“There you go,” he said, when they arrived outside a snug looking little cottage. A light was on downstairs and voices could be heard from inside at a subdued level.
“There is nothing we can do just now, Korah. It’s just too dark. We’ll try again in the morning,” said a male voice.
“Thank you James,” said a woman’s voice dejectedly.
“Mrs Manrara!” yelled the man at Hunter’s elbow. “Holly’s been found! Come quick!”
He turned and beamed at Hunter with the ruddy cheeks of a countryman who enjoyed his cider.
A chair scraped across the floor and a flurry of footsteps could be heard as she ran full pelt through the house. Breathless she arrived at the door holding up a lantern.
“Holly!” she cried in distress. The sight of her daughter’s injuries caused tears to well up, blinding her to the identity of those present.
“Would you call the Healer, James?” she asked, glancing up with a sniff. In the amber glow of the oil lamp Hunter could see her tears.
Within moments he’d disappeared into the night leaving the labourer and Hunter standing awkwardly on the doorstep.
“Won’t you come in?” she asked, attempting to compose herself.
Hunter lowered his head, lest she recognise him.
“Aye, of course,” said the labourer, doffing his cap. “You’ll no doubt want to hear how this man here found her.”
He nodded his head towards Hunter, ignoring his obvious discomfort at being singled out as rescuer. She laid the child gently on the settle and applied a handkerchief to the worst wound making sure to keep the pressure constant. It was rather inadequate for the purpose so Hunter proposed that they stay with the child whilst she went to fetch something better suited.
That was the first time that she had heard him speak since his arrival and at the familiar sound of his voice she looked up sharply.
“What did you say your name was again?” she asked, looking at him closely.
“I didn’t Ma’am.”
The labourer looked askance at him.
“I thought you said you knew Mrs Manrara? Are you not going to tell her your name?”
“There is no need George. For we know each other well, don’t we Hunter?” she said knowingly. “It’s just that it has been a while.”
Sensing the awkwardness between the two George hastened to take his leave.
“Unless I can do anything else for you Mrs Manrara I’m thinking I should return to my hearth. These knees of mine still haven’t recovered from digging the footings for the new stable block.”
“Of course George. I hope you feel better soon. Thank you so much for helping.”
“I did nothing to speak of Ma’am. It was Hunter here who you should be thanking.”
He declared his wish that Holly might make a speedy recovery then slipped away quietly leaving a terrible vacuum in the room. Hunter felt more self-conscious than he’d ever done in his life. He knew he looked a state. He knew he was trembling with anxiety.
“I should probably go too,” he said.
“Please don’t,” she breathed, grasping his arm.
A jolt of ten thousand volts seemed to pass through his body. He was powerless to respond. He just wanted to be gone – back to his shelter in the rocks, the place that had shielded him from the rigors of humanity and locusts for eight long years.
She saw his dilemma and decided to lay bare her heart.
“You have no idea how I felt after they took you away,” she suddenly blurted out. “I realised my mistake but it was too late.”
She looked down at her restless hands in her lap twisting and turning as though she didn’t know what to do with them.
“I continued searching for you after the war abated even against the wishes of the inhabitants of Headley’s. Eventually they saw that I couldn’t be swayed and they made me swear that if I found you I would ensure that you were brought to justice just like any other war criminal. I accepted their terms so that I could carry on and carry on I did for many years. I risked much Hunter.”
His eyes scanned her briefly and he noted the scars on her neck and forearms. He turned away, unable to believe. For all her protestations his head was spinning. It was too much to take in. He leapt from his chair and bolted for the door. With no options left Korah did the only thing left open to her in order to make him stay.
“Before you go, I want you to know that Holly is your daughter,” she called out. “She is ours.”
His outstretched hand fell from the door knob. He stopped and turned in disbelief.
“She was conceived in the days before your arrest,” she said simply.
Hunter stared at her in disgust.
“You listen to me and you listen very carefully,” he said, stalking towards her menacingly. “I do not know what you are trying to do here. But I understand one thing very well; you are determined to get revenge for the death of your family in whatever way you can.”
“You have changed Korah,” he whispered. “The Korah I knew would never have used her own flesh and blood in order to get revenge. She’s just a little girl and it’s high time that you stopped trying to settle old debts and remembered that you are her mother!”
“If you can’t believe you’d better go,” she said in a choked voice. “If I let you go, maybe then you will believe.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Take care Korah. Take care of little Holly.”
