WILL YOU CATCH ME IF I FALL?
'So where do you come from - originally I mean?'
Jack had been reduced to asking questions of his own in order to break the one-sided conversation that had started within the first hour of their journey.
'My family originated from a place called Fiji - have you heard of it?'
Jack hadn't, but he wasn't going to admit that to a girl who looked the way that Miss Epiphany Kade did.
'Yes, of course' he lied.
Epiphany slowed her step and let him pass. As he did she smiled at him.
'Really?' she said.
'Really' came another lie.
Jack waited until he had passed sufficiently enough so that his face could not be seen before he carried on the conversation.
'Does everyone there look like you?'
Epiphany stopped walking.
'What do you mean?'
Jack wanted to say words like 'beautiful' and 'Goddess' - instead all he could think of was 'Brown'
She laughed an easy laugh.
'Yes - well mainly. I'm a Fijian Indian. We all share similar traits, but are different in many ways - my hair for example is a bit on the rare side'
The two elected officials from the village of Farrow were making their way up the steep mountain path that led to the old woman's house. Their task was not a pleasant one and so far they had both avoided talking about it, resulting in this last ditch attempt by Jack to steer the conversation away with personal enquiries of his travelling companion.
'It is very striking' he said, exhausting his repertoire of small talk.
She smiled to herself and continued walking.
The silence that fell between them was broken after a few minutes by Epiphany.
'Are you totally comfortable with this?'
'How do you mean?' said Jack.
Jack had been elected to address the problem that had recently presented itself to the village and felt very humbled by this great honour, particularly as he had only just turned twenty-one, and having Epiphany Kade chosen to accompany him was the icing on the cake. Epiphany was, by far, the most beautiful girl in Farrow, and in Jacks opinion, possibly the whole world. Over the past two days however, the scales had dropped from his eyes and he began to see why everyone was so willing for her to join him. Although beautiful, she was without doubt the most annoying person he had ever met.
The woman never stopped talking.
The journey was a long one and involved a few tricky points in the road. Once or twice both he and Epiphany had slipped, only to be saved from falling by the other, and so the conversations now served to mask their fear of broken bones and fractured egos.
'What I mean', continued Epiphany, 'is that we are on our way to a defenceless old woman's house, in order to take her life'
Jack stopped in order to catch his breath a little. He found that walking and talking took more from him than he really had to give. He hid his exhaustion by using this rest break to answer this, one of many, questions.
'She was exposed as a witch - witches have to be stopped. If that means we have to burn her, and yes, 'kill' her, then no, I have no problem with that'
Epiphany carried on walking towards Jack. When she caught up she carried on walking, much to his dismay.
'How do we know she is a witch?'
She looked back at him as she walked past, and smiled. Her large brown eyes matched her complexion. Every part of her seemed to dance to a rhythm of its own, whilst her thick red hair bounced along to that inner song. Stunning was the word that came to Jack at that point, both in reference to her looks and of her naivety to the world around her.
'The Parsons girl?' he said answering her question with one of his own.
This stopped her in her tracks once more.
'The little girl who died?'
Epiphany looked confused and tilted her head as if to provoke an answer to an unsaid question.
'She had been ill for a while, and so the old woman was brought in to attend to the sickness as her needs required'
'Was this normal?'
'Yes, she was the first port of call in such matters'
'So she was trusted in issues of a medical nature'
'Of course, she is, or was, a nurse - I think'
Epiphany turned her back on Jack and continued up the hill once more.
'Is that all that's known of her?' she called over her shoulder.
Jack thought about this as he followed her.
'A traveller of some kind, that's what I heard. Other than that, not a lot really'
Before Epiphany had the chance to ask the next question, jack called to her.
'And before you ask - No, I have no idea where she came from'
She smiled again to herself.
'So, tell me more of the Parsons girl'
Jack shrugged is if telling the story would merely be something to do in order to pass the time.
'She became ill as I said, and so the old woman was called in to see to her, but within an hour of her arriving, the girl had died'
Epiphany stopped in her tracks once more, and instead of passing her Jack stopped too.
'You mean that's it?' she said.
She turned, and Jack could see for the first time that Epiphany Kade looked genuinely angry.
'We are going to take this woman's life, because she could not save a child'
'Of course not' said Jack defensively 'we are taking her life because she killed a child'
Epiphany shook her head as if to loosen something - a thought or notion that had got itself stuck, almost like a puzzle piece that did not fit this incomplete picture.
'How did she kill her?' she said eventually.
Jack scratched at the three-day growth on his chin.
'Okay' he relented 'Maybe not 'killed' as such - but she was definitely responsible for her death'
'Sound like grief lashing out if you ask me'
'Maybe so' agreed Jack 'but it doesn't detract from the fact that she was the responsible for keeping the Parsons girl alive - she failed'
'And from that she is proclaimed as a witch?'
