Here we go: the last part of the last chapter of Ash. I don’t want anyone complaining that it ends on a cliffhanger — after all, if you’ll remember, I did promise that this book would be split into three. I give you my word that Part Three, Wildfire, will not end on a cliffhanger.
So, without any further ado, I give you the last you’ll see of Jason and Rachel for a little while.
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
Many years later, in a shallow vale where an icy brook ran clear, a woman stepped from the pre-dawn shadows where no-one was a moment before. She was old, older than anyone had a right to be, but the age was in her eyes, not in her smooth skin or her lean frame, and there were no grey hairs mingled with the black gathered in a knot at the back of her head. Over her was draped a white robe that some would call a kimono, others a hasma. She looked around, as if remembering the place, then walked to a particular stone jutting up from the dew-wet grass and laid her hand on the inscription that had been carved there. She traced the inner circle, then the outer, then ran her finger down the line that bisected them.
“Good morning,” she said, addressing the woman who had stepped from the air behind her. She turned to face the newcomer; she was younger, but with the same age in her eyes, the same black hair, the same thin face. She wore loose-fitting trousers of rough grey wool, and a long, loose top dyed green and belted with a green sash. Her hair flowed free over her shoulders, and there was something about the way she held herself that spoke of pride.
“Good morning.” The newcomer bowed stiffly. The older woman laughed and caught her in a gentle hug.
“You are too formal, my dear.”
The newcomer smiled shyly, dropping her shoulders. “I remember.” She looked up at the lightening sky. “She’ll be here soon.”
“Yes,” the older woman replied. “I remember.”
They stood side by side, their fingers lightly entwined, watching, waiting.
Eventually the younger woman spoke, hesitantly, as if asking a great favour. “Can you tell me?” she said. “Will I succeed?”
“You know I cannot tell you,” the older woman replied. “I remember that I will not, and now I know I cannot. You will remember this.”
The younger woman looked away. She said nothing, but her jaw clenched and her lip quivered.
“You must accept it,” the older woman said, gently. “You cannot fight it. E aelesse.”
The younger woman nodded tightly. “E aelesse.”
They waited again. The night faded and died, the stars fleeing away into the west before the cold blue light of morning.
Still they waited. A shaft of sunlight stabbed suddenly from behind a bank of cloud, falling on the vale where they stood and warming their skin.
“She will be here soon,” the older woman said.
“Yes,” said the younger. “I remember.”
At last a tiny figure appeared, tripping and stumbling across the moor, making her slow and winding way up towards them. She was in her early teens, clothed in muddy jeans and an old raincoat, the boots she wore a size too big for her. Her black hair was tied in a loose ponytail, and a bruise was slowly turning purple-green above her left eye.
When she came to the foot of the vale she stopped and stared at the two strangers standing there.
“Good morning,” the older woman called to her. “Come in out of the wind.”
The girl hesitated, then climbed up to meet them, slipping on the dew-wet heather.
“I remember this,” she said, when she drew nearer. “From a long time ago.” She looked hard at their faces, her own face tight with anger. “Was it you? Did you call me?”
The women looked at each other. The older shook her head. “Not I,” she said. “Did you?”
The younger woman shook her head. “No.”
“What did they say?” The older woman asked. “This person who called you?”
“They told me to leave,” the girl said. “They told me someone was coming for me, and that I had to leave. They told me to walk towards the sun as it went down, and look for friends.”
“Ah.” The younger woman nodded. “I remember.”
“As do I,” the older woman said. “Then it cannot have been you, for I remember the hearing but not the speaking.” She turned to the girl. “Do not be troubled, my dear. You will remember, in time.”
“But I do remember.” The girl looked around. “I remember this place. I’ve been here before. Only … I don’t remember this. I remember a boy, and running away from something, and then …” She looked up to the head of the vale, and pointed. “There. We were up there. Watching. And I told him to wait, and then …”
She stopped, because a tiny shape had just emerged from behind a rock, high on the hillside above them. The shape descended, slipping and sliding: a little girl, about seven years old, pale, with long black hair. She was wrapped in a black jumper several sizes too big, and her face was smudged with dirt or soot.
The older girl stared at her as she came down, her eyes wide in anger or fear.
“What’s going on?” She addressed the two women without facing them. “Who is she? Is she …?”
“You know who she is,” the older woman said.
“You remember,” said the younger.
The older girl fell silent, and watched as the younger girl reached level ground and started to pick her way through scattered boulders towards them. When she was fifty yards away she stumbled and fell, and struggled to pick herself up. Wordlessly, the older girl ran to her and helped her, putting her arm under her shoulders and lifting her to her feet. She led her gently down to the pair by the stone, and helped her sit on a rock nearby. When the older girl looked up at the women there was no anger in her face, only wonder and dawning realisation.
“I remember now,” she said. “And I think I understand. You’re me, aren’t you? So’s she.”
The older woman nodded. “As you are us. You remember now all that we will speak of.”
