Read The Refuge Song Online

Authors: Francesca Haig

The Refuge Song

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This book is dedicated, with love and gratitude, to my parents, Alan and Sally, who shared with me their enduring passion for words.

prologue

Each time he came to me in dreams, I saw him as I'd seen him the first time: floating. He was a silhouette, blurred by the tank's thick glass, and by the viscous fluid in which he was submerged. I could see only glimpses: his head slumped against his shoulder, the curve of his cheek. I couldn't see his face clearly, but I knew it was him, the same way that I would know the weight of his arm across my body, or the sound of his breath in the darkness.

Kip's torso curled forward, his legs hanging. His suspended body was a question mark that I couldn't answer.

I would have preferred anything to those dreams—even the memory of his jump. That came to me often enough in the daytime: his half shrug before he leaped. The long fall. How the silo floor was the mortar that made his bones a pestle, grinding his own flesh.

When I dreamed of him in the tank it was a different kind of horror. Not the spreading blood on the silo floor, but something worse: the im
maculate torture of the tubes and wires. I had freed him from the tank myself, months ago. But ever since I'd watched him die in the silo, most nights my dreams encased him once again within the glass.

The dream shifted. Kip was gone, and I was watching Zach sleeping. One of his hands was thrust out toward me. I could see the gnawed skin around his fingernails; I could see his jaw, roughened by stubble.

When we were very small we'd shared a cot and slept each night curled together. Even when we were older, and he'd begun to fear and despise me, our bodies never unlearned that habit of closeness. When we'd outgrown our shared cot, I would roll over in my own bed and watch how he, sleeping on the far side of the room, would roll, too.

Now I stared again at Zach's sleeping face. There was nothing on it to show what he had done. I was the branded one, but his face should have worn some kind of mark. How could he have built the tanks, and ordered the massacre on the island, and still sleep like that, openmouthed and oblivious? Awake, he had never been still. I remembered his hands, always moving, tying invisible knots in the air. Now he was motionless. Only his eyes were twitching as they followed the movements of his own dreams. At his neck, a vein pulsed, keeping count of his heart's beats. My own, too—they were the same thing. When his stopped, so would mine. He had betrayed me at every opportunity, but our shared death was the one promise that he couldn't break.

He opened his eyes.

“What do you want from me?” he said.

I had fled from him all the way to the island, and back to the deadlands of the east, but here he was, my twin, staring at me across the silence of my dream. It was as if a rope bound me to him, and the further we ran from each other, the more we felt it tighten.

“What do you want from me?” he said again.

“I want to stop you,” I said. Once I would have said I wanted to save him. Perhaps there was no difference.

“You can't,” he said. There was no triumph in his voice—just a certainty, hard as teeth.

“What did I do to you?” I said to him. “What have you done to us?”

Zach didn't answer—the flames did instead. The blast came, its white flash ripping through the dream. It stole the world and replaced it with fire.

chapter 1

I woke from flames, a scream bursting from me into the darkening air. When I reached out for Kip, I found only the blanket, chalky with ash. Each day that I tried to adjust to his absence, I'd wake to find my forgetful body rolling toward his warmth.

I lay back in the echo of my own scream. I dreamed of the blast more often now. It came to me in sleep, and sometimes when I was awake. I understood more than ever why so many seers went mad. Being a seer was like walking on a frozen lake: each vision was a crack in the ice underfoot. There were many days when I felt sure I would plunge through the brittle surface of my own sanity.

“You're sweating,” said Piper.

My breath was fast and loud and refused to be slowed.

“It's not hot. Do you feel feverish?”

“She can't talk yet,” said Zoe from the other side of the fire. “She'll stop carrying on in a minute.”

“She's running a fever,” Piper said, his hand on my forehead. He reacted like this whenever I had a vision. At my side quickly, crowding me with his questions before the visions had even had a chance to dissipate.

“I'm not sick.” I sat up, brushing his hand away, and wiped my face. “It's just the blast again.”

No matter how many times I'd endured the vision, there was no preparing for it, and no lessening its impact. It made my senses bleed into one another. The sound of it was absolute blackness; the color a white that shrieked in my ears. The heat went beyond pain: it was total. The size of the flames was beyond any measure: the horizon was consumed, the world snatched away in an instant of flame that lasted forever.

Zoe stood and stepped over the crumbs of the fire to pass me the water flask.

“It's happening more often, isn't it,” Piper said.

I took the flask from Zoe. “Have you been counting?” I said to Piper. He didn't reply but kept watching me as I drank.

Until that night, I knew I hadn't screamed for weeks. I'd worked so hard at it. Avoiding sleep; taming my convulsive breath when a vision came; clenching my jaw until my teeth felt as though they would grind one another down to dust. But Piper had noticed anyway.

“You've been watching me?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, not flinching from my stare. “I do what I have to do, for the resistance. It's your job to endure the visions. And it's mine to decide how we can use them.”

It was me who broke the gaze, rolling away from him.

