers, faded and grubby posters from the time before It happened.
A large, rotting staircase was at the farthest point ahead of them, but it was blocked by several pieces of furniture that had been used as some kind of makeshift barricade. Two pillars that were once white stretched up to the ceiling, now grey and streaked with dirt. To the right was a large reception desk, the wood intact, thanks to Miri keeping the Boys out of the hospitals too. Any other building and it would have been scavenged and burnt a long time ago. To the far right, Zane caught a glimpse of an attractive woman with short blonde hair looking out from a painting. He stared at her for a long moment, until Dev finally moved forward, taking a step inside.
Zane followed close behind him, both still enraptured by the alien space but also the sheer sense of adventure. He jumped as the door began to swing closed behind them, and paused to brace it open with an old clipboard he found on the floor near his feet.
“We need the light,” Zane whispered.
Dev frowned. “We need to find another way up,” he whispered back, with a slight tremor in his voice. “Them stairs are no good.”
Zane looked around for another way out of the lobby and saw a sign reading “Stairs to upper floors” with an arrow pointing to the right.
Zane pointed at the sign and began to move forward. His illiterate friend shrugged and fell in behind him, stepping where Zane stepped as Jay had taught him to do when exploring new places.
They clambered over the bones and wreckage, taking care not to touch anything unless they absolutely needed to do so. The corridor to the right was extremely dark; the moonlight could only penetrate so far in, and at several points they could only progress by touch alone. It was only by chance that Zane leant against a door out of the corridor that swung open to reveal a stairwell, lit by moonlight streaming weakly through a skylight high above them. It was sufficient to sketch out the shape of the stairs stretching up above them and the door to the first floor.
“It were four windows up, where I saw it, and on the other side,” Dev whispered. Zane nodded in response, gritting his teeth to stop them chattering. It meant that the light would be impossible to see from the garden or their house.
As carefully and as quietly as possible, they both began to climb the steps. It was slow work, as the steps were also blanketed by the awful grey dust and many of them were littered with bones and skulls. They were careful not to send any crashing down the stairwell. Both boys were used to seeing remains bleached by the sun on the roads that hadn’t been cleared by Miri or the Bloomsbury Boys, but somehow the darkness and the knowledge that they really shouldn’t be inside this place conspired to make it scary to step over them here.
Zane counted the doors as they went up and thankfully the dim blue-grey light got slightly stronger the further up they went. Finally, he stopped outside the door to the third floor. A small round window was set into it and he stood on his tiptoes to peer through. A long corridor with many doors leading off it on both sides could just be made out through the filthy glass. It was also very dark.
He turned back to Dev. “Can’t see anything.”
“It’ll be further along, the window was in the middle.”
There was an awkward pause. “Shall we go and have a look?”
Dev nodded. “Come this far …”
He stepped in front of Zane and slowly pushed the door open. It creaked as if it hadn’t been opened for years and they both froze.
Dev let out the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding and stepped through. A large murky window at the far end of the corridor let in enough moonlight for them to progress. Their shoulders hunched with tension, they both began to creep down the silent corridor, their footsteps muffled by the thick carpet of dust. Thankfully, there seemed to be fewer bones up here.
The clouds outside cleared and the grey-blue light strengthened into silver, describing the streaks of dirt on the window as it reached through. In that moment, Zane saw something that made him grab Dev’s shoulder, half to stop him but half out of fear. With a shaking hand, he pointed out the large footprints in the dust that lay from a door at the other end of the corridor and led up to one of the doors just to their left. Only one set. Whoever had made them was still in that room.
In that moment, they both heard a strange rasping sound, like someone struggling to breathe in the winter after running in the cold. Only it wasn’t entirely like that; it was slow and it had an edge to it. There was something odd about the exact regularity of the breaths and a slight click that sounded as it changed from intake to out breath. It came from the same room that the footprints led up to.
As they both turned to the door, the crack beneath it was suddenly illuminated by a bright yellow light that spilled out from underneath and into the corridor to fall over their shoes. Zane and Dev clutched at each other wildly, but the light faded just as quickly as it had appeared. They finally began to relax but froze again when the the light returned and the door handle started to turn.