It was not a question. The older girl nodded. “Yes. And I remember …” She looked down at the younger girl, hunched over and shivering, her small arms clasped about her thin body. “We have to hurry, don’t we?”
“Yes.” The older woman came and crouched by the shivering girl, putting her arms around her. “He will help her.”
“Yes,” said Rachel. “I remember. E aelesse.”
The older woman nodded. “E aelesse,” she said. “Nothing changes.”
The boy crouched behind the stone at the head of the vale. Rachel had made it clear he was not to move or be seen. He was cold, colder now he had given her his spare jumper. He rubbed his hands over his arms for warmth and huddled down into himself, seeking some scrap of insulation.
He tried to think back over the last hours, but he could not be sure of time any more. They had seen the sun set at least twice, and rise once — not counting this time — yet the clock on his phone said they had been running for less than two hours. That could not be right. It should be eleven at night, midnight at the most, and yet … He looked up at the lightening sky. It made no sense.
He closed his eyes. He was tired. Of that he was sure, even if he had no idea where he was. He ached for a bed, and a pillow, and soft sheets. But his bed was gone, and his pillow, along with his sheets, his home, his mother, and everything he had ever known. All he had now were the clothes he sat in, and the shoes on his feet, and Rachel.
He had thought that he knew her. That he at least understood her. But no, he saw now that would be impossible. It would take minds greater than his to fully understand exactly what it was she could do. And that was the point, wasn’t it? That was what all this was about. That’s what the experiments were for, the pictures, the people following them, everything. They wanted her — everyone wanted her, because of what she could do.
But none of them had stopped to think that she was just a girl. Scared, frightened, and unloved. Just a scared little girl …
A touch on his shoulder jerked him from sleep. He looked up. Rachel was standing over him with her arms wrapped around herself, hugging the black jumper close. She’s so pale, he thought; then: Too pale. Much too pale. Something’s wrong.
“Jason.” It was not Rachel who spoke, but the woman behind her. She wore a long white robe, and her black hair was tied up in a knot on her head. Her hand rested on Rachel’s shoulder.
He stood up in a hurry, brushing grass off his jeans.
“Who are you?” He took Rachel’s arm and pulled her away. The woman did not resist.
“I am a friend,” she said. “I am here to help.”
“We don’t need your help.”
“She’s my responsibility.” He was breathing hard, his hands balled into fists, a cornered animal preparing to fight.
The woman smiled. “I know,” she said.
Jason frowned. The woman looked familiar. His fists relaxed, though he made sure to keep himself between her and Rachel. “Have we met?”
The woman looked at Rachel, then back at him. “In a fashion.”
“No. No, I remember now.” Something stirred in Jason’s memory. “You were in the station. I barged you. You were there. I remember. The model in the sunglasses. That was you, I swear.”
“Indeed.” The woman’s expression flickered as something like confusion passed across it. “I do not remember.”
“Who are you?” Jason asked again. “Really. Who are you? Why are you here? Are you … Do you know about all this?”
“I know more than you could possibly think, Jason Oye. But now is no time for questions. She needs you. You must protect her, and you only. A man is coming to help — a friend — but you must not leave her with him. You must stay with her. Do you understand me?”
Jason nodded. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
The woman smiled again, then looked down at Rachel and touched her finger to her lips. Rachel raised a trembling hand and touched her own pale lips in reply; then the woman turned, took two steps, and vanished. There was no sound, no light, no effect. She was there, and then she was not. Jason stared at the place where she had been.
“Jason?” The voice stirred him. It was a voice he had never heard before, but he knew instantly whose it was. He looked down. Rachel was on the ground beside him, half-kneeling, half-lying, her arm clasped to her belly. He crouched beside her.
“What is it?” he said.
“It hurts.” Rachel’s face was twisted in a grimace of barely-suppressed pain. “It really hurts.”
It was only then that Jason noticed how the jumper she wore glistened, a patch of wetness lying over her abdomen, and he put out his hand, and she winced in pain and his fingers came away red. Then cold rushed through his bones, and he pulled the jumper over her head as quickly as he could without tugging at her. She whimpered once, and bit her lip, and when the jumper came away he saw why.
Her top was red. Not all of it, only the stain that spread outwards from the ragged little hole just under her breast where the bullet had torn through her. He looked into her eyes, seeing the pain and the fear there, knowing she saw the same when she looked back at him.
“Jason,” she whispered, her breathing ragged, the words barely audible. “Jason. Help me.”
Then she closed her eyes and collapsed in the grass.
The woman in the white robe fingered the ring the girl had given her. It was a plain thing, unlovely: two types of metal intertwined, but both so grubby as to be unrecognisable.
She remembered the ring well: she remembered taking it, from his bedside table while he slept; she remembered giving and receiving it, both, in the vale where they met again and again; but she did not remember giving it back to him, as she was told she would, in the station concourse where he ran from his indecision.
She slipped it on to her finger, and held it up in the sunlight to look at it. Unlovely, but important.
Ah well. Everything in time.
“E aelesse,” she said, to herself, then turned back to the ramparts and the battle that raged in the city streets a hundred feet below.