A girl sleeps on something hard and cold. A flat circle of once polished marble, now worn and scored by countless iron-studded boots. At the edge of the circle, eight white columns taper to the roof. Columns blackened in places with ragged scorch marks or chipped by arrows, spears and swords. Not that she’d notice; these strange buildings, near every town and village, always bear the signs of conflict.
The dawn brings with it a moment of warmth; a spring zephyr. A breath of frost snatches it away. She curls tight in her cape and pulls the hood lower over her face. Soon, people might come and talk at her. She hopes that someone will give her food.
But no footsteps, no hoof-beats on the rutted and half-frozen mud of the road, disturb the rustle of leaves in the breeze or muffle the cacophony of bird talk.
She pulls the hood back to reveal her blank features, creased neither by smile nor frown. This expressionless face has struck fear into some people, revulsion or pity in others. Warmth and affection sometimes follow the initial shock. Often that leads to food being offered.
She’s been called ‘Nameless’. The clever ponder over the paradox of the name, the wise ignore it: she doesn’t care.
Nameless rolls on her back and stares wherever her face points. She doesn’t move her eyes; they always look straight ahead. Right now she sees the dome. A roof, round and white and immobile like her features.
With one jerking movement she stands, snatching up her satchel. Birds explode from the bushes and trees nearby. Like the ripple around a stone dropped in water the circle of panic flows away and fades. A single spinning leaf flutters down, catching in her dirty and tangled but otherwise pure-blond hair.
Her boots crackle the ice and frost. Walking where the mud is frozen helps her move faster.
Towering dark trunks line the road; shafts of dawn cut through and shine on the mud. Birds flash vivid hues as they flit between the trees.
Nameless turns a corner. A village of low buildings lies ahead. Wood-smoke drifts into the foliage of trees.
She startles two women approaching from the closest house. The nearest woman, her bronze skin and hair glittering in the early light, drops a bag, begins to reach for it, looks at Nameless again and runs away, slipping on ice and tripping on frigid ruts in her panic. The second woman picks up the bag and stares as Nameless nears her.
The woman asks, ‘Who are you?’
Nameless stops, takes off her satchel, puts it on the ground, sits and takes out a board and leather wallet.
‘What are you doing? Are you all right?’ The woman’s head goes to one side, along with all of her from her waist up, as if she wants to see round the side of the board but doesn’t want to come any closer. ‘Why are you sitting on frozen earth, girl?’ She’s silenced by the intensity of Nameless’ stare. She straightens and smiles. ‘I won’t hurt you. You can call me Emma.’
Nameless says nothing but turns her face to the board. On it, a few sheets of paper flutter in a tiny gust. She holds them down with her forearm and, taking a piece of charcoaled twig from the wallet, begins to draw.
Emma dithers, little movements, little steps, little looks at Nameless and glances back to the village, where a crowd gathers around the other woman who points at the girl sat on the mud.
‘What are you doing?’ Emma steps forward one small pace, another. Nameless looks only at her board as if everything else has ceased to exist.
Emma gains the courage to see what the mysterious girl is doing. She drops the bag, walks forward and looks down at the paper. ‘What?’
Nameless works on, fragments of charcoal drifting to the ground. Her tongue wets the twig to darken tone.
Emma gasps, steps behind Nameless, and, unconscious of the mud and the cold, kneels down behind the girl. ‘What is this?’ She stares at the paper and her portrait appearing on it. The girl doesn’t react – just sketches. Emma’s tentative smile, the tiny laughter lines in the corner of her eyes – even the sunlight on the right side of her hair, everything that was Emma the moment Nameless looked, is revealed and smoothed with practised fingers.
She stops, slides the remaining charcoal into her wallet, gathers her things and stands. Passing the drawing to Emma, Nameless turns and walks towards the village – lines of wooden shacks either side of the road.
Emma makes strangled noises of surprise; half words cut by confusion. She finds her voice. ‘Wait, you can’t give me this. I’ll need to pay. We need an agreement.’