A footfall with a heavy metallic clang made them both jump, the shock spurring both of them to back away from the door as it swung open. Both boys gasped at the figure emerging from the room. He was huge, at least seven feet tall, but what drained the colour from their faces was the shape of the Giant’s head. It was as wide as his shoulders, like a huge square sat on top of his frame. The Giant lurched out of the room as if his feet were made of iron and turned to face the boys. Before they could make out any features on his huge face the bright yellow light swung around to shine on them. Dazzled, they both shrieked in terror and sprinted down the corridor back to the stairwell.
They hurtled through the door and raced down the first flight of steps as the heavy footfalls approached and the yellow light burst through the round window above their heads. They listened to the bizarre breathing as the Giant approached. He stopped on the other side of the door and both boys held their breath, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t come into the stairwell after them. After agonised seconds of tense listening to the regular, horrible wheeze, they both sagged as they heard him walk away in the opposite direction. The steady, slow, clanking footsteps grew quieter as the light swept away from their door.
A long time ago, Russell Square, the heart of the Blooms-bury Boys’ territory, had a garden in the middle of it just like Miri’s square. But since the Boys had claimed it, the garden had gradually died, unable to withstand the constant assault of small, destructive children. When his predecessor had died, Jay ordered it cleared of the last big shrubs to give a clear view across at all times. Now all that was left was a few stubborn trees, tattooed with the markings of every Boy who had lived there.
The concrete area in the centre, where a fountain once entertained small children before It happened, was where the Boys tended to gather. News was exchanged there and the spoils of scavenging were pooled and inspected and fought over. On the mud around the concrete area they kept bits of metal, piles of junk too big to put easily anywhere else after having been cleared out of the rest of the square.
There was also a small fleet of rusting shopping trolleys that provided hours of amusement. None of the Boys had any concept of what they’d originally been designed for, so for every Boy they had only one purpose: racing, with one Boy inside and two to push. The shopping trolleys, or “Wheelies” as the Boys called them, had been responsible for three broken arms, two sprained wrists and countless scrapes and cuts. All of these injuries had been carefully cleaned, set, and bandaged by Miri as she listened to a detailed account of who had smashed into whom and who had won. Not even a broken arm would stop a race.
Almost the entire gang had gathered to hear what Dev had to say after he’d come running into the square yelling for Jay. Zane had waited at the edge to be invited into the territory, and Grame waved him in, also eager to see what the commotion was about. Zane hung back, giving Dev the spotlight as the Boys drifted in to surround him. Dev’s eagerness to impress them and raise his profile was palpable.
“He was twice as tall as you Jay, and at least three times wider … and he couldn’t breathe proper-like, he sounded like Tim after he runs lots –”
“Hey!” Tim protested, admittedly one of the shortest and weakest of the Boys. The rest of them sniggered.
Jay had been rubbing the sleep from his eyes when Dev and Zane reached him. Zane had persuaded his friend to wait until dawn before going back to report to Jay, knowing of his bad temper when woken too early. Dev tried to catch his breath and calm down before starting, giving the others a chance to collect around him. The only ones not there were those on watch, but they would soon be filled in.
Jay stood a head taller than the rest of the Boys, even Grame and Mark. It was this, and his thick black hair that he liked to shape into short messy spikes, that made him so easy to spot when the Boys were all together. When the Boys looked up at Jay, they stood straighter, and he only needed to shout “Oy!” once to make any of them stop whatever they were doing and come running if he wanted it. The gang leader walked with the swagger of a young man who knew he was on top. Never afraid to make and hold eye contact, he had the cockiness of one who could fight well and knew it.
A vast array of items adorned the young leader’s wiry body. First was his belt, made of several thin black ties plaited together. Then his jacket, made of faded and scuffed black leather, with a variety of patches, some fabric, some metal, sewn over various holes left by different knife fights. Zane’s mother had stitched on several of them, usually after sewing up the wound acquired at the same time. On the inside of that jacket was a collection of small metal badges coveted by all of the other Boys. Jay gave them out as a special reward whenever he felt a Boy should be publicly lauded. Almost all of the Boys had at least one; Grame and Mark both had ten each. Dev had none.
Two knives hung off Jay’s hips. They had worn handles and battered sheaths but Zane knew that the blades were sharpened every day. Jay had a spot in the square where he liked to do that, opposite the main barricade at the top of Montague Street, the place where the Gardners attacked the most. His pale blue eyes, framed by long black lashes, stared at that point where he had personally killed several Gardners with the very knives he was sharpening. All the Boys knew never to disturb Jay when he scraped the metal with his special stone, for when he was doing that, all Jay saw was Gardners and blood. When they were sharp enough, Jay would trace a finger lightly over the flat of the blades, still staring at that point, his lips curving into a smile that made anyone who saw it shiver and hurry away.
