(Apprx. 10 min read)
Flames paint the narrow yard orange and the thud of bass fills the night air. The Pilgrim tries to see the faces round the fire in the warehouse’s courtyard. But he doesn’t get far before he remembers who’s missing and buries his head in his hands. Sometimes he wondered if she’d seen him in the last moments before they’d hauled her away, one more shaven headed youth in the airports crowd staring at the last moments of her life. The Pilgrim’s insides twist up tight and he tries to concentrate on the music sending out its messages to the dreaming city.
They’re south of the river but all he can remember from the journey is lights flickering through the cars rain streaked windows. The other side of the weekend feels like a different world, beyond that is the airport and the arrest. It’s nothing he wants to think about right now; not that it makes any difference. When he looks up the next time there’s only a few die-hard’s left waiting for the drivers to get themselves together.
The girl that’s sat down next to him is wearing clothes stretched tight as a drum. He nods and takes the joint.
‘What’s your name?’ says his new friend. The Pilgrim tries to stay calm as his eyes follow legs that disappear into industrial boots. He never got the sexy one’s talking to him in clubs, something to do with the bulging eyes he supposed.
‘I’m the Pilgrim.’
A nasty twinge of guilt makes him stumble on the last word. He’d barely been able to read Etta’s letter through the smudged ink. When he’d gotten to how much time she was expected to serve he’d had to stop.
His new friend hasn’t noticed anything though as she lets his name roll off her tongue. She has an accent – Russian thinks The Pilgrim.
‘I like that,’ says the skinny freak.
‘Why did I think you were going to say something else?’
He wants her to laugh. The last girl the Pilgrim had tried to chat up had owned a head shop in Chelsea. The conversation hadn’t worked out well.
‘Oh no, I’ve met all sorts in my line of work.’
‘Let’s call it the obscure, shall we?’
The Pilgrim gives her a level stare until he remembers his manners, ‘Oh yeah? I don’t believe in that sort of stuff.’
‘You’ve a sceptical mind…that’s good. You know that doesn’t always work?’ She flicks him a glance. ‘Things have a habit of coming up that aren’t always rational.’
He pauses and lets the words he was about to say die unsaid. Let the moment be what it is; everyone had a right to be into what they wanted. But it’s like she can read them anyway straight from inside his head.
‘No Pilgrim I don’t do tarot and own a ouija board. You can stop giving me that look.’
He decides to change the subject.
‘What about you?’ says the Pilgrim. ‘What are you called?’
One of the circle of people with their faces buried in their hoodies sniggers and reaches for a light. The Pilgrim catches sight of the marks on their arm. He should have known.
‘Introduce yourselves then,’ says Varya to the nearest. The next few minutes are an education. If asked the Pilgrim wouldn’t have been able to repeat a single word of what had been said.
‘You lot Ruski’s then?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Not anymore,’ says the one she’d asked first.
A low chuckle runs around the group.
‘Where we were born doesn’t exist now except up here.’
One of them taps the side of his head with his finger.
‘Too difficult to stay was it? say’s the Pilgrim.
‘Something like that.’
‘How come your name isn’t as foreign as your friends?’ He says to the girl.
‘It’s plenty foreign Pilgrim, but names have power. You don’t think I’d be so stupid as to tell someone I’ve just met my real one? Besides I doubt you could pronounce it. Varya will do for now, and besides you like it don’t you?’
‘Don’t worry Pilgrim we become friends and I might let you in on more.’
Now that sounded promising. The Pilgrim perked up a bit. After all she’s already told him she’s no tree hugger. She’s got weird mates, but that’s not a problem, she hasn’t met his yet.
‘What are you doing?’ says the nearest. He leans toward the girl with an odd movement like there’s too many joints underneath its clothes. ‘Don’t you think you’ve had enough?’
‘I’ll do what I like till daybreak,’ says Varya with a twist of her lips, and her teeth flash in the firelight. ‘That’s the deal. I’m still carrying his child until I decide what to do with it. You want me to feed on that?’
The Pilgrim is surprised to see the figures slump back.
‘What do you mean?’ says the Pilgrim to Varya. She doesn’t look pregnant, far from it. But she’s got a look in her eye that tells him not to go there.
‘Nothing, I mean nothing, and they will not interfere.’ She stares at the men until they lower their eyes. The Pilgrim notices that somewhere along the line everyone else has left. But the girl is flashing that smile his way again and he has other things to think about.
‘My minders are a little over protective at times,’ says Varya.
The Pilgrim sits up a little straighter. He’s heard of this sort of thing before.
‘So, who do you work with?’
She has a nice laugh. It’s a shame it’s directed at him.
‘Well what sort of celebrity are you then?’ He shuts his mouth before he can say any more. It’s important to play these sorts of things cool, not that he can remember actually meeting someone famous, or rich when he thinks about it.
‘I suppose you could call me that in the right circles. I’m royalty Pilgrim. Does that bother you?’
The Pilgrim’s a lifelong socialist, a child of the disenfranchised. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter so much when he’s looking at her. Varya’s eyes are huge, outlined like an Egyptian queen.
