Call me Minnie, short for Minnesota, a place I’ve never been. It’s just a name my mother saw on a map and took a liking too, or so the story goes. My mother gave me away when I was a bairn so I never knew her. Shasta took me. She was born of Janice, who worked at the fairs and taught Shasta the reading-show. You tell a stranger something they know about themselves and something they don’t, and they pay you for it. Janice died in the riots, and she was daughter to Annalise who lived a very long time and died in a bed.
We are all illegal, no profiles, no scan codes, no fish tickets, nothing. Shasta said she once had her irises printed, though she fought like a wild cat and they had to hold her down to do it. “What did the big eye see when it looked in?” I had asked her. She made her eyes bulge out, “All my secrets!” and laughed but I could tell this dogged her, that they took a bit of her when they did it.
There’s Raynald with us. Shasta calls him the Highland branch of the family. His father’s father was a pearl fisherman, back when there were mussels in the rivers. He is old now, but still has a pearls in his pockets. He says our people go back to the Painted Ones that etched their wyrd in the skin with woad. They carved the great stones and some of them are still standing. We make our way by those stones sometimes, carved with the long-nosed beasts that look like the dolphins that swim in groups come spring, flying up from the water in taut arcs. Our people knew the beasts well, Raynald said, and the beasts knew them.
Sometimes you wonder why you are the only ones left, but then the gull chicks wake you up early, and you are so happy for the salt air and the dumplings Shasta’s boiling over the fire, you forget to think any more about it. Shasta held out hope that we weren’t the only ones, and some day we’d find others. That’s why I had to learn the language, so they would know me as kin if they ever found us.
In high summer you can walk all day and food is everywhere. But in the winter, you bed down in an empty barn or abandoned golf course, now gone wild with seed, and you wouldn’t be above eating a feral dog or one of the cats from the cliffside colonies if the rabbits were scarce.
I watched Shasta shake the jar of yarrow flowers and whisky and chant as she did every morning. “Word follows word—I was given these words. Work follows work. I was given this work.”
With her eyes closed and throat high, she sang the oldest words over them, just three that she said the plant had given her when she cut it. She called that singing gald. Shasta had a box of jars that she kept hidden under the provisions, and under the jars were the vials, the lixirs Shasta made only at the blood moon, working in secret so that even I didn’t know how she did it. They were wrapped in velvet cloths embroidered with the words, which were also letters, pictures that I had only just learned to write. Lixirs can do many things. They can break a fever, mend a wound, but then lots of things can that aren’t so hard to make. They can make you forget, and every single one can kill you if you take it wrong, but that could also be said about many things. It can help a bairn find its way to this world, or the next, as the case may be. But there was one that did something else, something Shasta never mentioned in all our lessons. I asked her about it.
“This,” she said holding up the little glass bottle filled with milky blue liquid with its ornate blue filigree around the stopper, “is on a need-to-know basis.”
We were our own country, the three of us with our horse and the old sedan, the cart with three wheels that we pulled Shasta in. Raynald was older than any of us and remembered a time when it was all one place, not a bunch of little sokes, each with a lord that needed appeasing if we were to pass through conspicuous-like.
We stayed in a tower block inside a soke, once upon a time, or so Shasta says. I can’t remember that far back.
You wouldn’t go near one now, of course, but back then, she says, we all stayed inside them, back before the blackouts, the shortages and the riots, before the Guard came. I only remember walking. Shasta has many summers on me and I have to take her word.
We stick to the old corpse roads, the tracks what were walked before the cameras and bypasses. You go north enough you can track your way by the wind turbines, the water on your right if you are going west, which we were.
We mostly travelled at night, setting up camp in dense woods or disused industrial parks like the one we were in now. Raynald says it used to be grassland where he camped with his father. Things still grew wild through the tarmac and verges, if you knew what to look for, as Shasta did.
“Look at them poppies!” she said, showing me their tender necks nodding beside the razor wire fence. They were brilliant red like some pretty dress torn to shreds. We made a note to come back at the next fat moon to get the little star-topped lanterns full of seeds.
There was always plenty of hegbeg. I hated the sting, gathering it. Sneaking up on it unawares didn’t help. Showing it who was boss (Shasta’s tip) didn’t help either. I wasn’t anyone’s boss.
This twilight, I was out getting the hegbeg for stewing up. It was past it for the lixir, but it was still good to eat.
We had a stove set up outside with the pot simmering with the hegbeg, bitter tooth, and a handful of beans when the lady came. Raynald had set up the tents, one for Shasta and me, another for him. We warmed ourselves around the fire, its brightness making the dusk duskier. That’s when I saw her. Who walks out in a white dress like that, like a surrender flag?
As she came closer, I thought she must smell the soup and want some. I elbowed Shasta who’d nodded off. The lady was close enough that I could see her haunted eyes, her mincing step over the tall grass.
