Read Watershed Online

Authors: Jane Abbott

Watershed (5 page)

Find some, Rachel told her. They never did.

Anna and Rachel watched from a distance while the others moved carefully, fanning out to circle the carcasses; three waited upwind, the rest slithered in to slowly close the net. Sarah blinked away the flies that bit at the soft skin around her eyes, drawn by her sweat; she didn't dare brush at them, knowing any sudden movement might alert their prey. They'd learned that the hard way, and patience was everything.

They'd watched the birds for over an hour before beginning the hunt, ensuring the eagles had gorged themselves enough to slow their getaway, the weight of flesh in their bellies too heavy to lift. A few smaller carrion birds – hawks and kites – danced around the perimeter, but their attempts to approach would elicit screeches, the lunge of hooked beaks and a wild flapping of bigger wings, and they'd scuttle to safety. Even amid the chaos, there was a pecking order.

It was strange to think that this desolation, which had wiped out so much, might provide for others. Most of the smaller birds – the seed- and pollen-eaters, the finches, the wrens, the tiny swallows, all the brightly coloured chitterers and flitterers – had long gone. But the large ones, whose greater wingspans could withstand the buffeting of the wind and offered safe passage out to the rain, the ones that rejoiced in the tearing and gulping of rotting meat, had readily adapted.

Did she care that she was about to kill these majestic creatures, gold of eye and bronze of feather, so fearless and fearsome? Did she worry that, with any luck, she might soon be feasting on a bird that had itself feasted upon a dead person? No, she didn't. The Sarah of old might have – she who'd studied the arts so she could man phones for a living; she who'd insisted Daniel release the mangy cur he'd once brought home (oh, what she wouldn't give to feast on that dog now!) – but not her. She was a seasoned hand at this and her longing for meat, for the watery tang of blood and the slippery grind of flesh between her teeth, outweighed any old niceties.

She was sick of grubbing the ground for anything edible, sick of having to pinch her nose to guard against the distasteful crunch of hard-shelled beetles and roaches and the slick white paste of their innards coating her tongue. She was tired of overturning rocks in the hope of uncovering a lizard or snake; of digging sticks, ape-like, into ant nests to fish for angry mites, crushing them between her fingers and wincing at their sting before sucking in the sharp, vinegary mess. No, this was better, the reward greater, and it didn't matter that they'd been reduced to such prehistoric tactics, stones their only weapons, strategy their only advantage.

But it was risky too. Their prey might not be mammoth, but it was razor-beaked and razor-taloned. And there was danger too in their own actions; a hurled rock could easily miss its target and hit another in the group; it had happened before.

Gripping her rock tightly, she dragged herself another foot or so, and stopped, waiting for the signal. The shrill wind, the quickening
ker-thud
of her heart upon the dead ground; she rejoiced in their song, age-old, primeval.

Cutler led the charge, launching himself forwards with a yell and the first throw of stone, Violet and Banjo just seconds later, startling the eagles and driving them low on slow wings, the wide wedge of their tails fanning out but unable to gain the lift they needed. His aim was true; one of the birds was knocked sideways and it flapped wildly, trying to right itself. Another pounding from Violet grounded it. The other screamed and pinioned to face the wind, desperate to gain height, but it was too late. Daniel threw, clipping the end of one wing, then ducked to avoid the outstretched talons. Sarah whirled; there was the plush thump of her stone hitting the bird, a quick puff of feathers, and Tommo raced across, beating it with one stone, then again with another, crushing bone. A last feeble flap, an attempt to crawl, a final smash of rock to head, and it was two for two.

Grinning, swaying, they whooped their victory, this triumphant, desperate tribe. Overhead, the hawks and kites circled and cried, made once again to wait.

There was nowhere to shelter. Just brittle brush and low dunes dirtied orange by the fading light. They should've stopped two days ago at the old farmhouse – taken scant refuge behind its broken walls – but they'd walked too far and it was impossible to return. Sarah had been counting on a few more weeks with Anna showing no signs of discomfort, but nature was done warning them; things would happen her way, in her time. How many lessons did they need?

