Cracked Feet

Cracked Feet

By Ellen Coates

Noah knew he cut an incongruous figure. He’d done his best to fit into the Melbourne winter uniform of black, he’d even tamed his long dreadlocks. His jeans hid most of the gaudy and impossibly detailed tattoos on his feet and ankles, but on a typically wet and drizzly Melbourne day he was wearing flip flops. He’d melted through two pairs of Converses, and his favourite boots, before he’d given up on shoes.

Crossing the Queen Victoria Market carpark, the sun made an appearance and the asphalt started steaming. He wove between the cars, smiling at the enthusiastic shouting from the produce sheds. He had always admired how excited people could get over vegetables. Noah was headed for a tea shop that had been recommended. So far he hadn’t been impressed by the quality of tea in Melbourne, but McIver’s was meant to be good.

As he gazed around, trying to get his bearings, his feet began to feel uncomfortably warm.


He kicked off his flip-flops, shoving them in his bag. His feet were getting hotter and hotter, and he knew he only had moments left before he’d be ankle deep in partly melted asphalt. Running to a low brick building, he pressed into the shadows under the eaves. The sounds of the market faded into silence and the world became a blur as the stories of the past beneath his feet dragged his consciousness down.

He groaned when he realised that it was a forgotten cemetery. No particular story had Grabbed him, the sheer numbers had pulled his consciousness beneath the earth. He drifted aimlessly. Unwillingly, one skeleton caught his eye. He moved closer and his heart skipped a beat. She had been a Reader. There were tiny cracks through every piece of bone in both feet and up to the ankles. Noah knew from experience that the cracks would have gone through the skin. He reached out gingerly and brushed against the bones. Her story assailed him in a barrage of images.

The girl, Sarah, in this graveyard crying over her sister Alice.

Her unknown abilities as a Reader dragging her beneath the earth.

Her mind breaking because she saw ghosts everywhere, waiting to claim her.

Standing at the window of the Yarrabend Insane Asylum, watching her family leave her with the ghosts.

The years hiding from the dead in bottles of cheap wine provided by the staff.

Escaping through an open window, losing her bearings in the dark and falling into the Yarra.

The traitorous sense of relief when she gave up fighting.

Being buried with a gold chain that had belonged to her grandmother.

Her family’s return to England.

Her redgum headstone being used for firewood.

Sarah’s memory lost forever as the known burials were relocated and the unknown were left behind.

Noah felt Sarah’s story recede, like the filthy waters of the Yarra. He felt Sarah’s sorrow and fear like a layer of dirt on his skin. Her story was part of him. Now he had to do his job as a Reader and make sure she was remembered. Especially because she had been a latent Reader, she was one of them.

Coming back to himself, he noticed an old man staring at him. He smiled as well as he could manage.

“Sorry, I have a rare neural disorder, it just takes me like that sometimes.” He shoved his feet back into his flip flops and walked away, still babbling. “Thank you for your concern I’m fine.”

He realised that the old man hadn’t actually said anything, and was peering at him oddly. Noah paused and looked at him closely. He was stooped and wizened, with cropped grey hair, but somehow his eyes didn’t look old. Noah’s heart sank at the same time as he felt unbridled joy. “Brian?” He asked warily.

The old man blurred slightly and then standing before him was his Shifter, Brian. He was in his early thirties, like Noah and Richard, their Marker. His Chinese mother and Indian father had bequeathed him a face of extraordinary angles. He was the best-dressed man Noah had ever seen and stood out against the rough backdrop of the market in his three piece Savile Row suit. His cheeky smile was absent as he stared at Noah with hostile eyes. “You left.”

Noah scrambled for an answer and the words came out in a rush. “I’m sorry Brian, I swore to The Council I wouldn’t tell you anything. I left so you wouldn’t find out.”

Brian’s harsh expression didn’t change, “How exactly was I supposed to find out? I can’t read your thoughts.”

Noah was actually wringing his hands, something he’d only read about in books. “No, but your mother can. I knew as soon as I saw her she’d Sense it and I swore to The Council.”

Brian remained implacable, “Mum can control herself you know. Besides, the three of us have no secrets.” He turned his back to Noah and lifted his long hair, so Noah could see the branded words on the carefully shaved undercut, surrounded by intricate tattoos reaching into his hair.

“Read it.”

Noah didn’t need to see the brand. The Council had branded almost the same words onto the sole of his right foot the day the three of them had become one. He recited Brian’s brand from memory. “I am the Shifter of the generation of my family. With the Marker I will protect the Reader as they work to find the stories of the lost. We three will be loyal to each other unto death…”

Brian interrupted, “Loyal unto death, and you left.”

