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The Follower C6 Edited

by  Steerpike`s sister

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2007
Word Count: 3007
Summary: sorry to post same old story again.


The yellow dog stood quietly in the traces, showing no surprise that it was the girl and not the old man who was holding the reins. The old man handed her the whip.
“I won’t use that,” she said, pushing it away.
“You think you won’t but you will.” He threw it into the cart. As he let it go, he seemed to lighten, stand taller, as if he had been relieved of some heavy burden.
He sighed, flexed his fingers, and smiled.
“Good,” he said softly.
He slapped the dog’s rump with the flat of his hand. The dog went into a quick trot, shoulders pulling, ears flat, muzzle pointing forward along the road. Mariposa was taken by surprise. The cart bumped and jostled along the paving stones, shaking her as she tried to keep her seat, the telephone next to her. She turned to wave but the old man was not there. She frowned.
He must have gone inside the house, she thought. If so, he had moved quickly. She turned round, to concentrate on the reins. But the dog seemed to know exactly where he was headed.
“I’m finally going,” she exclaimed aloud, and then was quiet, because all around her was a terrible hush. It was too empty to be loud. But she was too happy to be silent.
“Mariposa,” she said quietly. “Good to have you back. Good to have me back.” She giggled, and glanced rather nervously at the phone next to her. What made me say I would take it to the Quaestor? she asked herself. How on earth am I going to do that? But I suppose once I get to the City, it will be quite easy to find the Quaestor…He’s the big man. Anyone will know where to find him.
The long grass whispered at the dead road. The wheels bumped and creaked over the uneven stones. The pad-pad of the dog’s paws on the road fell in with the steady rhythm of her breathing. Along the side of the road she thought she saw a figure, cloaked, hooded, keeping pace with her. But when she looked, quickly, it was only the shadows in the grass.
It’s strange, she thought. Sometimes I think there’s someone following me…
She travelled for a long time in the cart, straining her eyes through the dim light. No other building came to light. She began to fall asleep, and as she did so, odd thoughts slipped into her mind, and seemed as real as waking: she thought that perhaps the old man had ceased to exist when she left him. Perhaps there was no black forest from where she had come. Perhaps Jack and Gaby did not exist. Perhaps there would never be anything else, but the scarred sky and the miserable clouds and the bumping of the wheels and the squeaking of the cart, and her own cold hands on the reins and the yellow dog pad-padding on through the darkness on the broken road and the red telephone silent beside her.
Just as she thought that, the dog began to slow its pace. In a few moments it had come to a complete standstill. It stood staring out into the darkness, away from the road, its ears alert, its head raised as if it awaited some signal.
“Come on, Prince,” said Mariposa. The dog neither moved nor gave any sign that it had heard. She looked out into the darkness where it was staring, but she could see nothing. Remembering the terrible cry she had heard before, she felt anxious and cross. “I’ve got to get to the City. Let’s go.”
The dog ignored her. She wondered what it could hear or see that she could not.
“Get on with it!” She shook the reins. The dog gave a casual, low growl, which hardly seemed to vibrate his throat. He did not look towards her.
Mariposa looked down at the whip. She did not want to touch it, but there it lay, black and heavy. It could not be ignored.
“You’ll make me use the whip,” she said pleadingly, “and I don’t want to.” She knew this was a poor thing to say, and the dog seemed to think so too. Her knowledge of her own weakness made her angry. She reached down and let her hand close over the butt of the whip. She had expected to find it heavy and hard to manage, but it almost seemed to lift itself. She had only intended to shake it a little, but the cord slung out, and the air snapped like a fire-cracker.
The dog yelped, snarled, and bolted. Mariposa shrieked, and the phone burst into shrill ringing. She clung onto the cart, as it was dragged over stones, pitching and scraping and creaking, the ringing of the phone drilling into her ears. The yellow grass thrashed her skin. A wheel hit a stone and the cart went flying, sending her over the side, into the grass. Something struck her head, there was roaring darkness, then nothing.