Jay concentrated on Dev’s tale, but when he finished his eyes flicked to Zane.
“This all true?”
Zane hesitated before replying. “He was really big.” He wanted to be truthful but not to discredit his friend who had exaggerated slightly.
“Bigger than Luthor?” Jay was frowning. Luthor, the largest Hunter of the Red Lady’s gang and the one she called her Champion, was very tall and very strong, setting Jay’s standard for “people to be concerned about.”
“Oh, much, much bigger than Luthor,” Zane replied with certainty and a ripple of wonder spread through the circle of Boys.
Dev sighed in frustration. “I told you he was, Jay, honest-like!”
Jay frowned. “But he didn’t follow you?” Both boys shook their heads. “And you didn’t see him in Miri’s square afterwards?”
“Nothin’!” Dev confirmed. “Was like he disappeared. Outside the hospital we couldn’t see anythin’ of him or them weird feet of his.”
“We could see footprints in the hospital,” Zane explained, “but all the dust blows about outside, so we don’t know which way he went.”
Jay looked down at one of the smallest Boys who tugged at his jacket hem. He leant down and the sandy-haired Boy whispered into his ear. Jay nodded and straightened up. “Seb here’s got a good question. How did the Giant have a light that wasn’t fire?”
The gang murmured as Seb looked proud. Zane and Dev shrugged in unison.
“Maybe he put some fire in a jar like we do when it’s windy,” Mark proposed, scratching his lank brown hair.
Zane shook his head. “It didn’t look like that. It was too bright, and not shaped like a jar either. It was a perfect circle.”
The murmuring increased. “Maybe the Giant caught the sun in a bottle,” one of the younger ones called out from the back.
“Nah,” Dev said, “would’ve been hot, and it weren’t.”
No more theories were forthcoming. Jay kept frowning and that made the Boys nervous. “Grame, Mark, we need double shifts tonight, and everyone needs to stay sharp, ya hear?” All assembled nodded, even Zane, who then blushed. “Anyone hears anything weird, or sees anything weird, come to me right away.”
“Even if it’s Dev?” one of the Boys quipped. They all sniggered again, apart from Dev and Jay.
“Shut it,” Jay said and silence fell. “No messin’. This is serious. Maybe them Gardners have got sommat goin’ on with the Giant, so we need to stay smart-sharp. Got it?”
There were few things that Jay took more seriously than the threat from the Gardners. Named after their matriarch’s surname and that of her three sons, the Gardners attacked his Boys at any opportunity. Brutal, ruthless and cruel, with a territory boundary that expanded and contracted according to Ma Gardner’s daily whims, they were always on Jay’s mind.
Dev watched Jay closely, like a hungry puppy hoping for scraps from a table.
“Now scarper you lot. Check the square and the edges of the territory. No wheelie racin’ or fightin’ ’til I got the all-clear. Go on then!” The Boys scattered to all of the places they knew to check, but Jay grabbed Dev’s collar and held him back. “Nice one, Dev.”
Dev grinned as he saw Jay reach into his jacket and pull out a badge. “Ta Jay!” He scampered off after beaming a gaptoothed smile at Zane.
Jay turned to Zane. “Your mum know about this?”
Zane looked down at his scuffed shoes, his dark hair falling to hide his guilty face. “You know how she is about hospitals.”
Jay nodded, remembering the last time some of his Boys had been caught trying to pilfer old mattresses from the hospital on the corner of Miri’s square. He wouldn’t have believed their story if she hadn’t marched them over herself to hold him to account. “She should know though. If I were in her shoes, I’d wanna know.”
Zane sighed. “I know, I –”
He was cut off by three sharp whistles from the northeast corner of the square. Jay took off at a sprint with Zane following close behind. It was some kind of alert, but not a full-blown Gardner alarm.
“Jay! Jay!” A Boy called Smudge (because of a small birthmark on his forehead) was waving frantically for his attention. He was pointing at a low wall in front of one of the abandoned houses. “Another boy, a new one! Behind that wall!”
Jay ran and peered over, then vaulted it effortlessly. Zane hurried over, eager to help, tying his long hair back out of the way in case he was needed.
Huddled against the wall, shivering and deathly pale was a scrawny boy with very short mousy brown hair. He was dressed in the strangest clothes: thin pale blue cotton pyjamas, almost pristine in condition, no patches or holes and hardly any dirt. Zane shuddered when he saw him, not knowing why.