Noah stuffed his panic into a ball, “I’m so sorry, I really am, especially about Richard, but you left out the last part of the oath. We will answer to The Council and obey the Lore.” He looked pleadingly at Brian. “Believe me, leaving was the only option, and I promised Morris…”

Noah trailed off, knowing he’d already said too much.

“You told Morris, and not us.”

Noah raised his hands helplessly, “Irma can’t Sense him, he’s the only Reader she can’t Sense.”

Brian wasn’t placated. “I told you, Mother can control herself.”

“Not with this she can’t, look I was trying to avoid a blood feud, I swore… Oh fucking damn it.” Noah put a hand over his mouth.

Brian tried a different tactic. “Alright. Well, can you tell us now? I can’t start a blood feud from the other side of the world.”

Noah was nearly in tears. “I can’t I swore…” then he registered the plural “Wait, us?”

Brian’s smile was caustic “Richard’s with me. I left him at a café, he wasn’t sure he could deal with seeing you.”

Brian couldn’t have said anything else more guaranteed to make Noah stop thinking about The Council and blood feuds. Richard blotted out all other conscious thoughts.

As he was trying to pull his mind back into some form of coherence, he felt a burning pain on his right foot. He looked down at the rapidly fading words burnt over his tattoos, which were growing violently in an attempt to cover the hole. Brian looked down too. They are judged, come home. Noah’s voice was shaky “Morris always was succinct.”

Brian half laughed as they watched the words fade away. “So can you tell us now.” It wasn’t a question.

Noah felt a huge weight lifting from his shoulders, he was sick of carrying his burden alone. He heard himself saying. “Alright, but I need to tell you together.”

Brian phoned Richard as they walked out onto Elizabeth Street, and said the words Noah wanted to hear more than anything, “He understands”. Noah breathed a sigh of relief; he regretted what he’d done to Richard more than anyone else. They’d just started something, and he’d vanished.

They got on a tram in silence and Brian didn’t interrupt his musings until they’d reached the GPO. “We’re off here.” Noah followed and then he stopped dead in the street. He’d seen Richard. He was sitting at a green and yellow table, inspecting the pineapple centerpiece to see if it was real. He stood hesitantly when he saw them approaching. Richard was taller even than Noah; he had a harsh face, all lines and crags, and wore his heavy brown hair just below his collar. As always, he wore an open vest and a long sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up to display the tattoos on his hands and lower arms. His oath was on his palm. Noah had missed him more than he thought possible.

He paused in front of Richard, unsure of what to do. He knew he’d hurt him deeply and his face wasn’t giving any clues. Then Richard grinned, and suddenly Noah knew it would be alright. He kissed Richard hard on the mouth; a kiss that he hoped was both a promise and an apology. After a second of surprise, Richard kissed him back with equal vigor. Brian watched them like an indulgent uncle and went to order food. Eventually they broke apart, slightly short of breath. Noah spoke first. “I’m so sorry, Richard. What I did was inexcusable. It isn’t really an excuse, but Morris made me swear.”

Richard took his hand, running his tattooed fingers softly over the lines on Noah’s palm. Then he turned his own hand over showing Noah the Oath. “I can’t say you didn’t hurt me, love.” He paused and Noah’s heart warmed at the endearment that fell easily from Richard’s lips. “I was hurt, but the Oath is the Oath and The Council is The Council and you can tell us now?”

Noah closed Richard’s hand over his oath. “Yes, Morris says I can.”

Richard nodded and kissed him, softly this time. “Good, we still have things to talk about, but I will be content with that for now.”

“Thank you.”

Brian came back to the table with some sandwiches. “Got all that out of your system?” He took in their joined hands and nodded “good.” His gaze sharpened. “Alright Noah. Tell us.”

Noah took a deep breath. There wasn’t any easy way to say it, so he just came out with it. “I was Grabbed next to the Tower. I found Emma’s body in the Thames, she didn’t die in a car crash. Madeline murdered her, and Rodney hid her body.”

Brian literally froze. His skin became a deathly shade of white and his lips turned blue. Noah had only seen him do it once before, on the day eight years before when he’d been told that his twin sister was dead.

“Fuck!” Noah took control. As the Reader it was his job, no matter the situation. It didn’t matter if they were hunting for the lost bodies of genocide victims, dealing with warring families at a stately home, finding the body of a king under a carpark, or dealing with his Shifter freezing in a public place. He closed off his emotions as carefully as he could. “Richard, make him look like something we can carry. I’m renting an apartment that’s only about two blocks from here and it has a bath.”

