Best-selling author of 'Money Power Love', 'The Little Voice' and 'Occupied'.

JOSS SHELDON

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1. TAMSIN

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“Do you know why our village is called ‘Doomba’?” Papa Tamsin asked his eldest daughter. He was lying on a rug, surrounded by piles of cushions, and an assortment of empty mugs.

“No papa,” Tamsin replied. “I’ve always thought it was a bit of a silly name.”

“Silly!”

“Yes papa. It’s a silly word, ‘Doomba’.”

Papa Tamsin smiled.

He exhaled some apple flavoured smoke, stroked his chin, and passed a rosary bead between his fingers.

A candle flickered and a lantern gleamed.

“Do you know what doombas are?” He asked.

“No papa.”

“Well, that’s why you think Doomba is a silly name then!

“You see doombas are animals. They look a bit like foxes, but they have bright red stripes and pointy grey goatees. They’re ever so rare. But they’re special; they protect everyone who is lucky enough to see them!”

Tamsin giggled.

“Have you ever seen one?” She asked.

“Oh yes! Just the once though, many years ago, when I was the same age as you are now.”

“What was it like?”

“It was as wise as a monk, as wily as a raccoon, and as old as time itself. It looked me in the eye, winked, and then disappeared in a puff of smoke!

“I’ve never seen it since, but I’ve often felt its presence. Why, I do believe it’s still living up there in the hills. Perhaps you’ll see it one day, whilst you’re playing hide and seek.”

“Perhaps, papa. I’d like that. If a doomba is hiding in the hills, I’ll definitely find it. I’m the best at hide and seek!”

Papa Tamsin chuckled, sucked on his water pipe, and looked at his daughter. He smiled. The lines on his face deepened, and his prominent teeth poked out through his leathery lips.

“Many years ago, our clan lived in a village to the south. The land was fertile there. It brought forth juicy fruits and plump vegetables every single year.

“But our clan was as small as a cat’s forehead, and a bigger clan wanted our land. They howled like hyenas, charged at us with spears, and chased us all away. We had to flee to the hills, and hide in the long grass.

“It was there, after many hours had passed, that a little girl saw a doomba. That little girl had shiny black hair, chubby cheeks, and a tiny round nose. She looked just like you!

“Well, she looked at the doomba, and the doomba looked back at her. The doomba winked, and then it scuttled away.

“But the little girl didn’t let the doomba out of her sight. She stayed awake for a whole week, and followed the doomba wherever it went. She climbed hills, traversed gorges, and scaled snowy mountains. Our clan followed her, because they knew that doombas brought good luck.

“Well, after several days had passed, the doomba went to sleep in a beautiful valley. Our ancestors were exhausted, so they fell asleep as well. All they had were some clothes, grapes and bread. But they were happy, because they had survived.

“And so they had happy dreams. They dreamt that the valley they discovered would become a prosperous village, filled with their descendants.

“They slept for forty years!

“When they awoke, their bread and grapes were still by their side. But the doomba had gone, and a village had grown up around them. They wiped the sleep from their eyes, and fell in love with that place, which stretched from the mountains in the east to the sea in the west.

“That village was named ‘Doomba’, after the animal which had led them there. And we’ve lived in this Garden of Eden ever since!”

Tamsin gazed up at her father in awe.

She loved spending time with him in that tent, which was affixed to the side of her family’s home. And she loved attending to his guests; replenishing the coals in their water pipe, serving them homemade beer, and handing them quilted cushions.

Those men visited Papa Tamsin every evening. They played cards until their pockets were empty. They smoked until their eyes were red. And they talked until their throats were dry.

Tamsin enjoyed their conversations. There was no school in her village, so the stories she heard were her sole form of education. They were lessons in the sort of history which was only written down in the minds of old men.

“But our lands don’t stretch to the sea, papa,” she challenged.

“That’s true,” Papa Tamsin chuckled. “Not anymore.”

Tamsin gazed up at her father, a wizened man who smelt of tea and tobacco. His body was shaped like a Coca Cola bottle, and his face was perfectly ageless. It was neither young nor old. Papa Tamsin could have been twenty, or fifty, or eighty. Tamsin could not be sure.

“What happened, papa?” She asked.

“Well, in the past, there weren’t any policemen here. There weren’t prisons, courts or judges. There wasn’t a government. We didn’t need it. We policed ourselves, without any outside interference.

“The only time that proved problematic, was when conflicts arose with neighbouring villages.

“Well, one day, many years ago, three thieves from a neighbouring village broke into a peasant’s house. The peasant caught those thieves red-handed! He snuck up behind one of them, and slit his throat with a scythe. Blood squirted everywhere, and his voice box fell out of his neck!

“That murder put Doomba in a great deal of danger. The neighbouring villagers were planning to kill a member of our clan to avenge their loss. They were demanding ‘A life for a life’, to settle that ‘Blood Debt’.

“So our elders arranged a peace meeting. And, after many days of heated negotiations, they agreed to pay a hundred gold pieces as compensation.

“Our clan didn’t have that sort of money, but our elders were determined to pay. They didn’t want any more blood to be spilt. So they sold the land nearest to the sea to some Holies for one hundred gold pieces, and gave that money to our neighbours.

“That is why our lands no longer reach the sea.”

Papa Tamsin thought he had answered his daughter’s question, and was about to retire to bed. But Tamsin had other ideas.

“Surely that land belonged to members of our clan,” she challenged. “What right did the elders have to sell it?”

Tamsin stared at her father with eager eyes.

A lantern flickered and flashed.

Papa Tamsin ruffled his daughter’s hair.

“You really are an inquisitive one, aren’t you?” He said.

Tamsin did not respond.

“Well, back then no-one owned the land. The land belonged to everyone. Each man was free to farm whatever land he wanted, as long as no-one else was farming it already. So no-one became rich, but no-one became poor. God provided for all.

“Private ownership was only imposed on us when we were colonised. The Colonisers allocated parcels of land to each villager, so they could collect a land tax.

“We still pay that tax today, although our money is never invested here. The Colonisers keep it all to themselves. But that’s another story for another time.”

 

* * *

 

When she was not listening to her father’s stories, Tamsin played games. And when she was not playing games, she worked. Everyone in Doomba worked, from the day they were born till the day they died.

In the summer, men cut the grain, women gathered it into bundles, elders threshed it, and children sifted out the chaff. The men harvested vegetables, and the women dried them in the sun. The children picked fruit, and the elders preserved it.

In the spring they planted crops. The men ploughed the land, the women uprooted the weeds, and the children sowed the seeds. In the winter the men helped to build each other’s homes, and the elders made baskets out of dried reeds. The children collected firewood, whilst the women cooked traditional meals.

Even the animals had jobs. Horses pulled ploughs, chickens laid eggs, and dogs protected the village from wild animals. Only the cats lived a life of leisure.

Everyone had something to do, and no-one was ever idle. The work was hard, the adults often worked from sunrise to sunset, but people were happy. They were their own bosses, no-one ever told them what to do, and they produced almost everything they needed.