For weeks our world had been made of ash. Even after we'd left the deadlands, the wind still blew from the east, loading the sky with a burden of black dust. When I rode behind Piper or Zoe, I saw how it settled even in the elaborate contours of their ears.

If I'd cried, my tears would have run black. But I had no time for
tears. And who would I cry for? Kip? The dead of the island? All who were trapped in New Hobart? Those still suspended, out of time, in the tanks? There were too many, and my tears were no good to them.

I learned that the past is barbed. Memories snagged at my skin, relentless as the thorn bushes that grew by the deadlands' black river. Even when I tried to recall a happy time—sitting with Kip on the windowsill on the island, or laughing with Elsa and Nina in the kitchen at New Hobart—my mind would end up at the same point: the silo floor. Those final minutes: the Confessor, and what she had revealed about Kip's past. Kip's jump, and his body on the concrete below me.

I found myself envying Kip's amnesia. So I taught myself not to remember. I clung to the present, the horse beneath me, its solidity and warmth. Leaning with Piper over a map sketched in the dust to calculate our next destination. The indecipherable messages left in the ash by the lizards that dragged their bellies across the ruined earth.

When I was thirteen and freshly branded, I'd stared at the healing wound in the mirror and said to myself:
This is what I am.
Now I did the same with this new life. I tried to learn to occupy it, as I'd learned to inhabit my branded body.
This is my life
, I said to myself, each morning, when Zoe shook my shoulder to wake me for my shift as lookout, or when Piper kicked dirt over the fire and said it was time to move again.
This is my life now
.

After our raid on the silo, the whole Wyndham region was so thick with Council patrols that before we could travel back to the west we had to head south, picking our way through the deadlands, that vast canker on the earth.

Eventually we had to let the horses go—unlike us they couldn't survive on lizard flesh and grubs, and there was no grass where we traveled. Zoe had suggested eating them, but I was relieved when Piper pointed out that they were as thin as us. He was right: their backbones were
sharpened like the peaked spines of lizards. When Zoe untied them they galloped off to the west on legs that were nothing more than splints of bone. Whether they were fleeing us, or just trying to get away from the deadlands, I didn't know.

I'd thought I knew the damage that the blast had wrought. But those weeks showed me the wreckage anew. I saw the skin of the earth peeled back like an eyelid, leaving scorched stone and dust. After the blast, they say most of the world was like that: broken. I'd heard bards singing about the Long Winter, when ash had shrouded the sky for years, and nothing would grow. Now, hundreds of years later, the deadlands had retreated to the east, but from our time out there, I understood more of the fear and rage that had driven the purges, when the survivors had destroyed any of the machines that were left after the blast. The taboo surrounding the remnants of the machines wasn't simply a law—it was an instinct. Any rumors or stories of what machines had once been able to do, in the Before, was overshadowed by the evidence of the machine's ultimate achievement: fire and ash. The Council's strict penalties for breaking the taboo never had to be enforced—it was a law upheld by our own revulsion; we shuddered away from the fragments of machines that still surfaced, occasionally, in the dust.

People shuddered away from us, too, we Omegas in our blast-marked bodies. It was the same fear of the blast and its contagion that had led the Alphas to cast us out. To them, our bodies were deadlands of flesh: infertile and broken. The imperfect twins, we carried the stain of the blast in us, as surely as the scorched earth of the east. They chased us far away from where they lived and farmed, to scratch an existence from the blighted land.

Piper, Zoe, and I had emerged from the east like blackened ghosts. The first time we washed, the water downstream ran black. Even afterward, the skin between my fingers was stained gray. Piper and Zoe's dark
skin took on a grayish tone that wouldn't wash away—it was the pallor of hunger and exhaustion. The deadlands weren't something that could easily be left behind. When we headed west, we were still shaking ash from our blankets each night when we unpacked them, and still coughing up ash in the morning.

Ω

Piper and I sat near the entrance to the cave, watching the sun shrug off the night. More than a month earlier, on the way to the silo, we'd slept in the same hidden cave and perched on the same flat rock. Next to my knee, the stone still bore the scuff marks from where Piper had sharpened his knife all those weeks ago.

I looked at Piper. The slash on his single arm had healed now to a pink streak, the scar tissue raised and waxy, puckered where stitches had held the wound closed. At my neck, the wound from the Confessor's knife had finally healed, too. In the deadlands, it had been an open wound, edged with ash. Was the ash still there, inside me, specks of black sealed beneath the scar's carapace?

Piper held out a piece of rabbit meat skewered on the blade of his knife. It was left over from the night before, coated with cold fat, congealed into gray strings. I shook my head and turned away.

“You need to eat,” he said. “It'll take us three more weeks to get to the Sunken Shore. Even longer to get to the west coast, if we're going to search for the ships.”