“Hey there,” Jay said. His voice was soft and calming and the little boy lifted his head. “I’m Jay, this here’s my patch, but boys are allowed to stay so you’re alright.” As he spoke, the boy visibly relaxed, and Jay slipped off his leather jacket to place it gently around his shoulders. He seemed to notice something as he did so, and beckoned Zane over. “Come look-see, Zane. I reckon he’s hurt.”
Zane clambered over the wall and went to Jay’s side. The little boy’s eyes widened when he saw him, and the trembling started again.
Zane knelt down to his level and, just like his mother would, he smiled warmly at the boy, even though a chill spread through him that made him shiver.
At that moment, the boy’s face crumpled into an expression of utter terror. He shook violently and his breath became ragged. Stunned, Zane drew back as Jay threw him a confused look.
“I only smiled at him,” Zane said apologetically, just as confused, as Jay gathered the boy up in his arms.
“I’ll take him to ya mum,” Jay said, as the petrified boy buried his face into his chest and clung to him desperately.
Zane sagged, watching them go. Smudge peered up at him. “Whatcha do to him?”
“Nothing! I’ve never even seen him before!”
Smudge raised an eyebrow. “Looked like he’d seen you before.”
Zane kept busy in the garden for the rest of that day, steering clear of the house whilst his mother tended to the new boy under Jay’s protective supervision. At supper that evening he was quiet, not wanting to talk too much about anything, in case it led to the tale of the Giant in the hospital. Zane wasn’t ready to face her anger about that yet.
For her part, Miri assumed he was brooding about the new boy’s reaction that Jay had mentioned, and left him to it. The boy had clearly been distressed and disoriented, and she couldn’t understand why Zane was so shaken up by his behaviour.
The next morning she was relieved to see that he was back to his old self. Not only was he cheery and pleased to see her, but he had risen early and stoked up the fire to boil the day’s drinking water. He kissed her on the cheek, just like every morning, and she hugged him tightly.
Zane rested his chin on her shoulder, it still being a novelty to be able to do so and thought for a moment. Somehow it still wasn’t the right time to tell her about the Giant, but there was something else to talk about. “I had a weird dream last night.”
“Tell me about it whilst I make breakfast.”
Zane leant against the door frame, his back to the living room, as his mother began to chop the fruit he had picked the day before. The kitchen, like the whole downstairs of the house, was tidy and clean, worn and patched. Small, meticulously labelled pots and jars containing ointments, seeds, preserves, and dried fruit lined every work surface. The dark-red tiled floor, swept daily, was marked with scrapes from the wooden stools tucked under the table in the corner. The wooden cupboards, full of mismatched crockery, also showed signs of age, but it was all well cared for. The oven was treated as the best mouse-proof cupboard, as all of the cooking was done on a trivet over the fire in the living room. The back door into the small courtyard at the rear was open to let in the pleasant morning breeze, a thin muslin curtain pinned over it to keep out the summer insects.
“I dreamt I was in a house, not this one,” Zane began. “I was living there but it wasn’t my home. Everything was very dusty, and all the picture frames I could see were turned face-down, so I couldn’t see the people in them.” Zane glanced back into the living room at the framed pictures on the mantel piece over the fire. All were old photos of his mother with her parents when she was younger. All Zane had heard about them was that they died when It happened; Miri didn’t like to talk too much about the past.
Miri looked up at the pause and he continued. “I could see a rug that had been rolled back, and there was a weird sort of door in the floor and steps that went down.”
“A cellar,” Miri said, her knife halfway through an apple as she frowned a little. “You’ve never seen one before …”
“Oh. Well, there was one of those there,” Zane continued, unconcerned, “but I didn’t go down it, I knew someone was down there, but not a bad person. Anyway, the really weird thing was that I looked in a mirror in the dream, and I had strange purple eyes.”
“Purple eyes?! Like you’d get from a fight?”
“No no, the um … the bit that’s brown –”
“Yeah, that bit, they were like a pale purple, the same colour as those flowers that grow on the right-hand side on the way to Jay’s square.”
“Violet,” Miri’s hand was still poised on the knife halfway through the apple. “Like Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes.”
Miri shook her head, starting to chop quickly again and Zane knew she had thought about before It happened.
“Isn’t that a weird thing to dream about?”