Richard nodded and spoke in his soft voice. “That should work, we can go now.” For a moment Noah didn’t know what Richard was talking about, but then he let go of his hand and saw that Brian now looked like a rolled up rug. Richard nodded to him and together they picked up Brian.

With Noah directing, they hurried down Elizabeth Street past all the camera shops and the bustling pedestrians. They picked up some funny looks for half running with a carpet, but they were mostly ignored. They turned into Flinders Lane and then, just before Degraves Street, Noah called a halt and led them up the stairs into his small studio apartment on the top floor of the building. At that moment, its most important feature was that it had a bath. Richard removed his Markings, they took off Brian’s suit; they knew he’d never forgive them if it was damaged, and ran the hottest bath they could, dropping him in.

The heat of the water shattered the Shifter’s shock response. He sat up gasping. Colour came flooding back to his cheeks. He leapt out of the bath as the scalding water burnt him and cried emptily, while Noah passed him a spare robe. He wrapped himself in it and sat unseeing on the bed, cried, shivered, and swore with an astonishing grasp of invective. Noah and Richard just waited. They’d both seen him do this before. Eventually, he looked up. His eyes were clear and cold. “Tell me about Emma.”

Noah saw Richard was watching him intently too. The trust in his eyes gave him strength. As Noah began to explain, he felt as if he was back there on that damp London night. 

Noah sighed as he walked along the edge of the Thames. He could have just got the tube to Temple Station, but he spent enough time beneath the earth insubstantially that he hated doing it in the real world. He pulled the hood of his jacket over his head and huddled into its warmth, wishing again that he was able to wear shoes. He could feel the shadow of the Tower of London looming above him. It took all his will power not to be Grabbed by all the history soaked in there. The Council tested all English Readers by making them stand inside the Tower of London and not succumb. He’d passed.

He walked past Traitor’s Gate trying to ignore the menacing slap of the wavelets on the steps. Brian and Richard were waiting for him at the Temple Church. They’d been commissioned to determine which of the effigies there was William Marshal. Just as Noah was about to turn away from the Thames he felt his feet heating up. He hadn’t felt a pull this strong in years. He sprinted to a copse of trees. He felt the mud bubbling around his feet and then he was gone.

He drifted among the murky currents of the Thames, history washing through him. He was being dragged. He came to a stop, floating above a skeleton embedded in the river mud. It was coming free of the chains that had been holding it down. He reached out tentatively and touched the body.

It was Emma.

He broke. He tried to scream, to cry and to throw up, but he wasn’t in his body. He felt his being splintering, as he was pulled apart by the overwhelming presence of Emma’s death.

He forced himself to bind it all together, but he was as fragile as crystalised caramel. He looked at the body. Part of him noticed the fine grained cracks in the bones of her skull, so like his own feet. He forced himself to not see Emma’s smiling face and delicate hands on the skeleton with wisps of flesh still clinging. He finally surrendered and gave himself up to the images.

Emma laughing as she sat in front of the fire watching something on television in her favourite red chair.

A presence behind her. Madeline, her cousin, watching her with a wine bottle in her hand and hate in her eyes.

The bottle coming down with a sickening thud. Emma falling forward out of her chair and onto the hearthrug.

The firelight flickering on Emma’s still eyes.

Madeline calling her father Rodney.

Rodney’s grey eyes assessing the room dispassionately, calculating. Having his Shifter escort Madeline home and sneak her in through the window.

Madeline going downstairs and spending the rest of the evening with her mother Margaret and Margaret’s new partner Morris.

Rodney tying the body up with chains and throwing it in the most history-laden part of the Thames.

Rodney finding a young homeless girl. Dressing her up like Emma, having his Marker Mark her body and her mind so she would behave and look like Emma.

Damaging the breaks of Emma’s car. The girl dies looking like Emma.

Madeline and Rodney playing the grieving family.

Noah gasped and slammed back into his body. He fell down retching in the dirt of the trees. Emma was just lying there, waiting for Noah to find her, to ensure she was remembered. A passerby heard him throwing up and called out. “Had a bit too much there, mate?”

Noah barely even heard him. His eyes and his ears were full of Emma’s final moments and Madeline and Rodney’s evil. He knew immediately why Madeline had done it. With Emma dead, at the next Ceremony Madeline should have inherited the position of Shifter. But she’d reckoned without the genetic similarity of Brian’s blood. He guessed Rodney had stopped her going after Brian.