They crammed wads of cloth into Anna's mouth for her to bite down on, but the pain was too great, each wave cresting higher than the last, and nothing could muffle her agony. Jon told them to shut her up or he'd do it himself; Daniel growled at him to back off. They all knew the risks: the savages were out there and ready to hunt. But Jon's fear was infectious – a ripple, an unspoken agreement; the group was impatient for it to be over and the noise to stop.

Anna screamed again, straining, her stick legs splayed, knees up, but there was nothing, the opening no wider than it had been hours ago, too small for any delivery, and dry now, so dry. Without water there could be no life. Daniel clutched her hand and supported her head, murmuring encouragement, while Sarah and Rachel did the same at her feet, but it was no use.

Rachel inserted two fingers, turning them gently, feeling for anything, before shaking her head. With her other hand, she pressed Anna's groin. Her pulse was slowing, she said. She couldn't be sure, perhaps the baby had breeched. If it was still alive. Their only chance was to cut her.

No! Sarah cried. There's still time. Try again, Anna. Again, sweetheart. You need to push. You have to
push!
But Anna moaned, defeated.

Rachel pulled her knife, and moved to the girl's side. She needed the light, she insisted. If she didn't do it now, they'd lose them both. As well as the rest of them, Jon muttered. Anna rolled her head, feeling for the gag and pulling it out, before stiffening with another contraction. Her unmuffled scream was weaker. Sarah couldn't see for her tears. She couldn't see Anna's face, or Daniel's, though she looked to him as she always had, seeking reassurance. But the decision wasn't his to make.

Do it, Anna whispered. Get it out.

No!
Sarah cried. Anna was too young to understand, too young –

Please, Mama, I can't. Please save it.

Rachel gave a quick nod. Go to her, she told Sarah. Be with her.

Stifling her sobs, Sarah crawled up to sit with Daniel, while someone else took her place at Anna's feet, pulling the girl's legs straight and pinning them. Rachel lifted Anna's shirt, exposing the belly, stretched huge with its promise. Briefly, she cupped Anna's cheek: I'm sorry, little one. Bending, Daniel kissed his daughter's forehead, just once, then pressed his large hand over her mouth. Okay, he told Rachel. The dirty knife did its job; the skin peeled back, relieved of its tightness. And there was so much blood.

Anna screamed again, her mouth wide under that hand, her neck corded, eyes bulging. Slicing again, deeper, Rachel worked quickly, digging into the thin body, feeling for the baby that wouldn't come. And there, finally, was the water, what was left of the fluid that had buoyed him within her. Pulled through the viscera into dryness, he was small and silent and still, until Rachel slapped him, rubbing his tiny chest so he bawled in protest. Jon scuffled again, scowling, angry and worried. Waste of time, he said. It'd die without a mother. No, replied Rachel. She would feed him.

She placed the baby gently onto Anna's chest, lifting one of the girl's hands to caress the dark head of her son, and Sarah and Daniel propped her up so she could see him perched across her
small breasts while her belly lay open to the wind. Already the flies were gathering. Rachel pulled down the shirt, covering her.

Anna stared blindly at the small damp head. Mama, she said. Sing me that song. The one you used to …

Sarah choked, and then began, squeezing tuneless words through gritted teeth; Anna closed her eyes. Yes, she whispered. Jeremiah.

Rachel wasted no time, knotting the cord with a bit of twine before cutting it. Gathering up the baby, she pulled aside her own shirt and held him to her full-veined breast, pinching the big nipple into his tiny mouth. When he latched on, greedy, she looked up with a sad smile. He was strong, she told them. Ethan would have to learn to share.

Daniel and Sarah didn't move, and they didn't speak. Together they sat on the dust, in the dusk, nursing their dead daughter while another nursed her son.

Everyone helped bury her, even Jon. It was the least they could do, having done nothing.