Miri nodded. “Do you remember if your face was the same?”
Zane shook his head. “I can only remember the eyes … and that was all that happened, but it was so clear, it felt like I was really there.”
He watched her chop the rest of the fruit and then mix it all together, remaining silent. Miri glanced over at him expetantly a few times but didn’t press him to talk about the day before.
“The little boy was alright in the end,” she commented as she served the fruit into Zane’s favourite bowl.
“Oh, right … that’s good.”
Miri frowned at him and sighed. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
He nodded hurriedly and took the bowl she offered. “What do we need to do today?” Miri didn’t press further.
As the days went by, Miri noted that Zane wasn’t visiting the Boys, but she didn’t worry too much about it–the same had happened in the past. Sometimes Zane would want to be close to others his age, sometimes he preferred her company; either way she was sure he would drift back there soon. Besides, summer was always very busy, and she was glad he wasn’t being distracted from all that had to be done. And the less time she spent worrying about what he might be getting dragged into with the Bloomsbury Boys, the better.
The night of the next full moon brought Dev to the square again. Zane was much more alert this time when he opened the window. “Is it the Giant again?”
Dev shook his head and Zane smiled with relief.
“Ain’t seen you for ages, don’t you wanna be friends with us no more?”
Zane looked away, feeling guilty for avoiding them, but then fired back, “You didn’t come over here either.”
“Couldn’t. Jay’s got us busy at the moment. We heard noises on the other side of the barricade few days back, and what with the Giant an’ all …”
“So why couldn’t you wait until morning to visit?” Zane yawned.
“Because it needs to be dark to do what I’m gonna do, not too dark mind you. But tonight’s perfect, and I need your help.” Zane listened with apprehension. “I’m gonna get me a Token, best one ever. Ever.” Dev puffed up his chest, the moonlight glinting off his highly polished metal badge.
Zane was far from keen. “It sounds dangerous.”
“Course it is!”
“It’s not something from the …” Zane swallowed hard. “The Gardners is it?”
Dev shook his head. “Nah, too hard–anyway, loads of the others have got stuff from them. I wanna do something better, something different.” At Zane’s raised eyebrow, he continued. “I’m gonna get sommat from the Red Lady’s place.”
“I’m gonna get one of her banners. I went and had a look-see at ’er patch last night, and I reckon if someone kept watch for the guards, I could grab one and run with it.”
“No, really, it’d work, Zane, honest-like! I just need you to keep watch, not go close or anything.”
Zane knew that the Red Lady’s territory, with Gray’s Inn at its heart, was only ten minutes from the garden to the southeast if one were stupid enough to attempt to walk there out in the open. He’d never been there himself, but he’d heard from the Bloomsbury Boys that the territory was marked by daubs of red paint on the buildings around the perimeter. Some said it was blood, but he wasn’t sure he believed them.
“They kill people who go near, Jay told me, and Mum too. They both said to stay away.”
“Aw, c’mon. Don’t be like that. They only kill people they catch.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Dev sighed with frustration. “I thought it all through and it’ll be fine. They don’t expect anyone to do this, that’s why it’ll work. C’mon, help me out. I gotta get another Token. Len got one the other day from the Gardners, and he’s half the size of me. Everyone laughs at me all the time; I gotta show them that I’m worth sommat.”
Zane listened to Dev’s pleading and his face softened. “It doesn’t matter what people say about you, Dev.”
“It’s alright for you, you ain’t one of us. You got Miri and the garden. It’s different ’ere.” Dev hung his head. “If I don’t show ’em I’m worth sommat, they’ll kick me out. So I’m gonna do this. Tonight. And if you ’ent gonna help me, then I’ll go on my own.”
Dev turned and began to march off purposefully. Zane watched him, worried, and then called him back with a loud whisper. “I’ll … I’ll watch for you. But I’m not going close.”
It was the nearest that Zane had ever been to the Red Lady’s territory, and he was shivering despite the warmth of the summer night. Dev had posted him on the corner of Northington Street where it met Gray’s Inn Road, the best place to watch for the patrol that guarded her and the inner territory. From his position, he could see the large gates, shut fast, and the white-washed walls that shone silver blue in the moonlight. Interspersed at regular intervals were long banners of silk that billowed gently in the summer breeze, stretching from the top of the wall down to the ground, some forty feet or so in length and about ten feet wide. Dev had described them to him on the way, in the moonlight they looked black, but he knew that they were blood-red.