Extract: In the Fold of the Map

~

Maggie did not know she had fallen asleep. The hum of the tyres on the damp motorway and the orange lights, pulsing overhead, meant she was soon dreaming. Vivid, real dreams.

That she was dreaming about being in the back of the car made the distinction between waking and sleeping all the more obscure.

For hours, it seemed, Maggie’s eyes had been watching the lights track across her sister’s sleeping face with a perfect monotony before she realised her parents were no longer in the front of the car. Someone else, someone unknown, was driving.

The glow from the motorway lights was having the contrary effect: each time the car passed beneath one, the car’s interior dimmed. The more she looked at the lights, hoping for illumination, the more difficult it was to make out who was at the wheel.

She wasn’t scared, though. Fear was one of the few feelings she was unable to cling to. She was calm but not in control; resigned yet resolute.

Eventually, all light from inside the car drained away and, still dreaming, she fell into an even deeper sleep.

*

What Maggie had no way of knowing, of even beginning to consider, was at exactly the same time the same dream was transporting a slight young man far from the frozen, muddy hole in which he had taken shelter earlier that morning. Long before the Sun had even begun to dim the stars in the eastern sky, he had slipped silently into this precarious place of refuge.

Disoriented, scared and exhausted, he huddled under a heavy winter coat – a coat liberated from its owner several freezing nights previously. He didn’t care that the mud was numbing his face, matting his hair and seeping through his clothes, he was simply concentrating on making as little noise or movement as possible.

Breathing shallowly through muddy nostrils, he imagined he was a lizard or small hibernating animal slowing the rhythm of its body right down. Only his eyes were moving, constantly surveying the edge of the hole in which he had taken cover. His eyes were barely open, in the hope that glistening tears wouldn’t betray his existence to the unseen danger massing somewhere just beyond his hiding place’s inadequate horizon. Beyond his field of vision every cough, every muttered curse, every menacing click and thud could be heard. Even the distant striking of a match sounded as close as if he was doing it with his own hands.

Unseen but far too close for comfort.

Yet even in his terrified state, he couldn’t prevent waves of tiredness from washing over him; the more tired he felt, the more protected from danger he became.

And then he was at the wheel of a car. Someone else’s car. He had been driving for hours before suddenly realising there were two children – two sisters – in the back.

How had they got there? How long had they been there? Who were they?

He didn’t have any answers; all he knew was that he had to keep driving. He couldn’t stop. He mustn’t stop. Wherever the destination, he knew it meant safety. Unable to take his eyes off the motorway in front of him, he knew he was surrounded by danger. Something – was it water? – was now lapping up over the sides of the motorway, becoming a flood. Where was it coming from? Would he be able to get past it, to beat it? Would it suddenly sweep them away, a torrent consuming the car and everyone inside it? Safety felt so close, yet so elusive.

He mustn’t fail, he knew that much. Failure meant never returning home.

A trap was tightening. Danger was pursuing him, circling him. Waiting to pounce.

He just HAD to keep going.

*

One word.

One word which froze his already shivering body to its core, startling his slumbering brain into a state of fizzing panic. Above the noise and chaos suddenly bursting all around him, it came like a wave. At first a crisp, barked command in the distance, then repeated in a similar fashion by a chain of different voices. In a language he didn’t fully understand, he heard the same phrase over and over until it had passed by his pathetically exposed position, carrying on until it was a murmur in the mist.

The accent was thick and guttural. Without fully understanding the words, the exact meaning was clear. The time for lying in a shallow, muddy hole was over. The decision of when to make his move had been made for him.

He also knew that it wasn’t much of a choice: stay still and perish, or get up, get up right now, and run faster than he had ever run before. Whatever he did he knew he had to make that false choice and stick to it. All day he had been trying to decide the exact direction of his escape, using only his ears and the miniscule amount of his surroundings that could be made out through mud-caked eyes. He would only know exactly where to run once he was up and out of his vague dip in the mud-clogged ground.

Or at least he hoped he would know where to run.

He still didn’t know how far he would have to go. It could be just over the lip of the crater; it could be two hundred yards. It could be half a mile, maybe more. He really hoped it wasn’t the latter: he was convinced he could be lucky, but only for so long.

In an instant, and relying on instinct, he flung himself up onto his haunches. In the same movement the heavy overcoat covering him was discarded. He wasn’t going to have that slowing him down and anyway, he was numb to the cold. Grasping tightly a small canvas bag, he glanced left and right, trying to take in as much visual information through stinging, blurred eyes as possible, he launched into a head-rushing, lung-bursting sprint across the uneven ground.

To his left – too close, alarmingly close – he caught sight of the glinting menace that had been the reason behind the shouted instructions heard just a few seconds previously. Then, fixing his eyes on the spot he’d decided would have to be his destination, he ran and ran and ran.

Beneath the thin crescent of a frost-scattering moon, a thousand unknown souls automatically followed the order that had just passed down the line.

“Bayonets! Fix bayonets! Advance!”

Fully expecting not to make it to safety, for this to be the last thing he ever did, tears streaked his filthy face as he braced himself for the awful, inevitable moment when his legs buckled beneath him.

~

You have just read an extract from In the Fold of the Map, the first story in the first strand of the Island Realms series. Contemporary to the world in which we live, history has travelled a different path. Rather than an Atlantic archipelago consisting of the United Kingdom and Ireland, the islands remain divided between the regions and kingdoms that formed following the departure of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the people from beyond the seas.

Maggie, a shy and introverted ten-year-old, is distraught when her family are forced to move home, ending up by chance in the hard-to-find village of Portman Tow. The village is a refuge for a small and disparate group, defeated and exhausted from a struggle against an invincible enemy which has achieved an all-pervading power by stealth and subtlety.

Unaware of any of this, Maggie soon realises that behind the village’s peaceful façade there are details that don’t fit together or make sense. None more so than when, letting her curiosity get the better of her, she falls out of a tree in a secluded garden only to find herself standing on a freezing, desolate beach.