When Laura woke, she was aware that it had not been a natural break in her sleep, but that something had disturbed her. She listened for clues.
They had finally stopped for the night, their ever expanding troop squashed into a tiny cottage which would have been, she was sure of this, a hunting lodge for a much grander estate. The basics for a Spartan life were there and, although there were only two single beds, they were able to push them together for the mother and her children. For the rest of them, bed rolls and sleeping bags provided for the sleeping arrangements.
The lodge had obviously been in regular use as there had been a fire in the grate. All the tinder was expertly built on top of a bed of old newspapers ensuring that only a match had to be put to it to encourage the fire to catch. This was done in no time at all and soon, by adding a number of hearty logs that were piled at the side of the fireplace. Laura noticed how Michael’s eyes were drawn to the flames as they licked an curled their way upwards. He was in a place she did not know, place he had been visiting more and more.
When she sat upright, reminders of the hard floor beneath her mat muscled into her. The mixture of the freezing cold and the aches of the journey was a cocktail that would always be remembered. She strained to listen beyond the silence and then she heard it. A low, almost inaudible growl.
Laura had positioned herself on the floor of the living room where Michael and their newly found companion were also sleeping. Neither of the others were awake. The growl, almost indistinguishable from the natural sounds of sleep, was coming from the kitchen. She looked around and discovered that neither of the animals were in the room with them. Easing out of her sleeping bag, still fully clothed, she tiptoed across to the doorway and peered inside. Both Arthur and Sam were crouching by the outside door, their noses pushed towards the cold draft that was sneaking its way between the gaps. Coming from them was the sound that she originally believed to be a growl, but now she knew it to be something altogether different. It sounded to her like the noise Buddhist monks made when they were entering some profound meditative state. She inched forward.
Although she made as little noise as she could, the ears of the animals did that radar thing, turning around to indicate that they had picked up the sound of something moving. Even Arthur’s ragged excuse for an ear moved. Nevertheless, none of them shifted from their stances, maintaining a vigil that was trance like.
Now lowering to their level, Laura reached out two comforting hands that stroked the statuesque creatures. The rigidity in the bodies alarmed her. The she heard another sound. The steady crunch of feet on frozen snow.
Unable to see from her position, she started towards her feet again. A small window was off to her left, her intention to simply peer into the night to see what was the cause of that which had woken her. It could be foxes or dear but she felt not. In order not to signal her presence, she lifted the curtain only a fraction of an inch, just enough to allow one eye to view. What she saw caused a rush of dread to well up and almost push her towards panic.
Outside in the dead of night, moved wave upon wave of things that would once have been human beings. However, she knew, knew instantly, that those moving forms had long since left behind any real semblance to the rest of their previous kin. The moon gave an unflattering light that revealed the faces of the dead. They were moving as if drawn or directed, none communicating, no signs of interest in any other thing but their progress towards some predetermined destination. Wherever they were headed, Laura did not want to go. She almost jumped form her own skin when a hand rested upon her shoulder.
“What is it,” he mouthed more than uttered.
She moved away and let him view. For a long time, he did not move and Laura wondered what he was thinking about. After another thirty minutes, the procession had gone and they felt they could talk.
“What were those things?” she asked him without needing an answer.
“They were the same as the one that tried to kill us back at out house.”
His mother knew this to be true. So long ago.
“Where are they going?”
“My guess is that they have found some survivors. It must be a large group of them otherwise they wouldn’t send so many.”
“But how can so many of those dead things know?”
Michel looked sympathetically at his mother. No matter how much she had gone through, no matter how screamingly mad the world had become, she still clung to a sense of normality.
“It’s The Piper. Him or his followers. They can do these things.”
Laura nodded in acceptance.
“We are going to have to find them. We’re going to have to find those survivors and warn them.”
“I know where they are going,” a voice from behind spoke.
They turned to see the mother standing in the dark. She had sleep still upon her, her eyes straining against the fact of being forced into some level of wakefulness. Her voice was heavy with that now familiar limbo language, the borderland where the subconscious and conscious worlds met, a place where The Piper roamed freely.
“He came to me and showed me the house where they are all gathered. He showed me a boy named Christopher who, he said, owed him a debt. There is also a teacher who would lead them to sanctuary, but The Piper has made plans for them all.”
Her voice tailed off, a whisper drifting in the cold night. Then, as if being prompted, she resumed, her words seemingly coming from a place somewhere other than within her frame. She moved forward, revealing eyes that were without irises or pupils, totally white, inverted, seeing another world.
“He says that you are invited, mother and son, Laura and Michael, to watch as this Christopher pays his dues. If he dies, then maybe the rest of you can live.”
The voice was now changed into something that was not of the mother. Its tone was deeper and mocking.
“You think that you can run from me? You think that you can beat me? I have travelled eons to reach this place and no resistor will stand in my way,” the words shot out in the direction of Michael.
“You have tasted the fruit haven’t you? It tastes sweet doesn’t it? You have the mark upon your soul which makes you more like me than those who would claim you. Have you spoken of the thrill it gives you to take life? Does this thing that calls itself your mother understand? When the time is right, we could…”
“You could do nothing with my son. You, who hides away in a frightened woman’s broken mind, you who steal children, you who kill through the innocence and ignorance of others. I have seen you and you shall not have anything to do with any of my sons.”
The two mothers faced each other across the kitchen table. The white eyes now fixed on Laura, narrowing with hatred.
“One by one, I shall have all of your sons as I had your husband. One by one, you shall watch them bleed.”
“Over my dead body,” Laura spat.
“That is my intention.”
From inside the bedroom, a frightened child cried out.
“Mum, mummy. Where are you? The bad man is here.”
It was enough to break the hold upon the woman. Her eyes returned, the rage fell away from her and confusion settled.
“Where am I?”
She turned at the sound and left the kitchen to rush to her child.
Laura moved to embrace Michael but found him unyielding to her touch.
“Michael, don’t listen to his words. He is a deceiver. You are not like them.”
She ran her hands across his upper back attempting to massage out the knots of his tension. He responded by putting his arms around her, providing some sign that he had returned. In his mind, he remember the taste of the fruit The Piper had spoken of, bitter and yet so incredibly alluring.
On the living room floor, the inert body of Dawkins did not betray any signs of being awake. Only the vaguest of smiles danced upon his lips.