She races after Nameless and catches up as the crowd of women surround her.
Emma waves the drawing and addresses an elderly woman, ‘Rosalin, she just gave me this. What do I do?’
Rosalin waves her quiet and studies the girl. ‘She’s a simple-mind I think. She doesn’t even make eye contact. Moderator’s law can’t touch anything that doesn’t understand it – or they’d be taxing the trees and rocks, the wind and the birds. The girl may be hungry; you could give her some food.’
A flurry of chatter from the assembled women increases as more join them.
A woman looks at the drawing and says, ‘It’s beautiful. The girl is truly gifted.’
‘Where do you come from, girl? Look at me. Can you hear me?’
‘I don’t think she can hear and she hasn’t spoken at all.’
‘Has anyone ever seen white skin and hair like that?’
‘I’ve heard of it. People to the north.’
‘I heard of it too; I also heard about a woman with white skin and black hair; a rebel from over the sea.’
A wall of dresses and noise surround Nameless who stands looking at no one.
Rosalin takes her arm and turns to a young woman. ‘Baya, come with me. We’ll give her some food, wash and clean her clothes. Why is she all alone? She can’t be more than fifteen.’
In a small smoky room Nameless stands passive and naked as Rosalin sponges days of dirt from her skin. Baya, a young woman with gold skin and hair, breathes through her mouth to avoid smelling the garments she washes in a steaming wooden tub.
Wrapped in a warm blanket, Nameless eats bread and dried fruit but gives no indication of pleasure or gratitude.
‘It’s like she doesn’t know we exist,’ says Rosalin. ‘What’s that noise outside?’ She opens the slatted shutters of a glassless window. ‘It’s one of those leather suited moderators passing through on a horse. She’s looking at the drawing Emma has. She seems very interested in it.’ Rosalin turns away and closes the shutters; the room darkens to the sepia shades and dancing shadows of firelight. ‘A mod; I hope that doesn’t mean trouble.’
While her clothes dry, Nameless sits on a stool outside in the warmth of the sun. Still wrapped in the blanket she clutches her board and charcoal and stares ahead.
Rosalin washes Nameless’ feet and trims toenails. ‘I don’t think anybody looks after her. We should send a message to the other villages to find where … but we’d know if she came from somewhere around here. Do you think she just wanders anywhere?’ Taking a rough pebble, she smooths the ends of toenails. ‘Girl, you can stay with us but if you’re going to leave you won’t go without being clean and cared for. You’ll have plenty of food too. Our village won’t be seen to be mean and heartless.’
A turn of her head and jut of her chin, Nameless stares at a woman and her baby for a moment. Turning back to her board, she draws.
‘Look how fast she does it, how beautiful … and from one quick look,’ Rosalin exclaims.
Nameless finishes the sketch – the head, shoulders and upper body of the woman; the face and shawl of the baby held sleeping at her breast. A crowd gathers; more gasps and exclamations of amazement.
As the noise increases Nameless rises, offers the paper to the mother, heads for the washing line and feels her clothes.
‘She’s getting dressed. I think she’s going,’ says someone. ‘Bring food for her to put in the bag.’
But Nameless won’t allow anything in her satchel but drawing accessories. She accepts a string bag containing bread and fruit, slings it over a shoulder and takes to the road, pausing at the junction beyond the village.
Downwind, deep in the shadow of a fallen tree, a woman lies, pressing ferns apart so she can observe Nameless who stands at a junction and walks a little way up one road, turns and takes the other, scans the ground, stops, picks up a stone and looks along the road, turns to the first fork, stops again, pushes a stick with her foot…
The woman frowns, wondering at the girl’s apparent indecision and the concentration she puts into studying the junction.
Nameless seems to have chosen a direction, takes the north west track and walks along the grassy edge to avoid the thawed mud churned by hooves and cart wheels.
The woman rises, leaf mould and ants falling from the soft leather that covers her from collar to boots. Leading her horse through the trees and keeping well out of sight of the village, she joins the road, and mounts.