Noah forced himself to his feet. He knew he had to tell someone on The Council and then he had to leave, he wouldn’t be responsible for a blood feud. He thought immediately of his Uncle Ned, but then he realized Irma would Sense it on him too. Noah was panicking. He was sticky with sweat from his ordeal, and he really wanted a shower to wash off the cloying images of Emma’s death. Then it came to him. He would go to Morris, as her Reader he was the one person Irma couldn’t Sense.

He hurried through the street to the nearest tube station; his need to move quickly outweighed his hatred of the Underground. He hurried out of the Tube and knocked on the door of Morris’ office. He knew he’d still be there. The small grey-haired man who opened the door was one of Noah’s least favourite people, but he knew he was unfailingly honest. Morris managed to look down at him despite the fact he was nearly a foot shorter “Noah, what is it?” Noah suddenly found that he couldn’t speak. “If this is one of you and your juvenile gang’s pranks I’m not interested. I don’t have time. The Council still has to decide what to do with the Marker who helped the London bombers, he’s only just coming to trial, and the Royal Family is about to vote on who will occupy their Council seat. So just complete your ridiculous prank and get it over with.”

Noah just held out his hand. “Watch this.”

For the first time Morris looked seriously concerned. There was a small bronze ball of light glowing on Noah’s palm. No Reader would offer another Reader his memories unless it was serious. Morris moderated his tone. “Come inside.”

Noah followed him into a plush office with the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries hanging on the walls. Morris sat behind the heavy wooden desk “Sit down. Now, what’s this about?”

Noah settled opposite him and held out his hand again. “Please just watch it, I can’t bear to see it again.”

“Alright.” He put his hand on the memories and his body stiffened. Noah wondered if he looked like that when he was Reading. It seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes before Morris was back. His expression was thunderous, and Noah unwittingly flinched. Morris sighed. “I’m not angry with you. I’ll see that they all face the full force of The Council. You have my word.”

Noah bowed his head, not trying to hide his tears. “Thank you Morris.”

Morris looked at him almost kindly. “You know you’ll have to leave the country don’t you? Brian and his mother can’t find out about this before justice is done. We don’t need a blood feud between the Montmercys and the Stewarts.”

Noah nodded. “I agree Morris, that’s why I came to you, not Uncle Ned, you’re the only one Irma can’t Sense. So I thought, if The Council could send Richard and me…”

Morris interrupted. “Richard can’t go with you. No one can know about this.”

Noah blanched. “But if we both go everyone will just think we’ve run away to be together. If I vanish alone Brian and Richard will never stop looking.”

Morris nodded “I understand that, but I can take no risks that the Stewarts will find out that we know and flee, or that the Montmercys will find out and have the chance to enact primitive vengeance. Believe me, I am not looking forward to the falsehood I shall be forced to perpetrate on Irma or Margaret either. Leave a note saying that you are going travelling, and just go, it’s not that unusual for you as I understand it. Brain and Richard will be too busy looking for you to notice anything amiss with the Council.”

Noah began to shake again. He wanted to profess his love for Richard, to insist, but he could tell that Morris wouldn’t care. Instead, he forced himself to calm down. “Where am I going?”

Noah caught a fleeting smile on Morris’ lips. “Melbourne Australia, we’ve been sending our miscreants there for some time, you should fit right in. Even if Brian and Richard track you down there, we should be able to resolve things here before Brian can get back and do real damage.”

Noah returned to the present as he finished talking and looked directly at Brian. “So you see why I left. Please don’t start a blood feud. Please don’t decide to try to kill the Stewarts. Don’t punish the whole family.”

Brian looked at him. Noah could see him fighting with himself. There was so much pain in his eyes. Noah wanted to comfort him, but he knew he had to let him make his own decision. Richard sat silently behind him. Eventually Brian met his eyes. “Alright. For you and for Emma I’ll stay my hand. She wouldn’t have wanted the rest of them to be hurt. I’ll wait to hear how Morris has punished them.”

Noah let out a sigh of relief. He wasn’t sure he could have stopped Brian if he was determined to return to England and enact ancient justice. “Thank you. Brian, thank you. I’m sure the Morris’ justice will have been fitting.”

Richard took Noah’s hand and squeezed it, giving him strength. He spoke softly. “It isn’t only Emma we need justice for. What about the poor girl who died in Emma’s place?”