2

We're all of us creatures of habit, and it never occurred to me to waste my new allowance washing the marks. Instead, I went into the Citadel, handing over a half vat for a girl and purging myself in a different way. It was a steep price for a night of indulgence, and I'd probably overpaid, but it'd been a long time between fucks and it was worth every drop to be able to forget, for a few hours at least, about that other girl, the one I'd given to Garrick, the one whose screams would stay with me for the next few days, as they always did. And I kept my shirt on the whole time.

Watchmen didn't get any special privileges for their work. It's not like we chose to join, enticed by promises of fame or fortune. Truth is, most didn't even know who we were, or what we did, and that's what set us apart. If you wanted the uniform, and the grudging respect that went with it, you joined the Guard, but even then there was no guarantee you wouldn't end up in the Watch. If you could read and write, you were in; if you could kill, quick and quiet, and weren't too bothered by remorse, you were in; if you had a debt needed paying – and most of us did – you were in; and, most important of all, if you didn't stand out in a crowd, had nothing people might remember
after seeing your face, you were in. Whether you wanted to be, or not.

We all looked much the same. Average height, average weight, hair cut short; none of us too tall, or too broad, some of us dark-skinned, some of us fair, some young, some older. Just men, same as any other. But no women. They could join the Guard if they wanted, if they thought they were good enough and strong enough and man enough. But none of them had what it took to be a Watchman, and never while Garrick was in charge. They had other things though, and we kept our own whorehouse in the underground compound we called home. I never used it, knowing where those men and women had come from, and how they'd been broken. I preferred the houses in the Citadel. More expensive, but guilt-free.

Unlike the Tower, the compound wasn't purpose-built. It'd been adapted from some old water system; a vast network of chambers and channels, all of them big enough that a man didn't have to stoop, some tunnels wide enough that four could walk abreast, thin pipes snaking up through rock and dirt the only connection to the world above. For me, though, the biggest surprise was that there'd once been enough water to justify its existence in the first place.

‘You wouldn't know it, but it used to rain more here in a single year than most other places in the country,' Taggart told me, early on, when I'd asked. I didn't ask too many questions, but that one had seemed safe enough. ‘They reckoned in the winter months, on a clear day, you'd see snow on those mountains.' I'd heard of snow, but hearing's not the same as seeing.

We'd concluded our business in the armoury, but I was in no hurry to leave and he seemed in no rush to get rid of me. He'd piled a new cache of knives and other blades on the counter between us and he was sorting through them, sharpening the good ones on the stone, putting the rest aside for repair or repurposing. The rasp of metal soothed like a steady snore.

‘I'm surprised no one knows it's here,' I said. I certainly hadn't. Not before joining the Watch.

He shot me a look. ‘People know, lad. The ones who had to live in it, and who're still around. But there are some things they'd rather forget. And it's better they do.'

‘How many were you?' I asked, keen to keep him talking. Taggart wasn't much of a one for conversation. Not then, and even less now.

‘Coupla hundred maybe. Enough supplies though. And goats, stinking up the place like a shithole. Couldn't fuckin' move without tripping over one of 'em.'

‘Good thing someone thought of it,' I replied. Goats gave us more than just meat and milk and cheese.

‘Says the one who wasn't there,' Taggart muttered. ‘Far as I'm concerned now, the only good goat's a dead one.' He stopped his scraping and rubbed his bristled chin. ‘Coulda been worse, though. Same one who did that was responsible for the grain, too. Had a whole hoard of seeds, different kinds. But only one of 'em took. Those Godders reckon it was some kinda miracle. It wasn't. Just plain dumb luck.'

I thought about that, about how a single action by one person had ended up feeding so many. Maybe not miraculous, but not too dumb either.

‘So what happened to him, then? Your goat and grain man?'

He bent to the stone again and it took him a while to answer; when he did, his tone was even shorter than usual. ‘Weren't no man, Jem. A woman. Willow, her name was.'