In three paces and the slam of a door he was gone. Only an empty space remained. Stunned that he had taken her at her word she slumped down next to Holly.
How long must I live with these regrets? She thought sadly. How long must I pay the price for my stupidity? More to the point, how much longer must Hunter pay for my stupidity?
As she waited for the Healer to arrive a familiar sound wailed through the village rattling the doors and windows.
THE LOCUST SIREN!
She threw open the front door and shrieked Hunter’s name. Perhaps he was too far away to hear her? Or perhaps he was already a steaming carcass twitching in the grass? Sickened by that thought, her shoulders slumped. Her breath billowed white; a voluminous blanket of terror expelled from stricken lungs. Somewhere out there she imagined him cowering from the million voracious insect wings homing in on the promise of fresh meat. Maybe he had climbed a tree. Maybe he had stumbled upon the river. Either way he would not be safe. Fear for Hunter bit into her heart as though it were a freshly plucked apple. Adrenaline coursed through her. She would not go quietly. She would not give up. Perhaps there was still a chance.
Snatching Holly from her spot on the couch she bolted through the door and hurried towards the communal shelter. Many other villagers were doing the same, all of them wearing that same battle worn expression. Everyone knew what the locusts could do to a human given four point nine minutes. If that befell them only the village dental therapist would recognise them.
Korah had made the journey to the shelter many times. But never carrying Holly. And never in the knowledge that Hunter was out there unprotected and alone. She had always imagined that he would be holed up in a bunker somewhere with his fellow researchers safe from the horrors that science had created. How had he survived all this time and where had he stayed?
The situation made her blood run cold. Thankfully she would be able to rest soon and get Holly the help that she needed. It wasn’t much further to the shelter.
“Here. I’ll carry the child,” said a voice just to the side of her.
To her surprise she found Hunter standing there.
“What are you doing here? I thought you had gone.”
He shook his head and lifted Holly into his arms.
“Hey you! I know who you are!” shouted one of the villagers pointing an accusatory finger.
The man was holding a torch and had a newborn infant strapped to his body.
“Don’t let him in the shelter!” he cried, looking slightly bug eyed. “People like him only perpetuate the cycle. In fact…nobody let her in either. I always said Korah was a sympathiser, didn’t I?”
“You scientists caused all this!” shouted the man’s wife, coming to her husband’s aid.
A small disgruntled crowd soon gathered and someone lobbed a stone. It caught Hunter a glancing blow to the shoulder.
“Stop!” shrieked Korah. “We don’t have time for this!”
“She’s right. We don’t. Get our son to the shelter,” snapped the wife of the man carrying the newborn. Cowed by her venom the man did as he was told and the others quickly followed leaving the three of them alone.
“Great! Now they’re not going to let us in either!” Korah snapped, turning full circle in frustration. Hunter ignored her and looked heavenward. The noise of the swarm could be heard above the wind.
“We’re going to get eaten!” she wailed.
“No we’re not. I’ll make them let us in!” he declared. “Come on! Hurry!”
Their feet pounded the ground as a myriad approaching wings did the same to the air.
“There it is!” cried Korah, pointing to a few chinks of light escaping from a hatch in the ground.
Handing the child to her he ran forward and pounded on the wooden trapdoor.
“Let us in! For the love of God let us in!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. As he hammered on the door over and over, sweat poured down his back.
“Don’t you care that we will be killed?” screamed Korah clawing at the hatch with her nails. It was no use. It was locked firmly from the inside.
“You will only be getting what you deserve,” said an unidentified voice from below. “You and your kind are dangerous. I always knew you held sympathy for the Lab Rats.”
Hunter scowled at this derogatory term for former members of the scientific community.
“They’re going to let us die. We’re going to die!” she whimpered, laying her head hopelessly on his shoulder.
“No we’re not mummy,” said a small voice.
The two adults looked down to find that Holly had now come to and was holding out what looked like a tube of ointment.
“You’re awake,” said her mother, cradling her head against her chest.
“Where did you get this?” asked her father, unscrewing the lid of the tube and sniffing the contents.
The girl suddenly looked very guilty but an unnatural gust of air signalled the approach of the swarm. This wasn’t the time for prevarication.
Her hair fluttered in the wind as she said,
“I found it in an old abandoned building near Headley village.”
“Holly! You know you’re not supposed to go off on your own!”
“Quiet Korah!” said Hunter. “Holly, think back now…did you put the ointment on your skin?”