Most work was done collectively, but everyone had individual responsibilities too. There was the Midwife, who called her house ‘The Department of Life’, on account of the copious amount of births which took place in Doomba each year. There was the Medicine Man who, with help from the voices inside his head, used a mixture of witchcraft and wizardry to chase evil spirits away. And there was the Humpbacked Priest, a member of the Godly religion, who evoked God’s blessings on behalf of all the villagers.

It was Tamsin’s job to get up early each morning, whilst the stars were still in the sky, and milk her family’s yaks. When she finished, she slapped those animals’ bottoms. They ran off into the woods, where they dined on a feast of weeds and wild flowers.

The yaks were well disciplined animals, who returned to Doomba at four o’clock each evening. They stood in an orderly line, and waited to be milked again. Then they made their way back into Tamsin’s house, where they lived alongside Tamsin’s family.

Tamsin never had any problems with those powerful beasts. She even gave them names. Her favourite was called ‘Stripy’, on account of the two stripes which ran around her belly. The others were called ‘Tilly’, ‘Misty’ and ‘Tiger’.

Tamsin had one other job. She collected water from Doomba’s spring several times each day. She put it in a terracotta pot, which she carried on her head.

Everyone said that Doomba’s spring was magical, that its water could cure headaches, backaches and toothaches. Some people said it could cure any sort of ache. Papa Tamsin said it had a story of its own.

“When our clan first came to Doomba, there wasn’t a single spring nearby,” he told Tamsin one night. “Our forefathers had to walk several miles to get water.

“Well, at that time, two young men were competing to marry a beautiful maiden. One of them shot an arrow at his foe!

“But his arrow missed. It hit the leather water sack his foe was carrying. That sack split. Water gushed out, and poured over the rockface.

“The water continued to flow. It never stopped flowing! It formed the spring we use today.

“But as a result of that sorry affair, love marriages were banned in Doomba. These days, marriages have to be arranged.”

Papa Tamsin seemed to have a story for everything in Doomba. For the peach trees, which flowered pinkish white, and the air which smelt of sweet tea. For the wild daisies, which sprouted in olive groves, and the views which looked like a painting. His ancestors had lived in Doomba for so long, his clan had become part of the scenery, and the villagers knew about every inch of the land.

Tamsin loved that land. She loved the shade cast by the village pomegranate tree, whose branches spread out like an umbrella. She loved the springtime sunsets, which brought clouds with mauve underbellies, and horizons which smelt of ginger. She loved the purple flowers which carpeted Doomba’s orchards, the bees who searched for pollen, and the white butterflies who swarmed overhead.

But most of all, Tamsin loved to play games.

She dressed up in her mother’s clothes, which were way too big for her. She put on her mother’s dress back to front, and turned her cap the wrong way round. She invented tales, which she acted out to her younger siblings, using dolls made from twigs. She played tag with her friends. And she chased them with a rash-inducing sap, which she extracted from wild cacti.

The children were not the only people who played games in Doomba. Each week the adults had an afternoon off, when they joined in the fun. The girls took on the boys in choreographed bouts of tug of war, and won as often as they lost. Then the adults wrestled.

Tamsin always cheered for her mother, Mama Tamsin, who was one of the best wrestlers in the village. She was a stout woman, who had wide shoulders and cobalt eyes. Her movements were large and balanced, like those of a wild gazelle. And her skin was as craggy as a gorge.

The other villagers cheered as well. They had good reason to. Before the wrestling began, everyone put walnuts, apricots and apples, into a large wooden bowl. If the women won, they got to share those prizes. But if the men won, they took the spoils.

Yet of all the games Tamsin played, hide and seek was her favourite. It allowed her to discover every inch of her village.

Tamsin hid in Doomba’s fields, orchards and caves. She climbed trees, slinked between plants, and crouched behind rocks. She stood still and silent for minutes on end, whilst her friends struggled to find her. She anticipated their every move, and snuck away whenever she was about to be caught.

“Papa! Papa!” She yelled when she returned home. “I won again! No-one can catch me! Won’t you come and play with us next time? If anyone can find me, it’ll be you. I love you papa. You’re the best!”

“Now come on,” Mama Tamsin interrupted. “Your daddy is a busy man. He doesn’t have time for children’s games.”

That rebuttal did not stop Tamsin from playing with her friends. Nor did it stop her from meeting other adults whilst she played. She met the locals, and she met people like the Bedouin; a man who had a flowing white beard, and a flowing white gown.

The Bedouin led a simple life. He meditated in his cave, brewed tea in a blackened pot, and played his oud whilst his goats wandered off on their own. Occasionally he visited Doomba, to exchange meat and wool for grain. But he spent most of his time in the hills, where he lived with his tribe, in a tent made from yaks’ fur.

Tamsin could not understand how the Bedouin could be happy without a permanent home. It was not because her house was a palace. It wasn’t. It consisted of one large room, with an annex for the animals. Wooden beams supported a thatched roof. The walls were made from stones, mud and leaves. But Tamsin’s home offered her family a sense of security which the Bedouin, she reasoned, must have craved.

“Don’t you want to live in a proper house?” She asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“Because I like moving around. It makes me feel free.

“I live wherever I choose. The whole planet is my home! No government can rule me! No border can box me in!”

“Oh,” Tamsin replied.

She fidgeted with a piece of grass, looked up at a soaring eagle, and changed the subject.

“My papa never plays hide and seek with me,” she mused.

The Bedouin looked at Tamsin and smiled.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “Be happy!”

“Don’t worry, be happy?”

“Don’t worry, be happy!”

The Bedouin sipped some tea, tilted his head, and closed his eyes.

 

* * *

 

Tamsin filled her father’s water pipe with apple flavoured tobacco, and added some glowing embers from the fire. She passed the mouthpiece to the Medicine Man, who put it to his lips.

Those lips were stretched taut. The whole of the Medicine Man’s face was stretched taut. His skin clung so tightly to his bones, he wore a permanent look of bewilderment. But Tamsin could still tell that he was in a crabby mood.

He had spent the whole day sucking the life out of a corpse.

That corpse had woken in the middle of the night. It had sat by the fire, and smoked a pipe. So his Widow had called the Medicine Man for assistance.

The Medicine Man had hit the corpse’s torso with a yak’s shinbone, clamped his lips onto the corpse’s mouth, and sucked.

After many hours, the corpse’s blood had shot out of its mouth. It looked like a devilish fountain.

The Medicine Man drew some spiritual motifs on a piece of parchment, dissolved it in vinegar, and gave it to the Widow to drink. He only left when the Widow was calm.

But, having made it to Papa Tamsin’s tent, the Medicine Man was far from calm himself.

“The Humpbacked Priest was there as usual, muttering to himself and bickering,” he complained. “He said the corpse should have been cut into little pieces and fed to the eagles.