Coming abreast of Nameless, she says, ‘Who are you? What are you doing in this region?’
Nameless stops, looks at her and moves on.
‘Stop! Answer me.’ The woman overtakes the girl, dismounts and waits. As Nameless reaches her, the woman lifts her onto the horse and remounts. ‘You’re coming with me.’
Nameless sits passive, not struggling or objecting.
They near an identical building to that in which Nameless spent the night. The woman dismounts and leads both horse and Nameless into the centre. Slapping three of the pillars in sequence, the woman waits and the floor sinks. The air fills with the hiss of polished rock sliding and the clank of metal gears.
A room hewn from stone is revealed as they descend. Lit by paper lanterns three guards stand with weapons raised. One holds a sword, another a black tube as long as her arm, the third a club. All hold a grey cylinder in their other hand. Something Nameless has never seen. She dismounts and pulls her satchel open. The guards stiffen; the woman tells them to relax.
Nameless approaches the guard with the club, stops and sits. Tongue out in concentration, she begins to sketch.
‘Not her,’ says the woman. ‘I want you to draw someone else.’
Nameless makes no response. The woman snatches the board and paper away. ‘Follow me.’
Nameless remains on the floor, her hand and charcoal twig poised for the next stroke.
‘I said follow me, you idiot.’ The woman waits a few seconds and stamps her foot. ‘Jeanette, Sally, pick her up: bring her to Valeria-Tanya.’
Guards lift the girl, still cross-legged and frozen in the act of drawing. They carry her behind the leather-clad woman and march along dim corridors heavy with the smells of cooking, animal feed and incense barely covering the odour of sewage.
The guards attempt to sit Nameless in a chair – but fail as she’s still cross-legged. She’s placed on the floor before a table. On the other side sits a plump elderly woman dressed in bright yellow blouse and trousers who says, ‘This is the girl? Are you sure, Elayna?’
Leather-woman bows. ‘Yes, Valeria-Tanya, my Elite.’
‘Make her draw.’
Elayna slips the board and paper back into the girl’s hands. Nameless resumes her drawing.
Valeria-Tanya says, ‘How can she draw? – She can’t see me properly from there.’
‘She’s finishing a drawing of Elspeth. I don’t think I can stop her – she neither talks nor hears. I don’t believe she really thinks.’
Nameless finishes her drawing, rises and heads for the entrance.
Elayna snarls. ‘I think she wants to give it to Elspeth. Jeanette, bring Elspeth here.’
Nameless, restrained by Elayna’s leather-gloved hands, shuts down, stops in the act of walking until Elspeth arrives and receives the sketch.
‘Now make her draw me,’ says Valeria-Tanya. The guards look at the drawing and gasp at what they see. Valeria-Tanya barks, ‘Quiet! Return to your posts.’
Nameless puts her drawing materials in the satchel but even after Elayna feeds her meat, gravy and water, she doesn’t sketch.
Elayna says, ‘I’m sorry, Valeria-Tanya. She’s so hard to understand. Maybe I should let her go for a while, bring her back and arrange it that you are the first person she sees. From what I’ve heard, that’s how it works.’
‘See to it. There is no more important task for you than to get a portrait of me, the greatest moderator who ever lived. The drawing will inspire new generations and be copied on our banner as we march back into the countries that rebelled.’ She pauses and looks at Alayna. ‘Do this and I will consider your appointment as senior.’
‘I am profoundly honoured, my Elite. It will be done as you say.’ Elayna guides Nameless back to the entrance and lets her free at the road. Slipping among the trees, Elayna follows out of sight and swears at the telltale birds.
Nameless reaches a crossroads, and dithers. She’s three choices of direction and doesn’t make a decision until a band of merchants pulling handcarts arrives. She sketches one woman who puts Nameless on her cart and pulls it along the road leading south. Elayna follows out of sight, cursing.
