Susan Boulton: author
Susan Boulton: author

Chapter One

 

S

She had crossed Timeholm’s southern border when the heat wave began. Now, as it reached its peak, the voices in her head had become frantic, screaming at her to hurry.

A storm was coming. Oracle could see it in the small dust eddies, which danced in the dried-out ruts cut deep into the clay road. She could hear it whispering in the heavy heads of wheat swaying in the fields. It was a storm of gun flashes and bright swords, broken promises and murder.

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Oracle squeezed down between two large wagons and joined a ragged line waiting to use the drinking fountains. When her turn came, her hands shook with anticipation. She placed one of the small brass cups under the stream of water and lifted it to her lips.

“Sails in the water. Bubbles and rope. Storm and flood.” The words forced their way out of her mouth between gulps of water. Her small respite was over. The cup fell from her hand. It swung on its chain against the stone and rang like a chapel bell. The noise disturbed a haze of flies hovering round the horses at a nearby trough. The insects buzzed their annoyance and flew between the people waiting to use the fountain.

 

“Flies. Summer flies. Winter flies. Bloated on bodies. Train. Trick. Pick. Bones. Hack and slash. Good man. Goddess’ sacrifice. Turn the world on its head.” The words were not shouted, yet they cut at the back of Oracle’s throat as if screamed with all her strength. She was being watched, the voices told her, by a priest of the Inner Ring. He would stop her saying the words to those who needed to hear. He wanted them for himself. All the hints of possible futures, dire prophecies and majestic fates must be his, so that he could order the world according to his vision. 

 

The main entrance to the railway station was on her right-hand side. Images flickered through her mind, ragged and overlapping. Fragments of what might be merged with what was. The voices began to shout. She clapped her hands over her ears and ran, not up the steps to the station, but towards the small alley on its eastern side.

 

The sounds of the square began to fade. She slowed her pace and tried to catch her breath. The voices in her head screamed at her to keep moving. Oracle glanced back over her shoulder: four men followed.

 

Dizzy from exhaustion, she stumbled forward. On the station side of the alley ran a six-foot high brick wall, topped with glass fragments. On the other was a wooden fence, its interlocking boards shrunken by the summer heat. Through the thin gaps Oracle caught glimpses of railway wagons in a marshalling yard. She began beating the fence with her clenched fists, heedless of the pain as the skin on her knuckles split open.

 

“Wait! Stop! We mean you no harm — you must trust us.” It was the priest.

 

Oracle stopped her attack on the fence and looked back. Her pursuers had come to a halt. The priest was standing there, his right arm extended sideways, holding back his three companions. He was short and stocky, with a neatly trimmed beard and hair at odds with the rough workman-like clothes he wore.

 

Words formed in her mouth, unwanted, sour as crab apples. “No trust. Twist and turn. Run

Oracle, run. Find Pugh. Trick, track, wire and thunder.”

 

The priest stepped closer. She backed away and renewed her attack on the fence. Oracle threw herself at the barrier. It gave way under her weight. She toppled through onto the churned soil of a small stock pen, instinctively bringing up her hands to protect her face. She heard the priest shout, and the sound of feet smashing wood.

 

For a moment she lay there, pinned to the ground by the weight of what the visions were demanding of her. “No, up! Up! Go!” It was not the voices of possible futures, but the small fragment of who she used to be.

 

Oracle struggled onto all fours and crawled forward. A hand closed round her left ankle. She kicked out with her right foot. The man bellowed. His fingers lost their hold. Oracle scrambled to her feet, and as she did, one of the voices in her head gained control of her vocal cords. “Captain Pugh. Find him. Flames and fire. Death in the dark.  Hack, slash, swords in the air. Message on a wire. Sails on the water.”

 

The three men with the priest stopped moving: marionettes with their strings cut.

 

“Mathew!” the priest shouted to the young man standing nearest to Oracle.

 

“Carter, I don’t think we should …” Mathew looked from Oracle to the priest, then back again. A frown creased his brow.