“But what does he know? He thinks he can connect with the spirit world, just because he carries a Godly book. The man can’t even read!

“If he’d gotten his way, he’d have created a ghoul which would have haunted our village forever. I tell you, there’s no place for men like that in Doomba, with their Godly books and their temples and their prophets. Pfft! Whatever next?”

Papa Tamsin comforted the Medicine Man. He shared his homemade beer. And he greeted each new guest who arrived.

A Frail Elder said, “May all auspicious signs come to this tent.”

A Skinny Villager said, “I salute the God within you.”

And a Stout Villager said, “Peace be upon you.”

Everyone wore baggy trousers and tight-fitting plimsolls. Everyone lounged around a shimmering fire. And everyone shared the water pipe.

It did not take long for the Singer to break into a series of odes. Sweet notes filled the air, and melodies danced from wall to wall.

“This is the cradle of civilisation,” that small-headed man crooned. “We’ve been here as long as the sun, and longer than the stars. Our clan is as old as time itself!”

The evening continued on as normal, until the Midwife’s Husband entered. His frazzled hands trembled as they scratched his mottled skin. His constricted eyes flickered beneath his sweaty brow. And his lips quivered as he opened his mouth to speak.

“The Colonisers have lost their war,” he said in a whispered hush. “The Colonialists are splitting up their empire. They’re going to give our land to the Holies!”

The Skinny Villager dropped the water pipe.

The Frail Elder spilled his beer.

The Singer stared at Papa Tamsin.

“They’ve wanted our land for years,” he replied. “They want our oil, minerals and gold.”

“They want our magnesium,” the Medicine Man concurred. “Don’t forget the magnesium. Our magnesium has magical powers!”

“I don’t believe it,” Papa Tamsin disputed. “The Holies by the sea have been our friends for eight generations. They eat our food, wear our clothes, and speak our language. They buy our fruit and sell us their fertilizer. Their fertilizer is the best! No, they wouldn’t harm us.”

Papa Tamsin’s comments earned a murmur of approval.

The Skinny Villager picked up the water pipe and passed it along. The Midwife’s Husband stoked the fire. And Tamsin grinned. Even the Singer nodded in agreement.

“I remember when one of their priests came from abroad to survey our valley,” the Frail Elder concurred. “He said he’d tell his people, ‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man’. He realised that this land belongs to us.”

“Yes, that’s true,” the Midwife’s Husband explained. “But the Colonialists have promised our land to the Holies. Their diplomats have signed a declaration. They’re going to create a new country called ‘Protokia’.”

“Protokia?” The Skinny Villager mocked. “Pfft! Don’t be so silly. What sort of a name is that?

“What right does some foreign diplomat have to give our land away? The Holies only represent five percent of the population. They’ll never be able to rule us. They don’t have any right to our land. They’ve only been here for a couple of hundred years.”

“They’re claiming that their descendants lived here thousands of years ago,” the Midwife’s Husband explained.

“I heard we share the same ancestors,” the Singer added. “We’re all brothers, cut from the same cloth. We’re distant cousins!”

“Piffle!” The Frail Elder retorted. “Most of them descend from converts.

“My grandfather remembered the day they first arrived. He said they were a right motley bunch. A real gang of strangers from a million different nations. They only settled here because we helped them.”

The Frail Elder shook his head.

The Midwife’s Husband tutted.

The Singer rolled his eyes.

The water pipe went out, the fire fizzled, and stray cats meowed.

The tent fell into a state of eerie silence.

Only the Medicine Man had the energy to speak.

“They want our magnesium,” he repeated. “Our magnesium has magical powers!”

 

* * *

 

Tamsin did not say a single word that evening. She went to bed in a silent state of fear and confusion. She feared her clan might be driven out of Doomba, and she was confused because all the Holies she knew were nice.

She saw the Holies whenever she went fishing in the sea, and she knew the Rotund Holy who sold fertiliser to her father. He was a welcoming man, who looked a bit like Father Christmas.

“He’s an orphan,” Papa Tamsin had told her. “We found him wandering around the hills, when he was just four years old.

“Well, I was five at the time, so he was like a little brother to me. We treated him like a brother too. Everything we did, he did with us. He picked tomatoes, just like you do, and he played hide and seek as well.

“Our family fostered him for three years in all. Then, when he was seven, he was adopted by the Holies who live near the sea. Your Grandpa thought it would be good for him to live with his own people. But we’ve stayed friends ever since. He’s a good man.”

Tamsin called the Rotund Holy ‘Uncle’. To her he was her uncle. He brought her sweets for her birthday, ruffled her hair, and amazed her with his magic tricks. It didn’t matter that he was a Holy and she was a Godly, as far as she was concerned they were family.

So she could not understand why his clan would want to take her land. She was so confused, that she started to feel queasy.

She could barely sleep that night. When sleep did come, nightmares came with it. She saw a holy army of God’s soldiers goose-stepping towards her, pounding holy books against their breasts, and firing bullets of fire from their eyes. She saw a cloud of bats descend from the skies, with blood dripping from their teeth, and acid spraying from their spiny wings. She saw squadrons of bears with claws like daggers, battalions of witches with long tangled nails, and legions of demented tigers with heads which spun right around.

She woke up in cold sweats, she shook, and she shivered.

She continued to shake whilst she milked the yaks the next morning. And she continued to shiver whilst she worked in the fields.

She remained silent too, until she finally got Papa Tamsin alone. They sat beneath an oak tree and ate a homemade lunch, whilst the other villagers harvested some carrots.

“Are the Holies going to take Doomba from us?” She asked.

It was the first thing she had said all day.

“What? Hahaha!!!” Papa Tamsin laughed. “The Holies take Doomba from us? Hahaha!!! That’s hilarious. The Holies taking Doomba? Whatever next? You do make me laugh.”

He pulled Tamsin to his breast.

“But your friends were talking about it last night, papa,” Tamsin protested. “I heard everything they said.”

“Oh Tamsin, you are silly! Did you really think they were being serious?”

Tamsin paused. She did not want to seem naive.

“No papa,” she replied. “I’m not stupid. But I couldn’t work out why they were saying all those things. It was awfully strange.”

“They were starting the snake game,” her father explained.  “It’s the game we play whenever the snake festival comes around.”

“Oh,” Tamsin replied. She looked embarrassed.

Papa Tamsin chuckled, stroked his daughter’s hair, and sprinkled some walnuts over his grape molasses. He looked across the fields, down the valley, towards the sea. He could see the Holies’ village in the distance. He could see their temples, tents and trees.

“Do you know the story behind the snake festival?” He asked.

Tamsin shook her head.

“Well, it happened a long time ago, back when Doomba was just an empty valley.

“Back then, a nasty king ruled the land. That king was barely human. He had claws instead of toes, scales instead of skin, and snakes instead of arms!

“The king’s cook had to catch two children every day, chop off their heads, and feed their brains to those snakes. He served them in a soup made of blood, which was as red as pomegranate juice!

“But the cook was downhearted. He felt ever so guilty.