We all watched her coming, but Raynald got up. Old as he was, he was still a big man. The woman hesitated, like a doe that’s heard the hunter’s step.
“How did she get out of the sokes?” Shasta wondered.
“What if she were followed?” Raynald worried. “If she’s led the drones to us…”
All that pale hair tangled with little twigs and flowers and the dirt on her face made her look like a fairy woman. My eyes adjusted to the half light, and I could see her little belly starting to round out when the rest of her was thin as anything.
“Didn’t anyone take a mercy on you, Ray?” Shasta must have seen it too. “Sit down,” she hissed and stood up slow, beckoning the woman to come. Why she did that, we’ll never know. Too kind hearted, she was.
We didn’t ask her anything, just watched her drink a big mug of steaming beg tea with a drop of whisky and some much prized sugar in it, our blanket about her shoulders. She drank the tea so fast, she probably burned her mouth. She said, “My name is Venlis, of the Machar Soke.” Though she held out her hand, none of us took it.
“You best think of a new name, now.” Shasta spread out the silk on the little collapsible table for the reading-show, ready to make a map of the old words. Venlis put her trembling hand in Shasta’s old one and watched it like it wasn’t her hand at all and might do something terrible.
“What do you see?” Venlis asked, as if she’d had a reading-show before and it was something you asked people like Shasta, like us.
“Everybody’s got the same hand,” Shasta said, which is what she always said, because she didn’t read lines on a palm. That was beneath her. She shook the bag of marked stones and shells, and asked the woman to pull three. She told me for real power, you can’t use the words, their symbols, pulled out of the bag like raisins from a cake, but you can ask a stranger to do it that way, the same way a plant might give you three to gald over it. The words sing the long story of the world, from beginning to end, and can’t be interrupted, but a stranger could take three as a test.
“Silence I ask from the kin, living and dead. If it please the Hanged One, I will speak of things forgot, for I am the far-seeing one wise in wyrd.” When she would say those words, we all hushed.
I never seen a one so scared as this Venlis. Everything she wore was delicate, shimmering, not made to last a day. Her face was painted, with blue clouds around her eyes, smearing down her cheeks, and her lips peeling dark red paint. She had jewels on her hands, sparkling in the firelight. No doubt those would be coming with us. But where would she go? I wondered. She reached into the bag with certainty, as if the things inside were money she were counting, and pulled out three etched shells.
Shasta laid them out, the corners of her mouth turning down, hard.
The woman could see it too. “No…” she said and started to cry.
“You went out to find a place to curl up and die, and it turns out you don’t die so easy.” That, Venlis knew. She snuffled, wiped her nose with the back of her wrist, “But?” she guessed.
“But now you are stuck, with nowhere to go.” This she also knew.
“What can I do? Can I come with you?”
Raynald sucked his teeth and Shasta shushed him.
“You come with us as far as Groats, where there is a man with a boat who can help you.” This was news to her, what the strangers pay for. Venlis steeled herself to the idea and sat up straight.
Raynald was so cross, he just got up and walked away from the camp. We fell asleep waiting for him to come back. We all slept together, huddled-like in the tent. When I heard Venlis snoring, I liked her better.
I woke to Raynald’s shaking me. “The drones are coming in.” He went straight for the lixirs, and I woke Shasta and the lady.
We ran, though not fast because Shasta was slow. Their buzzing bore down on us. Raynald half-dragged, half-carried Shasta and we took cover in a big empty shed, halfway to the sea.
“I brought them, didn’t I?” Venlis was crying again.
Shasta fumbled with the box of vials and brought out the milky blue one. She made me and Venlis take a sip. It was bitter, like biting down on metal, and scored your insides going down.
“Go to the sea. Run,” Shasta urged. We were fast, even with the lixir in our bellies, changing us, maybe because of it. Venlis screeched to bring them after us, away from Shasta and Raynald. We tumbled down the cliffside, the drones whirring nearby.
Splash, into the cold water we went, all dressed. We swam but already the lights were dimming in our heads, the drones skimming the water to scan us. I could see a cave up ahead, at the base of the cliffs. The drones crunched and clicked, whizzing up their guns, their tiny boxes talking and dreaming small, bright pictures.
We crawled into a cave, the ceiling all decorated with tiny skulls hanging, clacking together in the wind. The sea was coming up now, the tide coming in with a quick certainty.
This cave! All glittering with pieces of bright stone, the words singing the story of the world carved there. I could barely see the drones anymore, hovering over the frothing water that might drag us out with its cold hands. Venlis was dimming so that all that was left were the glowing shapes on the walls. She smiled at me, breathless and exhilarated, changed to a slick beast. She opened her long muzzle, trilled and whistled. My own buzzing bounced off her and we swam.