‘No…well not particularly anyway.’
‘That’s nice. So, will you be my knight? My champion?’
There’s a lilt to the words like they’re part of something formal, but it’s funny because the look she’s giving him kills his laugh straight away.
‘Um…sure,’ says the Pilgrim hoping he sounds more confident than he feels.
‘That’s good Pilgrim.’ She leans forward, ‘I’ll hold you to that.’
Then she’s talking to the others and the Pilgrim feels something small and bitter shift in his stomach.
‘You heard him. You’re witnesses all. The lady has a champion and she has until dawn. You will pass the message?’
Four heads nod in unison and limbs unfold with the sound of scissors opening and shutting like someone’s sharpening knives.
‘What the fuck is this?’ The Pilgrim’s spooked because the things that have just stood up are taller than anyone he’s ever seen. The wind has picked up too, and when he glances at the fire its flames are dancing the wrong way.
‘Hush Pilgrim. It’s alright,’ says the girl. ‘They’ll do what I tell them.’
That’s good news thinks the Pilgrim.
‘What are you…really?’
‘You’re sweet Pilgrim I like you, but if I tell you that I’ll have to kill you.’
The Pilgrim decides to blame the hairs standing up on his arms on the drugs, but Varya’s still speaking.
‘I’ll die at dawn unless I can find a way out of here. I went against my Father’s wishes and a war was fought that nearly took the last of us. So, I am to be executed by the winning side.’
‘Who was that then?’
Varya stares straight at him with her big black eyes.
‘How am I supposed to help? I’m just one geezer surely you need… I don’t know,’ one hand flaps uselessly ‘…an army?’
‘Something like them you mean?’ Varya nods at her guard’s backs. ‘They’re no use; they’re cattle, only here to keep the peace. The last of my allies died hours ago. I’m only alive because I was lucky.’ She looks around the warehouse as bass surges through the air. ‘I managed to find a refuge…however temporary.’
‘But me…? Look I’m…’
He’s about to mention Etta, but Varya’s giving him that dislocated stare again. ‘You have something I need, and you cast so many shadows yet none at all. You’ll do.’
‘Yes, I haven’t got time to be picky. Come on, we’ve an appointment to keep.’
He’s already moving despite his misgivings.
‘Where are we going?’
‘To see my father, one version of him anyway.’
‘I thought you said he wants to kill you?’
‘He does. You’ll see, just help me get there. Then you can go. You gave your word, remember?’
There are still vehicles in the warehouses cul-de-sacs, cars mostly and the odd van. A light flicks on and he see’s people piling into a scabby Merc 310.
‘Fukkit…’ spits the Pilgrim.
In the taxi he has plenty of time to think about what he’s doing. Varya has long since curled up and nodded off after telling him where they’re going. Truth be told The Pilgrim hadn’t had much direction to his life recently. Not since Etta went down. He shuts his eyes. There’d been nothing he could do. He’d only got away because he’d gone to make the phone call somewhere private when they made their move. He hates how useless it makes him feel. Now he’s in a car with a lunatic fleeing a city whose street corners are too full of memories right now. Maybe it was the right thing to do; the Pilgrim isn’t sure yet.
‘Pilgrim wake up, we’re here. Come on.’
His eyes crack open and he sees Varya staring down at him.
‘Where are we?’ say’s the Pilgrim blearily. He must have nodded off.
It’s still night and for that the Pilgrim is grateful. The light hurts his eyes too much. He rubs his wrist; he must have caught it on a nail when they were adding wood to the fire because there’s cuts all the way up it – pallet wood’s always full of the bloody things. He looks around. They’re in the middle of nowhere.
‘Where are we going?’ he asks the girl standing at the crossroads.
‘Somewhere most people have forgotten.’
‘That’s not much help is it?’ The comment doesn’t even earn him a look. Varya’s got an expression on her like she can smell something she wants. He’s not even sure she’s listening as she shuts her eyes and breathes. He watches her eyelids twitch.
‘You never told me what it was you did to end up on the run,’ says The Pilgrim trying to think of something to say that doesn’t remind him of where they are.
‘I killed a man.’
‘He was a bad man Pilgrim; the sort that kids get told stories about to frighten them.’
The Pilgrim pauses, digesting the information, ‘This place we’re going to. Who’s there?
At least he’s taking her home. The Pilgrim makes his mind up, ‘Once we’ve done this, we’re going our separate ways alright?’
Irresistible she might be, but the Pilgrim’s had enough trouble in his past to be wary. Better to live up to his word and vanish. When she turns to look at him, he realises how utterly fucked he is.
‘You’re not going to leave me, are you? Pilgrim?’ She blinks those huge almond eyes at him and the Pilgrim’s shaking his head without even thinking about it.
They get under way and the city slips by in shrouds of filthy water and empty industrial units. They’re soaked to the bone in seconds. He can tell they’re getting close when the houses start becoming ruins. The Pilgrim watches a cars tail lights disappear.
‘We’re closer than I thought,’ says Varya.
Lightning stutters along the horizon.