Noah nodded sadly. “The Council will find out about her too, make sure her family knows what happened, as much as they can anyway. Her story will be told, she will be Remembered.” The ritual phrases of the Reader rippled comfortingly from his tongue, Brian and Richard responded automatically “The Lore knows it.” They all smiled tentatively at each other, some of their old rapport coming back. Richard asked “What now?”

Brian spoke first. “We go home. We came to find you Noah, and we’ve done that. I want to be with my family, burn my sister’s body properly, and ensure that her real story is inscribed in the hall of stones. She will be Remembered for all time.”

Noah and Richard murmured “The Lore Knows it.”

They descended into silence. Noah lent back against Richard for comfort, Richard wrapped his arms gently around him and Noah lay with his head against his chest, feeling truly safe for the first time in months.

Then Noah remembered one last job before they could go home. He still had his duty to Sarah, the girl drowned in the Yarra. Brian and Richard immediately became professional. Brian got dressed again and they headed back to the market. To Noah it felt like days had passed, but it had only been a couple of hours.

Once they were back in the carpark Brian quickly Shifted into a local policeman, and began officiously clearing space. Richard carefully marked the air to look like a tent. Safely obscured, Noah settled carefully on the asphalt and Richard Marked him to look like a witches hat and stood guard. His hand was on the battered knife that he wore freely on his belt.

Noah drew himself in and sank his consciousness slowly beneath the earth, much more in control than he’d been that morning. He hovered gently over the thousands of bodies, focusing on what he’d learnt of Sarah that morning. He found her easily enough. This time when he touched her feet he wasn’t overwhelmed, he drew her story from her like spun wool and gathered it in a little ball. As he did so he noticed the necklace her father had given her lying next to what had been her neck. He rose to the surface and spoke softly to Richard. Richard nodded, took the small ball of Sarah’s story and Marked it onto her stone. He put the stone into his satchel and helped Noah to his feet. Noah sighed with relief, Sarah’s story was safe now. He waited until Brian gave the all clear and Richard made the air transparent again.

Brian came back over to them, back to his immaculate self. “So anything else we need to do?”

Richard waved a hand. “Just give me a moment. The stone is still connecting.” There was a sound like a chisel striking rock and Richard pulled the stone out of his satchel. He put his palm on it and winced as the words appeared on the back of his hand.

She has descendants in Lincoln.

Noah looked at Richard. “Can we get the chain?”

Richard considered it. “Sure. Lead us to it, Brian and I’ll get it out.”

They wandered over to the far side of the market following Noah. He paused next to a stone monument and read the plaque on the bottom. “She’s under here, under the memorial to the whole cemetery. It’s perfect.”

Brian nodded.

Richard smiled. “X marks the spot?”

It was an old joke and Noah happily pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket and drew an X directly above Sarah’s last resting place. Brian again Shifted to a policeman and Richard Marked the air again. Once they were safely inside Richard put his palm on the X and began to ever so slowly Mark the ground into air. Noah watched him, his hand on his own knife. It took time, but eventually Sarah’s skeleton was exposed at their feet. Noah stood back and Richard delicately pulled out the golden chain. It gleamed as he brushed the dirt off it. “This can go to her family. They will remember her. She will be in the hall of stones for all time.”

Noah bowed his head “She is Remembered. The Reading is done.”

Richard bent his own head. “The Lore knows it.”

Brian walked into the tent, Shifted into a tall grey man in a shabby suit. “Sorry, I had to be a local dignitary, the real police showed up. We good here?”

Richard was closing the hole so Noah repeated “She is Remembered. The Reading is done.”

Brian Shifted back to himself, grimacing as he stretched out his back. “The Lore Knows it.”

They began to walk back to the flat and Noah smiled to himself as Richard unthinkingly took his hand. He squeezed it and Richard beamed at him. The tattoos on his fingers twisted across their twined hands.

As they walked Noah thought about King Richard, the last body they’d found under a car park. In the end though it didn’t matter if the lost story was a king, a homeless girl, a woman who’d been dead for a century, or the woman Noah had thought of as a sister. They couldn’t do anything to save any of them, that was their reality. What they could do, was ensure that they were never forgotten. That was the motto of The Council after all.

We Remember Them.


About the Author:

Ellen Coates is a librarian writer and historian from Melbourne Australia. Her work can be found in Lots Wife, Incisors and Grinders, Going Down Swinging and now Etherea.

She’s currently working on a YA novel about Welsh merpeople. She’s a history nerd at heart, medieval history especially, and runs the blog Historical Ragbag. You can find her on Twitter at @BiblioEll

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