Taking a shortcut through the trees she reaches the next junction, and waits. The singing of the merchants comes first, then the creak and rattle of carts. None contain Nameless and she’s not walking with the merchants.
Elayna mounts and gallops onto the highway, her horse jumping a drainage channel and spattering mud. The merchants stop, freeze in terror and wait, holding their breath.
‘Where did the white-haired girl go?’ Elayna roars.
The merchants look at each other, their faces filled with confusion and fear. From a scabbard beside her saddle, Elayna pulls a long black stick. Holding it aloft, she squeezes the handle and a jagged line of incandescent fire rises from the point and crackles above her. ‘Tell me where the girl is or I’ll burn your faces off one-by-one.’
A trader points back down the road. ‘She left us to follow a footpath into the moor.’
‘Out of my way!’ Screeches Elayna and thunders down the line of carts. Merchants cower and cover their heads as she passes.
In minutes Elayna has found the track and hurtles along it. The sharp tang of acid earth mixes with the honeyed sweetness of gorse and broom blossom. The air grows thick with mosquitoes.
Unfamiliar with this track, both horse and rider struggle to pull up in time to avoid pitching down a newly collapsed bank. Elayna dismounts, strokes her snorting, stamping horse and tethers it.
Down the treacherous slope run scratches in sodden earth leading to the sucking mire. Grooves such as a girl’s fingers would make if trying to stop sinking. They end at a patch of disturbed mud where trailing plants have been dragged below the surface. White hair and the snapped strap of the girl’s satchel hang from gnarled shoots of heather.
With her fire-stick, Alayna tests the depth of the mire and can’t find the bottom. She feels something and teases it to the surface. She’s tired, furious, sweating and maddened by mosquitoes. Her skin burns; her eyelids swell from bites.
She grasps a heather root in one hand, reaches out with the other and pulls the girl’s satchel from the mud. Standing and cursing, she hurls it back and scrambles up to her mount.
From a deep patch of ling Nameless watches and waits until Elayna is long gone, then heads in the opposite direction. She eats spring shoots and the leaves opening on smaller trees, chews inner bark from pines, crushes insects and swallows them when they stop moving. Ants’ eggs, snails, nothing escapes but that which can run too fast. She drinks water trapped in the leaves of bromeliads, gulps the frogs trying to escape. Day after day she runs or sleeps on branches, a week, two weeks … time doesn’t matter.
Arriving in front of a picket fence at the centre of a huge clearing in the forest, sharpened staves tower above her. Dress torn, blood on fabric, skin and hair, she staggers with exhaustion.
Behind the fence, women charge on horseback, blaze fire-sticks or stab lances at targets. Burning wood and leather – the smells of military training.
Turning a corner Nameless walks along the south side of the enclosure. A crowd of traders clamour. The gates are closed and chained; behind them guards stand immobile and immune to the traders’ noise.
The traders ignore Nameless at first but close ranks, keeping her from the gate. They push her away, shout and throw stones.
A horn sounds from the entrance watchtower and the gates creak open. Soldiers burst out and scatter the crowd, overturning stalls in their haste to reach Nameless. She’s picked up by strong arms, carried into the compound and to a room she doesn’t see: she’s already asleep.
She’s sleeping on something soft and warm. All the usual smells have gone, replaced by cleanliness, freshness – and cooked fish. Her eyes open; there’s almost an expression in them: a flicker of intelligence.
Someone shouts, doors swish open and bang closed, echoing from distant walls. Moments later, a woman kneels, bending over Nameless. ‘It’s me, Charlie. I’m here, young lady. We lost you: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry but I think you wanted to lose us and you are so good at that.’ Charlie runs her fingers through the girl’s hair. ‘You’ve been in the wilds so long. You’re safe now. Did you find anything? I’ve had paper prepared while you slept. I’ve also done my part of our deal; good news. We’ve found your mother! It’s a long story and a long way to go to reach her but we’ll see you safe home.’ A tear drops from Charlie’s eye and splashes on the girl’s cheek. ‘Come, young lady, we’ve food here – fish, real fish. We think that’s something you know from years ago.’ Charlie wipes sleep from her eyes, and yawns – a woman who has given orders to be wakened at any time.