Someone was shaking her. Calling her name. Her head hurt.
“Mariposa! Mariposa!” The voice was urgent and frightened. She opened her eyes. A familiar face stared down at her in concern.
His face sagged with relief, then he grinned.
“You’re alright! I saw the dog bolt – I was waving but you couldn’t see us –“
“Us?” She struggled to sit up. Her head ached. And there stood Gaby, leaning on a broom, an awkward, tree-like figure.
“I’m here,” she said coolly, though there was a hint of a smile in her voice. “Jack fusses enough for two. You’ll be fine. It’s just a bump.”
“Gaby!” She jumped to her feet and hugged Jack before she knew what she was doing. She nearly hugged Gaby, too, but then thought better of it. They stood grinning at each other like uncertain dogs.
“What are you doing here?” She looked at them, and for the first time saw how pale and thin Jack’s face was, and how both of them were dusty and weary, their clothes filthy. Gaby was using the broom as a walking stick.
“We came to find you,” said Jack.
“We came to find the City,” corrected Gaby. “And then we found you.”
“But what changed your mind? What made you leave?” She could not stop grinning, but then she saw how sombre they looked.
“Well, I started thinking,” said Jack heavily. “ About what you said, whether I had been somewhere else, before. And you know – I think I was. It comes to me sometimes in the corner of my eye. I seem to remember things, things that aren’t on the Borders. Light.” He frowned. “Again and again it would come to me, the light, and the music – I remember music, though I could never sing the tunes I remember. I always told myself it was a dream. But then you arrived. You know, there hasn’t been anyone new on the Borders for a very long time. I wanted to go with you when you left. But – you know. Sometimes this darkness feels as if it will eat you.”
There was a short silence. None of them had to say that they knew what he meant.
“And then the Chief came back.” continued Jack. “He’d not been away long enough to get to the City. I thought: he’s dumped her. Where? I was worried.”
“I was just fed up,” said Gaby. “And then, when the Chief went away again – I thought, why stay here trying to clean a house there’s no one even living in?”
“He went away?” Mariposa stared at them. “Where to?”
“No idea. He just disappeared.”
Though Gaby sounded casual, she could tell she was anxious. There was nowhere to go to, on the Borders.
“He was just gone when I woke up,” said Gaby. “He was just not there any more. He didn’t take his work, or his helmet, or a horse… he didn’t take anything.”
Mariposa stared at them.
“Was he angry?” she said, thinking of the odd way he had acted.
“That’s the thing,” said Jack. “He seemed happy. As if there was a load off his mind. I heard him whistling.”
They looked at each other blankly.
“Anyway,” said Gaby, “there didn’t seem much point in staying…And Jack’s crazy about getting this stupid pipe of his to play.”
Jack blushed.
“It’s not just that,” he said. “I have to find out where I came from. And I want to find out why nothing works here. But anyway, the City will be a better place. They say everything goes right there.”
“I just want to give that Quaestor a piece of my mind,” said Gaby. “How he can leave things in such a state out here… He’s supposed to be in charge!” She swatted angrily at the grass with her broom. Mariposa suddenly thought: she’d like to sweep the world up, if she could; tidy it till it hurts.
“At least we’ve got the dog cart!” she said, trying to be cheerful. “So it will be easier…”
Jack was shaking his head wryly. She looked at his face, then glanced around her. The cart lay shattered and in pieces. Prince was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, no,” she said. Then, she suddenly realised what had happened.
“The phone!” she exclaimed. She fell to searching for it in the long grass, frantically turning over the wreckage of the cart. The others stared at her as if she was mad.
“What are you looking for?” demanded Gaby.
“The phone – the devil – I promised I would take it to the City –“ She was almost in tears at the thought of breaking her promise. She had not realised how much it meant to her.
“Make sense, can’t you? What phone?”
She told them quickly what had happened. To her disappointment they just stared at her blankly.
“You talked to a devil?” said Jack in horror. “But they’re what make all the trouble around here. They’re shape-shifters, liars, monsters. You can’t talk to them!”
“It’s a good thing it’s lost,” said Gaby. “Are you mad or just stupid? Devils eat you from inside! Why would you take one to the City? Anyway, it’s not allowed – the angels would destroy it, and a good job too!”
“But I promised,” she said hopelessly. It was no good. The phone had disappeared as completely as Prince had.
“You don’t make promises to devils,” said Gaby with finality. She shivered. “We’ve heard them howling all the way here.It was probably just waiting for its moment, to slither back inside you.”
Mariposa stared hopelessly at the grass. Part of her was glad the phone was gone. She had never felt comfortable with it. But then, she had promised. And it had listened, and understood her. At least, she thought it had.