He shrugged at this last comment, as if she were stating a matter of fact rather that asking the question.
Epiphany carried on walking.
As the track got steeper the way got harder, and even with her tropical ancestry Epiphany Kade had begun to show signs of her exertions. Her dress was dark with moisture at the back, and when she turned to face Jack he could see that a small damp patch had formed at her cleavage causing the thin material to cling to the contours of her breasts. Jack had been brought up to be a well-mannered young man and knew that it was not well received to stare at a lady's bosom - this being the case he, like most of the boys of his age had figured out a way of looking, without looking.
This sometimes required the attempt to look out of his ears.
'It's very hot' she said.
Her observation cut through his fantasy.
'Yes they are, you are - it is'
His linguistic fumbling caused her to smile. She had always been aware of the effect she had on the young men in the village. Even some of the older ones had become a little breathless when the hot weather had cause for her to dress in a manner suited to the heat.
'So what we are saying here' she continued, ignoring how uncomfortable Jack had become, 'is that, if a person has been unable to prevent someone's death, a person that he or she has been charged with the safety of, then that person must pay with his or her life - is this the case?'
Jack stopped once more.
'Yes' he said, 'I think that's how it goes'
'Does the heat bother you'? Epiphany asked.
Jack removed a handkerchief and mopped his brow.
'A little - It should be getting colder as we get higher surly'
'We are closer to the sun'
'I am sorry to say that it doesn't work that way'
'More rules?' said Epiphany as she started to climb higher up the track.
Jack stood up and followed her.
'Rules of nature this time - not mine'
He dropped into a half-run in order to catch up with her causing him to breathe heavily at this sudden effort.
Epiphany held out her hand.
'In case I fall' she said with an ego-disarming smile.
After an hour of walking in silence they came to a small clearing from where they could clearly see the old woman's cottage.
'Witch ahoy!' said Epiphany mirthlessly.
Jack gave her a reproachful look.
Separating them from her home was a deep ravine that was passable only by a single track of loose shale.
'I'll go first - to test the way' said Jack.
He let go of her hand and started to make his way across.
'I am quite capable of leading the way - if you want me to'
Jack turned around to face her.
'I was charged with ensuring your safety' he said, 'you are therefore my responsibly'
Epiphany leaned in and kissed him on his cheek.
'My hero' she said.
Jack turned away to hide his blushing and began to edge his way slowly across the narrow pathway, testing each step before he committed himself to it.
He kicked aside any loose rock that would cause either of them to slip and fall and peered over the edge, watching the rocks bounce and split before coming to rest.
Half way across he heard Epiphany give a small cry as the loose ground slide from under her feet. Jack turned to see if she was alright.
'Please watch your step' he said with concern.
Epiphany looked at him and smiled as she shrugged her shoulders resolutely.
Jack shook his head and carried on along the shale outcrop.
This woman would be his undoing, he thought. In more ways than one.
As the high mountain winds whipped around them Jack and Epiphany sidled their way to the other side of track until they reached open land again. As he stepped to safety Jack held out his hand in order to help Epiphany, and as she took the final step she fell into his arms and buried her head into his chest.
She was shaking.
'The way back is easier' he said, in an attempt to comfort her.
'Then why didn't we come that way in the first place - if it's easier?'
'There is a river that flows down the other side of the mountain. Hard to sail up a river'
She smiled up at him.
'Easy to sail down'
Having both composed themselves enough to carry on, Jack looked over at the old woman's cottage.
'It's smaller than I thought it would be' he said.
He looked back at he way they had come.
The old woman had travelled all that way to attend a dying child, and after failing to save her, she was sentenced to death - a sentence he seemed arrogantly honoured to carry out. But now he was having doubts about the morality of such an act.
It would have taken a week between the message being sent and the old woman's eventual arrival. What chance did she stand? - What chance did either of them stand?
He looked at Epiphany. In her eyes and her beautiful face he could see the truth in her questions and her words echoed once more,
'Are you totally comfortable with this?'
No, he thought - I'm not.
He took a deep breath.
Epiphany looked at him.
'Didn't you see?' she said.
Jack followed her gaze towards the tree at the top of the track.
It was an ancient affair that was almost fossilised with time and was embedded in the rock by strong, deep roots. As if reaching for the setting sun, huge thick limbs stretched out over the edge of the cliff - from one of which hung the old woman.
'Damn' whispered Jack.
'I guess she knew the rules too' and with that Epiphany turned away and started to gather up firewood.
'I will build the fire and set the traps for dinner - could you cut her down please'
Jack nodded and made his way towards the top of the hill.
'Bury her' she called after him.
Jack stopped and looked back. Epiphany didn't return his stare but instead carried on with preparing the campsite.
'She has paid for her crimes in this life' she said without looking up, 'A life for a life - your rules I believe'
Jack stood for a moment. Epiphany was clearly upset and angry.