‘Well that’s a relief.’ The Pilgrim would have put more sarcasm into it if he could but he’s too tired to make the effort. ‘Somewhere dry is it?’
‘Oh yes, very dry Pilgrim. You’ll see.’
Not for the first time he wonders what he thinks he’s playing at as she sets off again.
‘It’s here,’ says the girl. They’ve stopped in a vast empty warehouse whose shattered windows climb overhead. She’s pointing at the rungs of a ladder that descends into a gap in the floor. The Pilgrim stares at the shadows crawling up its sides.
‘What is that?’
‘Nothing you haven’t known all your life Pilgrim.’
She starts climbing down the ladder and for a moment her hair floats like she’s plunging into a sea. At the bottom the floor slopes steeply downwards. It reminds him of one of those pits you got in garage workshops except ten times bigger.
‘You want us to go down there?’
‘You can stay here if you like,’ answers Varya.
The Pilgrim looks around. It’s not much of a choice.
‘I know Pilgrim.’
She’s only a girl the Pilgrim reminds himself. She needs someone to look after her. It’s just in the feeble light he wishes he wasn’t about to follow someone whose teeth glinted quite so sharply.
It’s freezing on the ramp, and before long the Pilgrim needs something to take his mind off wondering why. The beam from his mobile follows trash clogged corridors that lead off on either side. That look is back on Varya’s face and she hasn’t stumbled once.
‘Why did you really kill him?’ says The Pilgrim.
‘He had something I’m going to need a lot of.’
He can’t see her eye’s, but he knows what will be in them if he does, same as when he’d seen Etta get hauled off.
‘That’s not a real answer.’
‘Alright people like me, like my family, we’re at war. He was in the way.’
‘You’re at war?’
She sighs. ‘Yes, we’ve been fighting here for centuries. I thought I was doing the right thing…I really did.’
‘So that’s why Dad’s got you down for the chop?’
‘I was stupid enough not to listen to him when he warned me. Instead I went for them. It was the wrong type of warmth.’
‘It’s best you don’t know Pilgrim, trust me.’
The noise robs him of any complaint Pilgrim had been about to make. It’s the sound of something the world above has forgotten and it’s not happy. They’ve been walking for a while now and with each step the ramp has grown more untouched. Even the marks left by vandals have vanished. The Pilgrim found himself imagining what would happen if the torch went out a lot.
‘It’s just trying to scare us off,’ comes Varya’s voice right by his ear. ‘We never did catch it.’
Whatever it is it’s huge. Grit patters off his head as the earth shakes and his phone isn’t coming back on no matter how much he shakes it. When something brushes along his shoulder, he pulls it back…fast. He hopes it’s Varya. The Pilgrim can’t see a thing; not even the sides of the burrow they’ve crawled into are visible.
‘Hush hold on to me,’ says Varya.
He grabs hold of the back of her jacket marvelling that his mind can still think of what’s underneath even at a time like this, and steps after her. Varya doesn’t pause and when the light does return it reminds him of the yard he’d left at the start of the journey.
They’re in a huge open space; although it’s not empty. There’s a sled lined with metal stanchions. The Pilgrim peers closer, the frame’s shaped like old men and the whole thing is sat on tracks like an engine. But it’s not them that draws the eye. The capstan in front of them is the width of a merry go round although it doesn’t rise much past his shoulders, and it’s black like it’s made of iron.
‘Don’t stare,’ says Varya. ‘They don’t like it.’
‘Not bloody likely.’
The Pilgrim has no intention of getting closer as one of those old men speaks with a voice as metal as what he’s made of.
‘Varya? You’ve been a long time.’
‘Father…you look worse,’ says Varya.
‘A consequence of the bargain. I’m still here aren’t I? I see you’ve brought my replacement.’
‘I have. He is stronger,’ she shrugs her shoulders.
‘Does he love you?’ says the man.
Varya glances at the Pilgrim and nods, ‘It is the beginning.’
‘Does he know what he must do?’
She turns to The Pilgrim; and all he can think of is she’s so pale.
‘Will you help me catch it?’
The noise is back, and the Pilgrim is reminded of whale song. Up above him is an opening filled with stars and he sees the clouds twitch as a tale sends them roiling.
‘Why do I get the feeling that it’s not that simple?’ says The Pilgrim judging the distance to the spot they’d come in.
‘Because I must take something from you when you do.’
Her teeth are back on view, sharper now, and longer.
The Pilgrim shivers. It’s dropped ten degrees.
‘I knew I wasn’t that lucky. Go on.’
He stretches out his neck before he knows what he’s doing.
‘When did you realise?’ says Varya.
‘When we arrived.’
‘But you came with me anyway.’
The Pilgrim nods, ‘I lost something once. Maybe this will make up for it. But make it quick please.’
‘I promise,’ says Varya.
He steps toward the sled and the empty space that’s been waiting for him. When his feet are firmly planted, he feels her mouth close on him and she drinks until he feels like he could float.
‘Thank you,’ says the girl as she wipes her lips and the Pilgrim turns to metal same as the other stanchions.
‘You won’t have long,’ says her Father as the clouds above the ramp begin to move and the air fills with the cry again.
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