“Then an angel came to him in a dream. Her wings were made of candyfloss, and her halo was made of honeycomb! She told the cook to swap the children’s brains for goat brains. She said she’d protect him.

“The cook still caught two children each day, to keep up appearances, but he always let them go.

“‘Run to the hills,’ he told them. ‘You’ll be safe up there’.

“So two children escaped every day. They formed a community in the hills. They hid in the caves during the day, and foraged for food at night.

“Their community grew. And as it grew, it became stronger. The children wrestled, boxed, and armed themselves with swords.

“Then, when there were a thousand children in those hills, they ran down to the city together, swinging their swords in the air. They stormed the palace and slaughtered the nasty king. They cut the snakes from his shoulders, and threw them onto a giant bonfire!

“No child was ever killed by that despot again!”

Some worms peeked out of the muddy earth.

Some villagers uprooted carrots.

Some birds tweeted.

“Well, to commemorate that great victory, we recreate our ancestors’ story during the snake festival. The Holies play the part of the nasty king, and we play the part of the children. The Holies drive us up into the hills, and we hide in the caves. It’s a bit like an adult version of hide and seek!

“Everyone carries a juicy pomegranate. If you’re caught, you have to squash it with all your might, cover your brains with its juice, and fall to the ground in a heap. It’s most important that you lie there as still as you can, hold your breath, and pretend to be dead.

“Then, when a thousand clan members have found each other, we run down the hill together. We shout, we scream, and we drive the Holies out of our villages. Then we celebrate! We throw snakes onto a fire, sing, and have a giant feast.

“It’s great fun!”

Tamsin smirked. It all made sense to her. The previous day’s conversation was just an elaborate piece of theatre, setting the scene for the game which was to follow.

And what a game it was! Tamsin could not wait for it to start. She loved the thought of finally playing hide and seek with her father. But she did have one more question.

“Did a corpse really come to life yesterday?” She asked. “Or was that part of the snake game too?”

“That wasn’t part of the game,” Papa Tamsin replied. “But I don’t think it happened either. It did sound a little bit far-fetched!”

 

* * *

 

Tamsin felt an overwhelming sense of excitement as preparations for the snake game got underway. She was in awe of Doomba’s adults, who brought palpable a sense of realism to proceedings. She had to remind herself that they were only acting.

Some villagers had grey sacks under their eyes. Others wore a look of hollow despair. A Young Mother ripped clumps of hair from her head.

The Humpbacked Priest spent hours praying. He turned the pages of his Godly bible, and pretended to read. The Medicine Man went from house to house. He sprinkled every wall with a mixture of ram’s blood and vinegar. And the Midwife woke up screaming in the middle of the night.

“It’s happening! It’s happening!” She shrieked. “I can hear the buzz of their machines. They have horses and trumpets and guns! They’re coming! They’re coming! They’re coming!”

But the buzzing she had heard did not come from horses, trumpets or guns. It did not come from the Holies at all. It came from the mosquitos who were out in force that night, sucking blood from people’s veins.

Tamsin scratched the bites which covered her arms. It created a rash which was so pink, it made her look like a flamingo.

“Stop that,” Papa Tamsin demanded. “You’ll scratch all your skin off!”

He took a long drag on his water pipe, blew apple flavoured smoke towards the roof, and looked across at the Midwife’s Husband.

“I think we should form a village guard,” he said.

“We should defend our village,” the Skinny Villager agreed. “But we shouldn’t be the first to fire. We’re not the ones who want a war.”

Everyone nodded.

“All this talk of fighting is a little melodramatic,” the Frail Elder retorted. “Our first priority should be to ensure we have enough food and supplies. We could be under siege for weeks. We don’t want to starve.”

Everyone nodded again.

“We harvested the carrots today,” the Medicine Man replied. “We’ll harvest the cabbages tomorrow. Our stores are already full of grain.”

“We can use those sacks of grain to protect our windows,” the Skinny Villager mused.

“For sure,” the Stout Villager agreed. “And I sold a yak yesterday. I’ll use the money I received to buy rice, sugar, juice, chocolates and candies. There’ll be enough food to supply a feast.”

Papa Tamsin looked at his daughter and smiled.

“I told you there’d be a feast,” he whispered. “Just you wait and see!”

Tamsin gave her father a cheeky wink, buried her head in her hands and giggled.

 

* * *

 

The whole of Doomba was busy with preparations the next day. The women piled sacks of grain in front of every window, the men harvested every vegetable they could find, and the elders guarded every path in the village.

The Stout Villager went off to buy sweet treats. He returned with a rifle and eight bullets.

And Tamsin told the other children about the snake game. But an awkward boy called Jon, who had buckteeth and wonky eyes, stared back at her and scoffed.

“That’s silly,” he said. “Everyone knows the Holies are going to attack us. Adults don’t play games.”

“You’re silly,” Tamsin replied. “Everyone knows the Holies are our friends. They’d never attack us.”

The other children looked at Tamsin. Then they looked at Jon. They scratched their heads, and shrugged their shoulders.

“You must know the story,” Tamsin challenged. “You must know about the king who had snakes for arms, and the angel who had a halo made out of honeycomb.”

Jon turned white.

“No?” Tamsin teased. “What, are you a bit stupid? Pfft! You’re such an idiot, you give the word ‘stupid’ a whole new meaning!”

Tamsin smirked. She knew she had taken control.

She looked at her peers, took a bite from her apple, and then told her father’s tale. By the time she had finished, Doomba’s children were hanging on her every word.

A Spotty Boy trembled with excitement.

A Freckled Girl sucked her teeth.

Tamsin wagged her finger.

“But the adults have forgotten one thing,” she concluded. “They’ve forgotten to collect their pomegranates.”

So Tamsin led her friends to Doomba’s pomegranate tree. They climbed onto each other’s shoulders, and picked every piece of fruit. Then they split up into pairs, and handed that fruit to each adult they met.

Most villagers took a pomegranate, said ‘Thank-you’, and continued on with their work. Others politely refused. Only the Humpbacked Priest kicked up a fuss.

“I don’t want any of your fusty pomegranates,” he wailed at Tamsin. “The Holies are coming! The Holies are coming! Oi vey! I don’t have any time for rotting fruit.”

The Humpbacked Priest was right. The Holies were coming. They were marching over the horizon.

There were hundreds of them. They all had guns, which the Occupiers had left behind. And they all had a supply of bullets.

They all marched, side by side, behind a solitary tank.

Tamsin was awestruck.

She knew the Holies had a car, a battered old Fort Model Tea, but she had never seen their tank. She did not even know what a tank was. It looked like a mythical beast to her. It had the arced shell of an armadillo, the long pointy snout of an anteater, and the clunky movement of a caterpillar.

Tamsin watched it with wonder. And she watched the Holies with a sense of awe. From her position, hundreds of metres away, it seemed that they had all dressed up like the nasty king. Their armour looked like scales, and their boots looked like claws. The rounds of ammunition, which hung from their shoulders, looked a little bit like snakes.