“Devils shouldn’t be allowed,” said Gaby as they walked along. “I’m going to tell the Quaestor when I see him. Right out. Oh yes.” She struck the ground angrily with her broom.
“I wonder what devils are?” said Jack
“I wonder what devils want,” said Mariposa.
They looked at her blankly.
“Want? They want to eat you from inside,” said Gaby. “Obviously.”
As time went on, conversation died and they straggled out into a line, with Gaby well ahead, a small dark figure striding on. Mariposa brought up the rear with Jack. At the thought of how far they had still to go, and how distant the city still was, and how many miles of devil-haunted land still lay between them and their goal, a wave of exhaustion came over her. But she was not frightened. And she was not despairing. Not now there were three of them. She was worried, however, about Jack. He was clearly struggling with the pace Gaby had set.
It was not an easy walk even for her, and Jack, being shorter, had to scramble over the big, irregular paving stones. At times the grass reached nearly to his chest. It was like wading through a vast, stony sea for him. Still, he forged on, his face grim and set, concentrating on each step as if it were his last.
Mariposa realised that it must have been like this for the whole journey. Gaby was too impatient to wait. She slowed her pace to his.
“What was it like, the music you remember?” she said.
“The music. Was it happy? Sad? Do you remember it?”
“Not really,” he said tautly. “You can go on, you know. You don’t have to wait for me.”
Her heart sank. She did not want to go ahead and leave him, but she could tell he felt ashamed that she was waiting for him. She suddenly realised how difficult this journey was going to be, for him and all of them, but especially for him.
“Do you know how much further it is?” he asked abruptly.
She shook her head. The old man said it was a really long way, she thought. But could I trust him?
She called out to Gaby; “Maybe we should stop for a rest.”
“Too soon,” Gaby yelled back. “It’s still light. When we get to the trees.” She waved ahead at trees Mariposa could not yet see.
“But Jack –“
“I’ll be fine,” he snapped. She flinched. He glanced at her quickly, and said: “Sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just –“
She nodded. She could tell he was close to breaking point, and she did not even dare to reach out and take his arm in support.

Hours later, as the darkness ate up the sky, they were still struggling towards the trees. Mariposa saw them now: bare leafless shadows on the horizon: tall, dry as scaffolding. Gaby had finally fallen back to keep pace with them. Jack’s breath came thin and wheezy, and with each step, his face looked greyer and the veins stood out on his neck.
“Maybe I should –“ Mariposa gestured with her arms.
“No.” It was like a slap.
“Mr Pride, you’re holding us up,” said Gaby.
“No he’s not,” said Mariposa hastily. But it was too late. Jack stopped walking.
“You don’t have to wait for me!”
“Of course we do!”.
“No you don’t!”
“Jack, you’re our friend,” Mariposa began, not knowing how to finish the sentence.
Jack sat down firmly on the grass.
“No,” he snarled. “I’m not.”
Gaby put her hands on her hips and her lip jutted, in preparation for a shouting match. Mariposa looked at them both despairingly. She said: “You’re like a pair of spoiled babies!” but her words were lost in the howl of the devil.
It burned through the night, mad and gleeful and full of deep horror. She smelled it at once: like cold, old sweat. Then she had Jack’s hand in hers, and Gaby had his other hand, and without any word spoken they were all three running like rats for the trees, their legs pounding through the whipping grass, their breath ragged and gasping, a stitch in her side like a stab wound. Jack was half-dragged between them. At the trees, they collapsed. But just as Mariposa was gasping air, trying to force Jack to climb one of the trees, she heard another howl, from behind them. Not the devil’s howl. A dog’s howl. It was swiftly echoed by many others.
She stared around her. Beyond the trees, she made out the shapes of around twenty dogs, their eyes bright and their pale fur shining in the darkness, showing pale, pointed teeth and long red tongues. She stayed completely still, suddenly aware that they were trapped between two enemies.
Distantly she heard ough-ough-ough, and a long keening howl. After a pause it was repeated, further away. The dogs began to move towards her. She clung to the tree as if it would protect her. But they were staring past her, she realised. They were ignoring the people completely, as they advanced. One passed so close to her that its close-grained coat brushed her leg. Its touch was familiar. She looked down.
“Prince!” she gasped. He ignored her as he paced on towards the sound of the devil. She nudged Jack and pointed him out, feelingly oddly, madly proud. He moved nobly as a knight going into battle.
Then she saw the devil, too. It was tall as a horse and had hooves of bone, a long narrow head and slit, yellow eyes. Its hide was covered in pale gold, thin hair. But its single horn was made of cloud, of darkness and fire. The cloud was turning in a cyclone, and lightning floated in it. She felt as if she had become part of the earth, trapped, terrified, pinned down. She heard Gaby whimper close by her.
The dogs paused, silently watching the devil as it watched them back, its long head turned a little to one side, its teeth like human teeth, its meaningless smile just the lips grinned back from the scissor-jaws, the horn a cold silent light-storm. The dogs circled it, closing in, silent. The devil faded from view in the darkness. She saw the dogs crouch, leap onto darkness, others hanging on its legs, tearing at its flanks with their jaws. Gaby put a hand to her mouth, in sickness or disbelief. The devil’s cry rang out again, and Mariposa cowered and covered her ears. She heard splintering bone and yelps of pain. Then there was the sound of hooves fading swiftly into the night, and after a while some, but not all, of the dogs, came trotting back past them, some with limbs dragging, or jaw hanging loose. She was filled with horror and pity, without knowing what for: the dogs that would not run again, or the lonely, terrible howl and the thing behind it.
They fell asleep at the base of the trees, clutching them and each other, like lifebelts in a dark ocean.