Not at him, but at the system that had drawn so much guilt from this old woman.
A woman who had devoted her life to the sick and the needy, only to be forced in the end to pay the ultimate price for a crime that was no such thing.
The evening went without words as Jack and Epiphany Kade sat by the campfire.
He had buried the old woman at Epiphany's request, and had said a silent prayer for her departed soul. He had also apologized on behalf of the stupid actions of his village and thanked her for all she had done. In the morning both he and Epiphany would take the old woman's boat and sail down the river to the bottom of the mountain, but instead of making their way back to Farrow, he would suggest that they carry on towards the sun and away from the rules.
They were wrong - he could see that now in Epiphany's tears.
Tears that echoed in the night through fitful dreams.
Jack woke at the sound of a shrill cry from one of the many mountain eagles that nested this high up. The sun was showing signs of rising as the first of its rays spilled out from the horizon, turning the sky pink and orange. Silhouetted by this half-light was Epiphany. She was sitting on a rock with her knees pulled up and her arms wrapped around them as if hugging herself against the chilled morning air.
Jack pulled his blanket tight and walked over to her.
'How long have you been awake?
Epiphany seemed not to notice him, as if in a world way from this one.
'Epiphany?' said Jack.
She turned to him and smiled.
'Good morning' she said, 'I'm sorry, I was just looking at something'
Jack sat next to her. He opened his blanket and wrapped it around Epiphany's shoulders. He was shocked as to how cold she was.
'You're freezing' he said.
Epiphany snuggled in closer - Jack smiled.
'What has taken your interest so that you feel you have to sit here and freeze to death?'
She removed one arm from the confines of the blanket and pointed down to the deep ravine that they had crossed the day before.
'That' she said simply.
The dim morning light made it hard for Jack to make out what she was pointing to.
'You will have to help me I'm afraid - what am I looking at?'
Epiphany moved a little closer so that he could follow her line of sight.
'See?' she asked.
At the bottom of the cliff was something red.
'What is it?'
There was a pause that was filled with the sounds of the maintain waking.
The hunter and the hunted calling to the world as the fight for survival began.
Nature at its most beautiful - and at its most ruthless.
Epiphany took a deep breath of the thin air.
'Me' she said simply.
Jack turned to her with a blank look on his face.
'How can it be you Epiphany? You're sitting here with me'
There was a pause as she refocused her attention to Jack.
She placed her hand on his.
'Remember how you and I crossed the top of that ravine yesterday?
Jack looked into her big brown eyes as they reflected the rising sun. She was the most beautiful woman her had ever seen, and in this magical place he could feel himself falling in love with her.
'I remember - I asked you to watch the loose shale'
Epiphany looked out into the distance.
'I fell' she said simply.
Jack brushed aside the hair that had fallen over her face.
'I fear that you are still half asleep - it's time to wake up Miss Kade'
'It's the rules you see'
Epiphany's reply made no sense to Jack. He began to grow concerned.
'If a person is seen to not be able to prevent someone's death, a person that he or she has been charged with the safety of, then that person must pay with his or her life'
Jack looked into her eyes once again. She seemed awake but her words suggested that she was having a conversation away from this time.
'Those are the rules' he agreed, 'but what of them?'
'I called out, and you answered my cry with a suggestion that I watch my step - a step that had already faltered and one that caused me to fall'
Jack now feared for Epiphany's sanity. Had the thin mountain air caused her to see and experience things that had not happened? Maybe she was finding it hard to separate her dreams from reality. Whatever it was Jack was at a loss as to what to do.
'I heard you call Epiphany and I turned to see if you were safe - you were still there behind me as you are beside me now'.
'What I was lies at the bottom of the cliff - what I am now sits with you'
She turned and placed her hand on his face.
'I'm sorry Jack, but you have to come with me now'
At this she turned to look at the small campfire that they had set up the night before. Jack followed her gaze and saw his own ruined body lying by the embers as if still asleep, but the bloodstained rock and the open wound on his head bore witness that death had visited him during the night, in the shape of Miss Epiphany Kade.
He staggered back from his seat and tried to stand, but his legs would not support him causing him to fall back down. As he retched from an empty stomach he cried out to the apparition that sat serenely - staring at him with those beautiful, deep brown eyes.
'Why?' he said. He tried to find other words to express his grief and horror, but all he could do is repeat the words 'Why would you do this?'
Epiphany stood up. She smoothed out her dress and adjusted the hem as if making sure it had not caught on anything. Even in this ghostly state it seemed to Jack that she still had pride in an appearance that no longer existed.
He pushed himself back, recoiling in terror at what he had so recently found so captivating, until something obstructed his retreat. He looked around and up into the face of the old woman that he had put into the ground only the night before.
A scream left his lips as reason and sanity left his mind.
'It's the rules' she said simply - 'your rules'