When the Holies fired bullets into the air, it gave Tamsin an enormous thrill. She thought they were setting off fireworks. And when they entered her village, she knew the game was on.

“Stop staring little girl,” the Humpbacked Priest scolded. “We need to run to the hills. Come on babushka. Get moving! We’ll be safe up there. It’ll only be for a day.”

“I know,” Tamsin replied. “We won’t be there for long. As soon as a thousand of us have gathered, we’ll charge down the hill and chase the Holies away!”

The Humpbacked Priest grabbed Tamsin’s hand, and ran with a jerky sort of movement. His right leg took longer steps than his left leg, and his stoop made his torso bob. But he still managed to pick up some speed. Tamsin had to sprint, just to keep up.

She sprinted through Doombas fields, which looked like giant rainbows. A different crop was planted along each furrow. Red tomato plants sat next to orange wheat, yellow sunflowers, green corn, purple aubergines, and pink grapes.

She ran past the Midwife’s house, where the sign which read ‘Department of Life’, was dangling from one corner. Past the pomegranate tree, which looked naked without its fruit. And past the Skinny Villager, who was standing firm.

“Come! Come with us!” Tamsin shouted. “The Holies will see you.”

“I don’t care if they see me,” the Skinny Villager replied. “I’d rather die than leave Doomba. This is our home, and I’ll protect it with my life!”

The Humpbacked Priest dragged Tamsin on before she could reply. He dragged her past a horse, who was eating tiny yellow flowers. Past large tracts of barley, which shimmered in the early afternoon sun. And past Doomba’s spring, which had dried up for the first time in centuries.

They ran alongside villagers who bumped into each other, and tripped over their own feet. They ran along muddy paths, over thorny brambles, and around rocky boulders.

They came together at a point where many paths met.

“Tamsin!” Papa Tamsin called. “Tamsin! Over here!”

Tamsin pulled away from the Humpbacked Priest, and ran to her father, who was carrying two of his other children.

“Papa!” She cried. “This is so much fun! Let’s go before we get caught. The Holies will be able to see us here, we need to run for cover.”

Papa Tamsin smiled, ruffled his daughter’s hair, and led his family on. They traipsed through sodden bogs. They trudged through marshy fields. And, after several muddy minutes, they finally reached the next valley.

They faced another line of hills, each of which was bigger than the last. And they faced a line of mountains, each of which looked like a crouching giant.

Heather fluttered in the breeze, which blew pollen in every direction. Audacious plants clung to the sides of jagged cliffs. And tangled weeds battled with defiant boulders.

The escapees found refuge in an ancient cavern.

Tamsin counted them.

“One. Two. Three. Four…”

She counted every single person.

“Three hundred and sixty three. Three hundred and sixty four.”

She looked around and waited, but no-one else arrived.

 

* * *

 

The children played cops and robbers that afternoon. They ran around the hillside, and had the time of their lives. When the sun began to set, they found shelter in a bears’ den. They played draughts, using stones for pieces, and a board they drew in the dust. It was pitch black by the time their parents called them back into the main cavern.

The fires which were dotted around that cave created an eerie glow. People’s faces flickered into sight, and then vanished back into the darkness. A drip supplied an irregular beat, which reverberated off the uneven walls. Insects scuttled between their unexpected visitors.

Tamsin counted the escapees once again.

“Three hundred and seventy three. Three hundred and seventy four.”

Tamsin’s belly rumbled.

“I’m starving, papa,” she complained. “It’s freezing up here. Don’t we have any food or blankets? I didn’t think the snake game would take this long.”

“No-one thought it’d take this long,” Papa Tamsin replied. “The Holies played us really well. They caught us completely off guard! No-one had the time to grab any food or blankets.”

“But I’m hungry, papa. I’m really cold.”

“We all are, but that’s part of the challenge.

“Our ancestors got cold and hungry when they ran away from the nasty king. We have to suffer like they did, up here in the hills.

“But don’t you worry, we always win in the end. It’s written in the rules. We just need to gather a thousand villagers. Then we’ll have a great feast, and warm up by a roaring fire. Just you wait and see!”

Tamsin nodded. She kissed her father, curled up into a ball, and fell asleep at his feet.

She was snoring like a wart hog when the Singer arrived, out of breath, and smelling of stale poo. His odour was so putrid, the other villagers had to cover their noses.

“I was in the village toilet when the Holies came,” he explained. “The Holies stood outside, so I couldn’t leave. But I could see them through the gaps in the wooden door. I could see a Holy walking towards me!”

The Singer shook his head. There was a look of shame on his face, and a look of horror in his eyes.

The rest of the escapees inched closer.

A beetle sat down by the Singer’s foot.

“What could I do?” He begged. “What choice did I have?

“I unlatched the door and jumped into the cesspit. The sewage reached my waist. It came up my trouser legs and filled my pants.

“The Holy squatted down above me. His diarrhoea was like a shower. It washed right over my hair.”

The escapees bowed their heads.

The Midwife tutted.

Mama Tamsin patted the Singer’s back.

“That’s terrible!” She said.

“That’s nothing! Not compared to what they did to Doomba.”

The sound of a howling wolf echoed across the valley.

The escapees all held their breath.

The Singer looked down at his groin.

When he lifted his head, he saw hundreds of eager eyes staring back at him. The cavern was silent. It was completely still. The fires no longer flickered, and the water no longer dripped.

The Singer shook his head.

“What happened?” His wife finally asked.

The Singer slouched.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I heard the gunfire. It sounded like chickpeas popping in a pan; rapid and high pitched. I heard the screams. And then I heard the silence. It was deafening.”

The Singer looked up at the villagers and down at the floor.

A bat flapped its leathery wings.

A star twinkled in the sky.

“I stayed in that cesspit for hours,” the Singer continued. “I only left when I was sure the Holies had gone.

“The first thing that hit me was the smell. Ugh! It made the cesspit seem like a princess’s boudoir.

“That smell was so strong, I could taste it. It was nauseating. It brought bile to my mouth and tears to my eyes. That smell of boiling human blood and scorched human flesh. That smell of fire and brimstone, which still lingers in my nostrils. That smell of kerosene, which made me vomit. Which made me choke up little pieces of my stomach, and fall to the ground in pain.”

The Singer wiped a tear from his eye.

“I walked through Doomba’s streets, between burning barns and burning homes, dead yaks and dead dogs.

“And then I saw it. That giant pyre. That glowing pyramid of human flesh and bones. With legs sticking out here, and arms sticking out there. With the dust of burnt human hair dancing on the flames. And with the Skinny Villager’s head. With its hollow eyes and its twisted mouth.”

The Singer stared at the opposite wall.

“Doomba is dead,” he sighed. “Our houses have been ransacked, our supplies have been stolen, and our animals have all been killed. The embers of our dreams have been blown away by the wind.”

A feather skipped across the floor.