“Yes. My arms get dry and scaly with the eczema but lately my left one has been hot and sore. The stuff the Healer gave me didn’t work so when I found the medicine from before the war I decided I would give it a try. It says on it that it’s for infection. See?”
“Yes, I see. This building where you got it from, did it have lots of other tubes and bottles on its shelves?”
“Do you think you could show me the way?”
“I think so. But how are we going to get there? They will eat us before we reach it.”
Suddenly a locust landed on Korah’s forearm. She screamed loudly as it took several bites in rapid succession from her flesh.
“Here! Rub as much of the ointment on you as you can. Spread it all over,” ordered Hunter curtly handing them a large blob of the antibiotic salve.
Rather than question him the two did as they were told, furiously slathering their arms and legs. As they did so the entire swarm of 1.2 million locusts descended upon them. Never sated and never full.
In the bunker below the villagers cowered and wept at the terrible commotion above. What had they done? Their fear had turned them into monsters. After two or three minutes the screaming stopped. Then the accusations began to fly.
Two hours later the newly appointed guardian of the bunker popped his head above ground and gave the all clear. Next the former guardian who had refused Hunter, Korah and Holly entry was hauled out by three of the village Peacekeepers.
Once everyone was out in the open they all crowded round as the Presiding Peacekeeper read him his rights.
“Silas Eugene Whittaker, former guardian of the bunker for the people of Headley. You are hereby sentenced to death for your part in the death of Korah and Holly Manrara as well as the unknown male that accompanied them. Do you have anything to say in your defence?”
“You know I had to do it!” he insisted, looking from one face in the crowd to the other. “My job is to protect and that’s what I was trying to do. Science is evil and so are the people who dabble in it. Look what it has created. Chaos.”
“You know he speaks the truth,” said a voice from behind the crowd.
The villagers turned and parted in the middle as Hunter walked through with Korah and Holly in tow. A loud chattering broke out amongst those gathered.
“In his own misguided way he was trying to protect you all. To him science is the enemy in whatever way it is applied,” said Hunter raising his voice so that everyone present could hear.
“What he and many others like him don’t realise is that science can save us all.”
“How did you survive?” demanded one of the peacekeepers eyeing him suspiciously.
Korah knew what was coming next so she pulled her daughter protectively to her.
“Science. That’s how,” said Hunter triumphantly.
“You see!” spluttered the accused. “He’s determined to drag us all down that same path again. I was right to lock him out. It’s just a pity that the locusts didn’t finish what they started.”
“Silence!” roared the Presiding Peacekeeper. He stared sternly at Hunter, puzzled as to why he and his family had only sustained a few bites.
“Does science really have the ability to repel the winged scourge?” he asked, hardly daring to believe it could be true.
“See for yourself,” said Hunter, opening his fist to reveal a locust sitting on his upturned palm. Everyone gasped. A few turned and fled.
“He’s a maniac,” someone shouted.
“No he’s not. He’s the man who’s going to win us back our freedom,” cried Korah.
“How is this possible?” said the new guardian wonderingly.
“I haven’t been able to research it yet but I think that the locusts are homing in on us because of a certain bacteria that live on our skin. The type and amount of bacteria that live on the surface of most living things is a good indicator of how edible it is. Someone has designed these to feed on species that play host to large volumes of staphylococcusbacteria and oomecytes I suspect. That’s why when Holly here used a tube of high strength dicloxacillin that she found in an abandoned pharmacy to treat her infected eczema, the locusts avoided that particular limb like the plague. They no longer recognised it as being edible as the antibiotic had killed all the staph bacteria that had caused the infection. We only discovered this when Silas here locked us out of the bunker. Without him we would never have discovered the cure.”
“Can we use it then?” asked an old woman.
Everyone stared at her.
“What?” she said indignantly. “If there’s a way to stay safe from the swarms I’ll take it – science or not!”
There were murmurs of agreement from those gathered.
“Will you help us?” asked the Healer, stepping forward. His eyes had been rimmed with red ever since he had lost his eldest son to a locust strike last winter. Now they held a ray of hope fuelled by the thought that perhaps no one else would lose their sons. Not to the scourge at any rate.
“I will help you. But on one condition,” said Hunter holding up his hand. “You must set Silas Eugene Whittaker free so that he can assist me in my work.”
“Granted,” replied the peacekeepers nodding to each other.
And so the tide was turned in the fight against the Scourge from the North.