 

“We mean it no harm. The Glimpser is confused.” The priest walked forward.

Oracle looked from one man’s face to another. Slowly, she inched backwards to the open gate of the stock yard, which stood on the left of a half-full horse trough. A small shunting engine began to push the wagons in front of it down the track behind her. “Run. Get on the wagons,” the voices in her head screamed as one. The priest lunged and grabbed her left arm. Instinctively, Oracle lashed out, hitting him hard on the left side of his face. Off balance, the priest stumbled sideways. The rear of his thighs caught on the edge of the horse trough, and he plunged backwards into the lime-scummed water.

 

His grip on Oracle’s arm tightened.

 

“Bite him.” It was not her companion voices which spoke; again, it was what was left of the woman she had been. She bent forward, her teeth bared like a small terrier in striking distance of a rat. Oracle felt the skin on the back of his hand break, and a rush of salt-tainted blood filled her mouth. The priest yelped. He let go of her and plunged deeper into the horse trough.

 

Free, Oracle ran. The wagons slowed as they neared a set of points. She could hear the neigh of horses from inside the last wagon. The fear in the animals’ cries matched that of the voices in her head. She stumbled. Her right hand reached out to break her fall, and her fingers brushed rust-covered metal. It was the step of a metal ladder running up the side of the wagon. She grabbed it. The shunting engine blew its whistle in acknowledgement of the points being changed. The wagons increased their speed. Oracle was dragged off her feet. The toes of her wooden clogs churned the limestone ballast by the side of the track. Her body weight dragged on her arms, wrenching at her shoulder sockets. She screamed in pain and wanted to let go, but the words in her head wouldn’t let her.

 

The wagons shuddered over the points. Oracle’s body slammed against the metal ladder.

 

“Get your feet up.”

 

Her hold was slipping.

 

“Do it! Don’t let them win.” The voices swirling through her mind echoed the words of the woman she had once been.

 

“On train, trick-track. North, click, click. Message on the wire starts it all soon. Goddess’ sacrifice. Toby dog. Bear the consequences.” Each word was punctuated by a spasm of pain in her elbow and shoulder joints. Slowly, she forced her hands to inch up the rusted metal and managed to put first her left foot, then her right, onto the lower rung of the ladder. She leant against the side of the wagon, and tried to regain her breath. The visions of the future tore through her mind. They were a storm cloud getting darker and deeper with each passing second. Places and people lost in the blackness. Oracle was totally closed off to the outside world. She was a frail tool driven beyond its strength, yet she was required to do more. Slowly, she climbed to the roof of the wagon. She looked forward, then back: her pursuers were gone.

 

The wagons were being pushed towards a green-painted carriage which marked the rear of a train standing in the station. Oracle began to run, stumbling along the roof. At the end, she jumped over the gap to the next wagon. She ran again, jumping from one wagon to the next, then she misjudged and fell. Driven to extremes by the howling voices in her head, she caught the edge of the wagon as she dropped. The downward pull of her body weight wrenched at her already strained shoulder joints. Oracle squealed in pain.

 

Sobbing with fear, Oracle tried to pull herself up. She failed, slamming into the end of the wagon. She heaved upwards again, caught her nose on the edge of the roof and split the skin. With one final effort, she managed to hitch her right leg up onto the roof and dragged herself onto the top. She lay there, shuddering. The train came to a stop. She could hear the men connecting the chains between the buffers. Their shouts to uncouple the shunting engine at the rear merged with the words and visions exploding in her mind.

 

She drew a deep lungful of air and began to crawl forward. “Pugh, find, hide. Red robe, never say the words for him, twist them. Hack slash, crash smash. Death in the dark, soon. Mountain and home. Turn the world on its head.” The voices drove Oracle down the ladder, across the gap and into the carriage. She wrapped both arms round herself. With her head down, she moved forward at a shambling run. She dismissed the shouts of the senior conductor behind her. All Oracle was concerned about was that she was near to her destination.

 

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© Susan Boulton