A teardrop landed in the dust.

A spider buried its head.

The Singer looked at Papa Tamsin. Almost everyone looked at Papa Tamsin. But Papa Tamsin was lost for words.

“We need to get out of here,” he finally whispered. “If we can make it beyond the mountains we’ll be safe.”

Everyone nodded.

Everyone shrugged.

Everyone went to sleep.

 

* * *

 

“I think we need to get out of here,” Tamsin said the next morning.

Her comment took Papa Tamsin by surprise.

“Why is that?” He asked.

“The other villagers must have run to the opposite side of the valley,” she explained. “We won’t be able to reach them without getting caught. So we’d be better off heading towards the mountains. We’ll be able to find some more Godlies over there.”

Papa Tamsin chuckled.

“I think you’re probably right,” he said. “I think we should head in that direction too.”

Papa Tamsin walked ahead and Tamsin followed. The other escapees walked behind. They traversed a narrow path which clung to the hillside.

When they looked up they saw mountains, and when they looked down they saw a craggy gorge. They passed rocks which were on the verge of rolling away, and trees which shot out towards the sky.

Tamsin took a berry from each bush they passed, and left the rest for the other escapees. Many of those villagers were struggling.

A Bony Villager dragged his twisted ankle along the ground. His shoe broke. He had to tie it together using long pieces of grass.

A Pink Baby was sick.

And a Blonde Girl was almost naked. Her shirt had been ripped from her torso as she ran from Doomba, and her feet were covered in blood. She had fled without getting the chance to put on her shoes.

After many hours had passed, they reached a mountain pool. A stream jumped off the cliff above it, and landed with a splash. A single water lily floated on its surface.

“I’ve been here before,” Papa Tamsin told his daughter. “I know all about this pool.

“If you look at it hard enough, and pray to it long enough, you can see the future in its waters!”

Tamsin giggled.

She stared at the pool. She used all her energy to focus on its glossy surface. She moved her head from left to right. And then she jumped up into the air. She wore a ginormous smile.

“I’ve seen it, papa,” she yelled. “I’ve seen the future!”

She had seen her father’s reflection. Papa Tamsin was stood behind her, holding a curvy stick in the air.

“I saw you in the water,” Tamsin shouted. “You were holding a curvy snake! I know what it means, papa. It means we’re going to win the snake game! It means you’re going to take a snake and throw it into a bonfire. We’re going to win, papa! We’re going to win!”

Tamsin was so confident, she skipped ahead without a care in the world. She did not feel hungry or cold that evening. And she was still smiling when she fell asleep that night.

 

* * *

 

The mood was mixed the following morning. Having put a day between themselves and Doomba, the villagers felt safer than before. No-one had seen a single Holy. But no-one had eaten a proper meal, and everyone was hungry.

Tamsin took the dock leaf she had just uprooted, put it in her mouth, and chewed. Its fuzzy surface tickled her tongue, and its bitter taste made her want to spit. She scrunched her lips together and winced.

Papa Tamsin slapped his own forehead.

“I think it’s time to move on,” he said.

“And where exactly would you have us schlep to?” The Humpbacked Priest challenged. He was sweating profusely. The Humpbacked Priest had a talent for sweating profusely. Beads of moisture covered his frog-like face. Sweat formed rivers between rolls of his neck-fat. And water dripped from his hairy nostrils.

Papa Tamsin looked around. He could see the path which led back to Doomba, but he could not see a path which would take them any further. They had reached a dead end.

Papa Tamsin looked around again. He saw a line of fir trees. He saw the mountains in the distance. And he saw the Spotty Boy, who was stroking a yak, which had a giant white dot on its nose.

“Where did that come from?” He asked.

“I don’t know,” the Spotty Boy replied. “She was here when I woke up this morning. Do you think we should eat her?”

“Let’s eat her,” the Midwife cried.

“It’s a gift from God almighty, hallowed be his name,” the Humpbacked Priest cheered.

“Hunger be damned,” the Singer chanted.

Papa Tamsin looked around again.

“Hold on one minute,” he said.

He walked up to the yak, and slapped her bottom. The yak turned her head, grunted, and wandered off.

“This way,” Papa Tamsin said.

“You’re mad,” the Humpbacked Priest chided. “You’re a crazy yutz! A gonef! An amoretz!”

“Do you have any better ideas?” Papa Tamsin asked.

The Humpbacked Priest could not reply.

So the villagers got up, stretched their legs, and followed the yak.

The yak made her way around one hill and over another. By midday she had led the villagers above the tree line. And by sunset, she had led them over another three peaks.

Those hills were all covered in a rambling mesh of thorny bushes and prickly thickets. But the yak crushed those plants beneath her hooves, which created a path for Doomba’s villagers.

The Blonde Girl had to be carried. Her bare feet had been cut to shreds by the thorns. The Bony Villager, who had a twisted ankle, stayed behind. And the other villagers plodded along at a snail’s pace.

They did not see another soul until a Bearded Elder appeared on the hillside. That man had a hairy big toe, which stuck out of a hole in his shoe, and tousled hair which was caked with grey dust.

“There you are Dot!” He shouted. “Four o’clock! Just like normal! I thought we’d lost you when you didn’t come home last night. I guess the Holies must have really shaken you up.”

Tamsin had never seen that man before. She had never seen any of the people who came into view as she circled that hill. They were not from Doomba. But she was certainly glad to see them, even if they did all seem slightly strange.

An Elderly Spinster scooped up muddy water, and drank it down with real gusto. A Scabby Refugee shovelled bits of dirt into his mouth. And a Chubby Girl rocked back and forth.

“Five hundred and thirteen,” Tamsin counted. “Five hundred and fourteen.”

She ran off to find Papa Tamsin.

“Papa! Papa! Papa!” She shouted. “There are five hundred and fifteen of us now. We’re more than halfway there!”

“That’s nice,” Papa Tamsin replied.

He ruffled his daughter’s hair.

“I’ve just arranged our dinner.”

Papa Tamsin had spent the previous half hour persuading the Bearded Elder to sacrifice Dot, his last remaining yak. The Bearded Elder had finally succumbed to Papa Tamsin’s charms. And so they roasted Dot over a wood fire, and ate her flesh with some wild nettles.

That meal lifted the escapees’ spirits for the first time in days. The Singer sung sweet odes, the Humpbacked Priest gave thanks to the Lord, and Uncle Tamsin decided to get married.

“My parents chose my bride months ago,” he explained. “I was supposed to get married in Doomba today. Well I’m not going to let the Holies scupper my plans. Bugger that! Our lives must go on!”

“That’s the spirit!” The Bearded Elder cheered.

“You tell ‘em!” The Singer called.

“You go boy!” The Medicine Man chanted.

He walked away from the crowd, threw a rock in the air, and spat at the sky.

Everyone stared at him.

“Well someone had to scare off the ghosts and evil spirits,” he said. “And it wasn’t as if any of you were going to do it.”