The past tense was a giveaway, and I let it go. Watching him finish with the knife, I waited until he'd selected another before asking, ‘How long did you have to stay down here?'

Taggart shrugged. ‘Long enough. Too fuckin' long. Best thing we ever did was put out the call while we still could. Gathered the rest of you in. Never would've made it otherwise. Course, those
calls brought others too.' He paused, and shook his head. ‘Dark times, lad.'

Yeah, dark times. Before my time.

‘And Garrick –?' I ventured. But I'd pushed too far.

The knife stabbed the worn wood of the bench and, just like that, Taggart was done with the talk. ‘You wanna know Garrick's story, you ask him.'

I never had. Like I said, I wasn't that stupid. Nor had I been given the chance to ask why it was the Watch, and not the Guard, who'd claimed the compound. Maybe Garrick had felt he had every right, given its history and the role the Watch had played protecting the Citadel from the enemy without. Or maybe, since we'd been reduced to hunting the enemy within, it was simply a case of needing to keep us hidden. But one thing was certain: the place was far larger than we needed.

Now, cleaned of all its goat shit and man shit and dead and diseased, the two biggest chambers with their huge arched supports – old watermarks striped the walls beneath more recent stains of blood and sweat, some of them mine – were used as training grounds, while the third housed Taggart's armoury. All three, grouped around Garrick's rooms, pretty much divided the compound into two sections. On one side were the raws, thirty or so recruits who had their own mess hall and their own quarters: two long, narrow, cot-lined chambers, where they shared wet dreams and stale air. When they weren't working as sentries, or running Garrick's errands, they spent their time learning the ropes and waited to take our places. They never had to wait too long.

On the other side was the Watch proper. We were only ever twenty strong – easier to keep track of us that way and more than enough to get the job done – and we each had our own cramped quarters, any light provided by a wall lamp that was nothing more than a bit of Sea sponge stuck into a container of camel fat. Every now and then, if there was any spare, they'd fill them with kerosene
or a small measure of old oil, which glowed brighter but smoked blacker than the fat, the fumes giving everyone a headache. Furniture was sparse: a cot, a chair and table, a couple of waste pots that were placed outside the door each morning for collection by the raws, and a tiny cupboard. But the rooms afforded us some privacy at least. As far as extra privileges went, there weren't many; the food wasn't any better but there was more of it, plus we earned the full one-vat wage, had use of the whorehouse, and were given unrestricted access to the Citadel when we weren't elsewhere. It was rare for a raw to be given permission to leave the compound for anything other than a closely supervised dose of dust and sun; if they were, it was unlikely to be for a good reason.

I spent a day in my quarters writing up my last assignment before reading through the next. Our reports were important, almost as important as the jobs themselves, ensuring we accounted accurately for every kill. There were plenty of stories of Watchmen who'd tried to cheat their way to freedom, taking tags they shouldn't in a bid to hasten their scores. As far as I knew, none of them had made it out. As tedious as it was, recording all the whos, whys, wheres and hows of a job kept everything legitimate as well as keeping us alive. Because if, by some miracle, Garrick missed any discrepancies, you could be sure the Tower wouldn't. And no explanation meant no tag of our own.

Despite its size, the folder detailing my next job didn't contain much in the way of surprises. Even so, I read it a few times, trying to see what had the Council so worried, but coming up blank. Whatever their reason, as far as I could tell the job appeared no different to any other, and certainly not serious enough to warrant two Watchmen. One thing you could rely on was a Diss's predictability. Taggart had once told me that the only thing in our favour was their reluctance – or maybe their inability – to band together. If they did that, he said, we wouldn't stand a chance. So why didn't they? I'd asked, and he'd given one of his hard little shrugs.
‘Coz those settlements make it too hard for 'em, lad. Distance is their enemy, and our fuckin' saving grace.'

