The town of Unity sits perched on the edge of a yawning ravine where, long ago, a charisma of angels provided spiritual succour to a fledgeling human race. Then mankind was granted the gift of free will and had to find its own way, albeit with the guidance of the angels. The people’s first conscious act was to make an exodus from Unity. They built a rope bridge across the ravine and founded the town of Topeth. For a time, the union between the people of Topeth and the angels of Unity was one of mutual benefit. After that early spring advance, there had been a torrid decline in which mankind’s development resembled a crumpled, fading autumnal leaf.
Following the promptings of an inner voice, Tula, a young woman from the city, trudges into Topeth. Her quest is to abide with the angels and thereby discover the right and proper exercise of free will. To do that, she has to cross the bridge – and overcome her vertigo. Topeth is in upheaval; the townsfolk blame the death of a child on dust from the nearby copper mines. The priests have convinced them that a horde of devils have thrown the angels out of Unity and now occupy the bridge, possessing anyone who trespasses on it. Then there’s the heinous Temple of Moloch!
Tula’s swollen ankle ached as she trudged up the mountain. It had moaned incessantly, ever since she had left her home in the city before embarking on this journey. Then again, it had always hurt. Perhaps since birth: she could never remember that far back. She had complained to her parents, who could not afford to get it seen by the doctor.
A gust of wind whipped up particles of sand which spiralled in the fractious air ahead of her. She squinted and pulled her keffiyeh up to cover her nose. At this altitude, the air was a thin gruel, offering paltry nourishment. Her gut was rumbling, but that was nothing new. She had walked uphill all afternoon from Seliga in the valley below and now she was gasping for breath. Her backpack seemed to weigh as much as that boulder up ahead. A vulture circled effortlessly in the azure blue sky. There was another one above the next valley, griffon vultures searching for prey; so long as they left her alone.
Wisps of straw-coloured grass sprouted beside the graves of an unkempt cemetery. The top of the surrounding low stone wall was speckled with reddish spots, like splashes of copper rain. A few of the gravestones had fallen over and kissed the parched earth. This was the summit of a mountain and even the grand old yew trees huddled in one side of the cemetery were bending to the east, bowing to the omnipotent goddess of the winds in her distant unseen shrine.
Between the cemetery and the town lay a vibrant carpet of blue thorns; large cones of tiny blue flowers surrounded by a spiky, electric-blue collar.
Up ahead were the town walls, shimmering in the waves of heat rising from the scorched land. Finally, her journey’s end was in sight. On the side of the road just outside the town’s South Gate was the Welcome Boulder. It towered above her, which was not that difficult because in the city she was constantly mocked as the shortest amongst her peers. Most of the boulder was coated in that brownish-red dust. Towards the top of it was the immortal sign that declared the town’s identity:
Welcome to Topeth.
The First Free Town and
‘The Top’ Town of all.
Long before her arrival, her parents and teachers had fired her imagination with their stories about Topeth. As the sign proudly declared, it was once ‘The Top’ town, not only because it was perched precariously on the highest mountain in the range, but also because it was the living exemplar of humanity’s stumbling progress. Many years before, that epic story had featured Herman, the First Man. It told how he had ushered in a brilliant new freedom for mankind – hence the First Free Town. Yet, after that early spring advance, there was now a torrid decline in which mankind’s development resembled a crumpled, fading autumnal leaf.
Many people asked whether their forefathers had used that freedom wisely. Some answered with a resounding ‘Yes’, but Tula had doubts. That was why she was in Topeth; to find out for herself.
On either side of the entrance road was a row of tall, spiky cacti, standing like pale, bloated fish out of water.
To the west of the town was a large area of open ground. Huge scars pitted the land which was dotted with peaked mounds of reddened earth. A gnarled ghost haunted the land. Crouched amidst its shadow lands were rickety sheds and wooden shacks, all dowsed in the same brown-red dust. Even the town’s walls were tainted in the same hue. This was the infamous Topeth open cast copper mine.
In these dangerous times, many towns shut their gates well before sundown. Thankfully, the main gates to Topeth were still open.
An old man sat cross-legged with his back against one of the gate posts, whittling a long, rod-like piece of wood and chewing on a wedge of tobacco. What an obnoxious substance. Yellow pouting lips glared at her from within a grey, untended beard. On his head, he wore a scruffy, black and white chequered keffiyeh.
“Who’s there?” He completed the question by spitting prodigiously onto the earth.
“Me, I’m Tula. And you are?”
“Can’t you see I’m blind or are you as well?” The man was gruff. He faced her. Empty sockets peered into the void.
“No, I mean yes. I’m sorry, I didn’t notice. I’m exhausted. It’s been a long day.”
“Don’t recognise your voice. You new here?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve just arrived.”
“Got your pass?”
A blind man was asking her for a pass to travel. That she had not expected. She pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper from her knapsack and hesitated, not knowing what to do with it.
“Give it here,” he demanded. “I may be blind, but do you think I can’t see right through you?”
“No, sir. I’m sure you can. It’s just that…” She gave him the travel permit.
He held it to his cheek. He rubbed it first against his left cheek, then against his right, and nodded to himself, as if reading its contents with inner eyes. She gazed at him wide-eyed.
He handed it back to her. “Go on. All in order here.”
“What did you just do?”
“When I hold something against my cheeks, I get pictures in my mind.”
“I never knew that was even possible. What did you see?”
“I saw a fair-haired young woman with blue eyes, sparkling like rays of sunlight dancing on a flowing river. I saw a smile that warms the day, a pretty face. Your fringe and pale skin and freckles will drive the young men crazy.”
“That’s kind of you to say,” she said, failing to hide a blush. “May I ask you something?”
“Carry on. You’re good at asking questions.”
No one was going to intimidate her. No one.
Justin Newland is an author of historical fantasy and secret history thrillers – that’s history with a supernatural twist. His stories feature known events and real people from history which are re-told and examined through the lens of the supernatural. He gives author talks and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Bristol’s Thought for the Day. He lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England.