There was a brief moment of silence. Then the crowd replied with a mixture of nods, shrugs, and approving gestures.

The Humpbacked Priest shook his head.

“Bloody Medicine Man,” he muttered. “What does that schmuck know?”

Uncle Tamsin and Auntie Tamsin exchanged glances.

Tamsin shed a tear. Mama Tamsin snivelled. And the Singer wept with joy.

The Humpbacked Priest hobbled to the front. He stopped to rub his bent back, picked some wild heather, and set it on fire.

“Let these scents release Auntie Tamsin from her protective deities,” he said. “And bring her into the protection of her husband’s angels.”

The Bride’s Father and the Groom’s Father walked to the front.

They embraced.

“I am happy to give my daughter to your son,” the Bride’s Father said.

“I am happy to receive your daughter into my family,” the Groom’s Father replied.

The Humpbacked Priest smiled.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” he said. “Mazel tov!”

Everyone cheered. Everyone clapped, chanted, and threw leaves into the air. The Singer sang. A group of women danced together in fits and starts. A Seductive Refugee shimmied with gyrating hips, wobbling breasts, and come-hither eyes. Little girls tried to copy her. And the men talked amongst themselves.

They continued to talk long after the children had fallen asleep.

“The Holies let us escape,” the Bearded Elder said. “Dot was in the forest at the time, so we picked her up on the way. But we had to leave our other possessions behind. Oh, I do hope our village is okay.”

“I wouldn’t hold out too much hope,” the Singer replied. “The Holies are burning every village they take. They’re burning our homes, animals and tools. They want to make sure we never return.”

“I heard they’re lining villagers up, shooting them, and burying them in mass graves,” a Curvaceous Refugee added.

“I heard they’re stripping villagers naked, and hanging them from trees,” a Petite Refugee concurred.

“I heard they’re throwing villagers into acid wells,” a Suntanned Refugee agreed.

They all tutted.

“But it’ll all be okay in the end,” Papa Tamsin consoled. “Twenty two neighbouring countries all follow the Godly religion. It won’t be long before they declare war on the Holies. Our neighbours will save us! We will return home! This land is ours!”

 

* * *

 

The refugees set off early the next morning, and walked along a path which was older than time itself. The views were majestic.

Golden mists cuddled silver mountains. Candy floss shrubs grew from chocolate soil. Butterflies swam through the sky, and eagles surfed on the clouds.

Tamsin watched on in a state of wonderment, as Mother Nature revealed her naked body. As tiny yellow flowers turned to salute the sun. As gentle winds whistled ancient melodies. And as dandelion florets danced on the purple haze.

She found the tribal people they passed just as magical as the scenery. Stood there in the nude, or wearing animal skins, their faces seemed flat and their noses seemed thin. Their language sounded unsteady, and their movements seemed primeval.

Tamsin gave those people a wide berth, but she was not nearly so shy when she saw a grass snake. Her eyes lit up. Her pulse quickened. And she seized her opportunity.

She threw herself at that snake. She flew through the air, with her arms in front of her head.

But the snake was too quick for her. It slivered over a ridge, and slid down the other side the hill.

Tamsin ran after it.

She left the other refugees behind, and skidded down through an avalanche of scree. When the snake slinked between rocks, Tamsin skipped over them. When it slipped through a patch of shale, Tamsin gave chase. And when it turned into the next couloir, Tamsin swooped.

She dived through the air, and grabbed the snake with both hands. Her knee buckled as she landed. She stumbled and fell on her elbow. Blood streamed down her arm.

She grabbed a rock and smashed the snake’s head.

“Ouch!” She shouted.

She had caught her finger. Blood streamed down her other arm. But she was happy nonetheless. Capturing that snake had made her day.

She grinned.

A rat-a-tat-tat sound, which reminded Tamsin of fireworks, rang out below. Tamsin looked down and saw three Holies.

To her, they all looked like the nasty king. Their ammunition looked like snakes, and their bulletproof vests looked like scales. They were standing over some Godlies, who were covered in a red liquid, which looked a bit like pomegranate juice.

Tamsin’s pulse began to race. Her brow began to sweat, and her torso began to shake. Her heart beat so much, it felt like it was going to break through her ribcage.

Tamsin was Doomba’s hide and seek champion. She had a reputation to protect. And she would have died of embarrassment if she was caught.

But there was nowhere for her to hide, and the Holies were heading in her direction. So she decided to play dead.

She took her pomegranate and tried to juice it. But her pomegranate refused to break. So Tamsin put it in her mouth and bit its waxy skin. She bit down so hard, she chipped her tooth. A river of blood poured over her chin, and dripped down onto her muddy chest.

Frustrated and in pain, she took the pomegranate and smashed it over a rock. An explosion of sticky red liquid sprayed in every direction. It covered her stomach, mixed in with her blood, and stained the ground behind her.

Tamsin fell to the ground. She was exhausted. Her leg was bent backwards, her hair was a tangled mess, and her body was covered in a sticky mixture of blood and juice.

When the Holies reached her, Tamsin stopped breathing. Her diaphragm did not contract, and her lungs did not inflate. Her nose tingled, and her stomach tensed. Her throat became dry. She almost choked.

Time stood still.

The Holies stood still.

The sun stood still in the sky.

A Sunburnt Holy, whose chest hair peaked out of his vest, kicked some gravel at Tamsin. It ricocheted off her shin.

He stared at Tamsin for what felt like an eternity.

Tamsin’s head pulsated.

Then a Scabby Holy, who had a cut lip, trod down on Tamsin’s belly.

Blood dribbled out of Tamsin’s mouth, pomegranate juice trickled down her chest, and an ant climbed onto her wrist.

A Chunky Holy chewed a long piece of grass.

“Huh,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”

And so the Holies left as quickly as they had arrived. They skirted around the hillside, away from the other escapees.

Tamsin took a deep breath, and beamed with pride. No-one could catch her!

She lay there, still and silent, until the Holies were out of sight. Then she returned to her clan. She ran past the back markers, jinked between some elders, and finally reached her parents.

“Oh my God!” Mama Tamsin screamed. “What on earth happened to you?”

“The Holies were about to catch me, so I covered myself in pomegranate juice,” Tamsin panted. “I fooled those suckers! They thought I’d already been caught.”

Tamsin paused. She pawed her foot and bowed her head.

“Papa,” she asked. “Does that mean I lost the snake game?”

Mama Tamsin looked at her daughter with a look of ghostly horror.

Tamsin looked up at her father with puppy dog eyes.

Papa Tamsin chuckled.

“Did they capture you and take you back to their base?” He asked.

“No.”

“Well then how could you have possibly lost? If the Holies didn’t take you away, you’re still in the game!”

“I thought so, papa,” Tamsin cheered. “I knew I’d be okay. And look! I caught a snake for the fire!”

 

* * *

 

The long journey east started to take its toll, as days turned into nights, and nights turned into days.