All of our conversations began and ended at the ships. Their names had become like charms:
The Rosalind
.
The Evelyn
. And if the hazards of the unknown seas didn't sink the ships, then sometimes I felt that the weight of our expectations would. They were everything, now. We'd managed to rid the Council of the Confessor, and of the machine that she was using to keep track of all Omegas—but it wasn't enough, es
pecially after the massacre on the island. We might have slowed down the Council, and cost them two of their most powerful weapons, but the tanks were patient. I'd seen them myself, in visions and in the awful solidity of reality. Row after row of glass tanks, each one a pristine hell.

That was the Council's plan for all of us. And if we didn't have a plan of our own, a goal to work for, then we were just scrapping in the dust, and there'd be no end to it. We might forestall the tanks for a while, but no better than that. Once, the island had been our destination. That had ended in blood and smoke. So now we were seeking the ships that Piper had sent out from the island, months before, in search of Elsewhere.

There were times when it felt more like a wish than a plan.

It would be four months at the next full moon since the ships sailed. “It's a hell of a long time to be at sea,” Piper said as we sat on the rock.

I had no reassurance to offer him, so I stayed silent. It wasn't just a question of whether Elsewhere was out there. The real question was what it could offer us, if it existed. What its inhabitants might know, or do, that we couldn't. Elsewhere couldn't just be another island, just a place to hide from the Council. That might offer us a respite, but it would be no solution, any more than the island was. There had to be more than that: a real alternative.

If the ships found Elsewhere, they'd have to make their way back through the treacherous sea. If they survived, and if they weren't caught attempting to return to the captured island, then they should be returning to a rendezvous point at Cape Bleak, on the northwest coast.

It felt like such a tenuous chance:
if
piled on
if
, each hope feeling flimsier than the last, while Zach's tanks were solid, multiplying with each day that passed.

Piper knew better, by now, than to push against my silences. He kept staring at the sunrise and went on. “When we've sent out ships in the past, some of them made it back to the island, months later, with
nothing to show for the journey but damaged hulls and crews sick with scurvy. And two ships never came back.” He was quiet for a moment, but his face betrayed no emotion. “It's not just a question of distance, or even storms. Some of our sailors have come back with stories of things we can barely imagine. A few years back, one of our best captains, Hobb, led three ships north. They were gone for more than two months. It was nearing winter, when Hobb got back—and there were only two ships by then. The winter storms we're used to on the west coast are bad enough—we didn't even make crossings to the island in winter, if we could help it. But further north, Hobb told us the entire sea up there had started to freeze solid. The ice crushed one of the ships, just like that.” He opened his hand wide, then closed his fist. “The whole crew was lost.” He paused again. Both of us were looking at the frost stiffening the grass. Winter was on its way.

“After all this time,” he said, “do you still believe that
The Rosalind
and
The Evelyn
could be out there?”

“I'm not sure about belief,” I said. “But I hope they are.”

“And that's enough for you?” he said.

I shrugged. What would
enough
mean, anyway? Enough for what? Enough to keep going, I supposed. I'd learned not to ask for more than that. Enough to get me to fold my blanket at the end of each day's rest, stuff it back into my rucksack, and follow Piper and Zoe once more onto the plain for another night of walking.

Piper held out the meat again. I turned away.

“You need to stop this,” he said.

He still spoke as he always had: as if the world was his to command. If I'd closed my eyes, I could imagine he was still giving orders in the island's Assembly Hall, rather than squatting on a rock, his clothes torn and stained. There were times that I admired his self-assurance: its audacity, in the face of a world that did its best to show us that we were
worthless. At other times, it baffled me. I'd caught myself watching how he moved. The last few weeks had left him thinner, his skin stretched a little too tightly over his cheekbones, but it hadn't changed the defiant jut of his jaw, or the spread of his shoulders, unafraid to occupy space. It was as though his body spoke a language that mine could never learn.

“Stop what?” I said, avoiding his gaze.

“You know what I mean. You're not eating. You barely sleep, or talk.”

“I'm keeping up with you and Zoe, aren't I?”

“I didn't say you weren't. It's just that you're not yourself anymore.”

“And since when are you an expert in what I'm like? You hardly know me.” My voice was loud in the morning stillness.

I knew it wasn't fair to snap at him. What he'd said was true enough. I'd been eating less, even now that we were out of the deadlands and the hunting was good. I ate just enough to stay well, to travel fast. On frosty days, when it was my turn to sleep, I cast the blanket off my shoulders and offered myself up to the cold.

I couldn't explain any of this to Piper or Zoe. It would mean talking about Kip. His name, that single syllable, caught in my throat like a fish bone.

His past, too, stopped me at the brink of words. I couldn't speak about it. Since the silo, when the Confessor had told me what Kip had been like before the tank, I carried her news with me everywhere. I was good at secrets. I'd hidden my seer visions from my family for thirteen years before Zach exposed me. I'd concealed my visions of the island from the Confessor for the four years of my captivity in the Keeping Rooms. On the island, I'd hidden my twin's identity from Piper and the Assembly for weeks. Now I concealed what I knew about Kip. The knowledge that he had tormented the Confessor as a child, and delighted when she was branded and sent away. That he'd tried, as an adult, to track her down and pay to have her locked in the Keeping Rooms for his own protection.

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