And maybe he was right about that. The Citadel sat pretty much in the middle of the high plain of the peninsula, big enough but still overfull. The three settlements served a multitude of purposes but their main reason for flourishing was because people were always being encouraged to move out of the centre and lessen the strain. And for most it was a good week's walk from any one of them back to the Citadel, twice as far again from one settlement to another. The first had been established early on, up in the northwest corner, wedged tight and high between the base of the mountains and the inlet, behind the small garrison that still guarded the old pass. The place had since swelled to rival the later and bigger settlements: the township and farms of the eastern Hills where I'd soon be heading, and the stinking shambolic jumble of shacks that lined the wind-battered western cliffs where I'd just been – a shithole of a place that was home to birders and fishermen, as well as the odd Diss or two.

But more important than the settlements, and for an entirely different reason, was the Port. Nestled into the crumbling cliffs of the eastern coastline, midway between the Hills and the wasteland, and with only a single guarded pass in and out, it provided sanctuary to no one except a hundred or so Guards and the crews of idiots who volunteered to man the Catchers and risk their lives riding the Sea beneath the rain.

Some said that'd been our greatest achievement, more necessary than even the Citadel, but I was in no hurry to revisit the place. It had been constructed years ago, when the realisation dawned that steaming piss and bucketing seawater miles inland for boiling would never suffice to keep alive the hundreds – then thousands – who'd answered the call and found their way to the peninsula. But if the dream had been an ambitious one, the determination to see it realised had been greater still: the building of the boats,
the endless gathering and hauling, splicing and soaking, bending and binding of long-dried wood, the slow melting of old bitumen and fat to caulk the boards and fill any holes; finding, then taming, the wild cove, shaping it into what it was now; rebuilding and refitting engines from scrap, reliable enough to get the boats out to Sea and back again; the collection and storage of every available drop of fuel to drive the ships, as well as to pump the water they'd fetched up the cliffside and out of the Port. They reckon more lives were lost in that time than had been during the last years of the raids, and the reward for that little sacrifice was four deep-hulled ungainly ships that brought in enough slightly brackish water to supplement whatever else was collected, and kept us all alive. Maybe the Disses thought they had good reason to protest all the hardline tactics, but it seemed to me that some people were real stupid to underestimate the Council's resolve, and far too quick to forget some of the better ideas they'd had.

I studied the more accurate maps supplied by the Tower, relearning the lay of the land. The Hills were indeed a long way from the Citadel, but I'd been there a few times and knew the route. If I could be sure of working alone, I could get there in under a week, spend a month or so ferreting out the Disses, then another week to return, slower because I'd be bringing back Garrick's little gift and would have to avoid the road. Unless he went with me, of course, in which case he could bloody well deal with his own spoils. Making a few notes of my own, I added them to the folder before breaking for a meal.

With more than half the Watch on assignment, the mess hall was fairly empty. And there was no sign of Reed, which didn't bode well. The food was much the same as always: a piece of saltfish, some kind of coarse stalks boiled to mush, a single gull's egg, two shrivelled olives with a small cube of cheese, a strip of fried kelp, oily and unappetising, and a single cup of water. On a good day they'd swap the water for camel milk – on a bad day, goat – but
you needed something just to dilute all the salt. The few who were there sat apart, and none of us talked. We had nothing in common except our work, and our solitary existences prevented any friendships, which suited the boys upstairs. Twenty lethal men could do a lot of damage if they got it into their heads to chum it up and band together.

A plate clattered on the table and I looked up to see Garrick take the bench opposite. Shovelling food into his mouth, he chewed for all of five seconds before giving up and spitting a wad of ground fish across the table, just missing my plate.

‘Fuck! My boots taste better than this shit,' he said.

‘Wouldn't know,' I replied, staring at the mess. To my mind, food was food, but Garrick wasn't there to eat. He wasn't there to drink either, but that didn't stop him from grabbing my cup and draining it.
Arsehole.

‘You had a chance to read that report yet?' he asked.

‘Yeah.'

‘And? What d'you think?' He kept his voice low, guarding against curious ears.

‘The Tower's overreacting. There's nothing in there to confirm unusual numbers. Not even in the interrogation logs.'

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