The first person to perish was the Blonde Girl. Her father was so tired, he did not notice when she fell from his back. A search party spent hours looking for her, but she was nowhere to be seen.

The Singer’s Wife died the very next day. She had a stroke, which was brought on by a mixture of exhaustion and sorrow. The thought of living anywhere other than Doomba was too much for her to bear.

The Singer carried his wife’s body, because he wanted to bury her in Doomba. But he never sang again.

The other escapees continued on with heavy hearts and empty bellies. They watched hills turn into mountains, whilst the air thinned and the temperature dropped. But their spirits warmed as freedom came into view. They had made it to the snowy ridge which marked Protokia’s border.

Papa Tamsin led the way, but progress was slow. When he put one foot forward, his other foot sunk into the snow. Tamsin tried to walk in her father’s footsteps, but she kept on sinking. The snow came up to her waist.

So Papa Tamsin put his daughter on his shoulders, and carried two of his other children under his arms. When his muscles ached, he jumped up and down. When his hands froze, he clenched his fists. And when he saw a dead body in the snow, he turned away, to protect his children from the gory truth.

That mountain was littered with frozen bodies. An arm stuck out here, and a leg stuck out there. Heads rested on the surface. Hands seemed to wave.

Any escapee who stopped walking, stopped living. Some escapees contracted snow blindness. Most of them contracted pneumonia.

Papa Tamsin protected his children from their suffering. And he protected his children from the Humpbacked Priest, when that man turned insane. The Humpbacked Priests’ feet, which were only covered by a pair of sandals, had already turned black with frostbite. His lungs had already filled up with phlegmy liquid. And, as he climbed above the clouds, his eyes filled up with a kaleidoscope of colourful hallucinations.

“The snow is green,” he wailed. “Oi yoy yoy! Where are the yaks? Why aren’t they eating this green grass? Oi vey! God save us all!”

Papa Tamsin protected his children as they climbed that mountain. He cheered when they reached the top. And he was in a buoyant mood when they reached Collis, the neighbouring country.

He walked straight up to a Border Guard; a ragged man whose skin had been roughened by coarse soap and blunt razors.

“Papers,” the Border Guard snapped.

“We’re refugees,” Papa Tamsin replied.

“Do you have papers to prove that?”

“Look at us.”

“I’m looking. I don’t see any papers.”

Papa Tamsin held his palms up to the sky.

Little crumbs of snow tumbled down the mountainside.

Mama Tamsin removed her wedding ring, and gave it to the Border Guard

“Here are our papers,” she said.

The Border Guard held the ring up to his eyes.

“Very good,” he replied. “Everything is in order here. On you go.”

Papa Tamsin gave his wife a sympathetic look, rubbed her back, and led his family down into Collis.

On their way they met another group of escapees, who were also fleeing from the Holies. To Tamsin they seemed both strange and familiar, the same but different. They spoke the same language, with different dialects. They wore the same clothes, with different motifs. Whereas her clan greeted each other by touching cheek against cheek, they touched forehead against forehead.

“Nine hundred and ninety nine,” Tamsin counted. “One thousand!”

She tugged Papa Tamsin’s trousers.

“Papa! Papa!” She cheered. “There’s over a thousand of us. Let’s go back to Doomba and kick the Holies out.”

Papa Tamsin chuckled.

“All in good time,” he replied. “But it’ll take us days to get back to Doomba from here. Why don’t we celebrate the snake festival down there?”

Tamsin looked up. In front of her was Natale; a town which covered a bulbous hill. At its top was a castle. And at its base was the biggest campsite Tamsin had ever seen. In its centre was a giant bonfire.

“Yes papa!” Tamsin cheered. “Let’s throw my snake on that fire!”

 

* * *

 

With eyes which were full of tears, and a mind which was full of joy, Tamsin fell into a giddy daze. Her hands tingled and her veins throbbed. Goose-pimples covered her skin, and colour returned to her cheeks.

In that state of dizzy intoxication, she did not hear the Bald Local who was shouting at her family.

“Go back to your own country,” he screamed. “You’re not welcome here. Bloody foreigners!”

Nor did Tamsin pay any attention to the Mad Lady who scowled at her as she walked through Natale. The Mad Lady had an enormous nose, which dominated her face, and an enormous wart which covered her chin. She had raggedy grey hair, and eyes with tiny pupils. She wagged her bony finger as she spoke.

“You’ll never return home,” she wailed. “Never! You’ll stay here forever. It’s written in the stars!”

“Oh shut up,” the Suntanned Refugee shouted back. “What do you know, you batty old witch?”

Everyone else remained silent. They were too tired to talk.

They continued through town until they reached the refugee camp. Then they waited there, next to a tall fence, looking like extras out of a science fiction movie; with alien faces and protruding bones.

When it was their turn, they walked through a turnstile. They were registered by a Female Guard, who had a moustache.

“Are we going camping?” Tamsin asked her father.

“Oh yes!” Papa Tamsin replied. “If we’re lucky, we’ll have a tent all to ourselves!”

Tamsin giggled.

Separated from the other refugees, her family walked down a boggy thoroughfare. A sea of white tents lined up on either side, reflecting the glimmering sun. Clean clothes hung from dirty trees. Soot rose from metal chimneys, and wafted over those clothes.

Tamsin followed her father towards the bonfire.

The closer they got, the more people surrounded them. It was claustrophobic. Refugees filled every road, path and alley. Their tents were overflowing, as were their loos.

The inhabitants of that camp came from forty eight villages, and they all looked slightly different. Some had bigger noses, whilst others had smaller ears. Some wore baggy trousers, whilst others wore patterned robes. They spoke the same language, but they used different phrases. They cooked the same dishes, but they used different herbs. They span the same wool, but they made different cloths.

Tamsin followed her father as he squeezed between those refugees. They were shoved one way, and shunted back the other. They were knocked in their sides, shoulders and hips.

After several uncomfortable minutes had passed, they finally broke through the crowd. A giant fire stood before them. Its flames seemed to stab the sky. They shimmied and they danced, in a majestic mixture of golds, yellows and reds. They radiated so much heat, Tamsin perspired.

“We’ve done it! We’ve done it!” She cheered. “We’ve won! We’ve won!”

Tamsin ran towards the fire, and threw her snake into its flames. Then she bounded back to her parents.

A local woman approached them there. She gave Mama Tamsin some lipstick, to make her feel human again. Then she squatted down in front of Tamsin.

“I think you’re too young for lipstick,” she said.

Tamsin shrugged.

“I’d like some,” she replied. “I like presents!”

“I bet you’d prefer some lollipops.”

“Oh yes, I’d love some lollipops!”

Tamsin took all the lollipops she was given, said ‘Thank-you’, and handed one to Papa Tamsin.

“Papa! Papa!” She said. “They’re handing out lollipops! The feast has begun! The party has started!”

The local woman laughed.

“The party has started,” she replied. “Make yourself at home. You’re welcome here. What’s ours is yours!”

Tamsin held her head in her hands and cried tears of joy.

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