Nameless jumps upright, looping a satchel over her shoulder. It’s a new satchel, new board, new paper and charcoal – all placed beside her as she slept. Charlie, pushes through the armed and armoured women surrounding them, leads her to a table, low with carpets around it to sit on. She says, ‘Like they have in some ships. This might be how you used to dine.’
Nameless eats; she looks more alive, her eyes directed inward and filling with intelligence, the faintest frown forming. Charlie wonders if memories and hope are stirring. ‘Young lady, we think your mother is called Soosianna. You were split up during the wars between rebels and the mods. Soosianna – four syllables – your mother is a powerful and famous person.’
Nameless doesn’t respond.
Charlie tries permutations. ‘Um… Ann? Anna? Annie?’
Nothing; Nameless reaches for a piece of tuna.
Nameless’ hand stops, frozen. She whispers, ‘Mummy.’
‘I also have learned your name, “Inga”. Can you draw for us? When you’ve finished eating?’
Along each wall of the room, paper hangs in long horizontal strips. Made for the job, it’s barely dry enough to stay up without falling apart. Nameless rises.
‘Get everyone here!’ shouts Charlie. ‘Wake everyone.’
Nameless takes a charcoal twig from the satchel and draws faces, people, roads, villages and junctions. Comments flow from the women who collect behind her.
‘Don’t recognise that.’
‘Surely she can’t have gone to the Forest Countries? That’s weeks away!’
‘Nowhere has roads that bad – do they?’
‘Hey, that’s the sign of the Inn at Rivers Pool.’ The warrior speaking pushes to the front of the audience. ‘That’s the corral at Settlement Heights. Dunno that road or that junction though.’
Nameless sketches. One drawing after another. She works her way around the room. A series of portraits follow. No one recognises the faces.
‘Get her to show towns and villages,’ calls someone.
Charlie responds, ‘No one tells her what to draw.’
More roads and junctions. Nameless draws what she saw – even a bird as it flapped over a crossroads.
Frustration, stress and anticipation build in the room. The heat rises as does the smell of sixty warriors hoping for a pivotal battle.
‘Why are we looking at all this?’ A woman cries as Nameless draws a mother with a sleeping baby at her breast.
Charlie calls out, ‘Because we’re not getting anywhere and Inga here could hold the answer.’
‘Wait!’ someone calls. ‘That could be my cousin – she went south six years ago.’ She leans forward. ‘Yes. She went to live in a tiny hamlet called Woodland Way.’
Another portrait appears.
Charlie straightens up. ‘That’s a moderator – or one of their people.’ She taps the drawing. ‘The cylinder in her left hand is the paralysing lash they use.’
Nameless, kneeling on the floor, looks at her, turns back and draws faster.
Charlie shouts, ‘For those of you at the back who can’t see, she’s showing us a mod’s tollbooth. Right, that mod … she’s slapping that pillar? Is that what she’s doing? Why? Look! The floor opened? It’s a secret entrance to…’
Another drawing; a woman and a table. Charlie shouts, ‘That’s Valeria-Tanya, girls. There is our enemy.’
She kneels beside Nameless. ‘Young lady, you’ve found the the woman who killed, tortured and enslaved so many, including our families. You’ve even given us directions. We will follow the pictures you’ve drawn. My sister will go with you – take you back to your mother. We’re certain Captain Soosianna … Soo … lives in the City of the Circle, a rebel country to the north.’ Tears overflow Charlie’s eyelashes, splashing in trails down her cheeks. ‘Inga, I used you, I lost you; you remained faithful to our deal and returned. Go now to your mother, and we,’ she waves her arm to indicate the warriors in the room, ‘will finish her work.’
Nameless bows her head, and smiles. ‘Thank you.’
©Gary Bonn 2011