Before long the first of them round the corner and come into view. As it appeared from above, they are just walking. Smiling. Single file, no chat, nothing. I scan into the grounds: no adults in sight.
I should go back now, but creep forward, bringing the layout I saw from above into my mind. If the children stick to this path along the fence line, there will soon be trees, and the way the ground slopes I should be out of sight of the buildings.
I scurry quickly along the ground, cutting down closer to the fence. It’s not high: I can easily see over it. But there are telltale signs – a faint glint of wire along it. Is it electric, or is it an intruder alert? Either way I’m staying on this side of it. I duck down, and wait.
Footsteps are coming this way. I hesitate; this is insane.
I stand up just as the children approach. The first is a boy of about eleven or twelve. Walking, smiling. He sees me; he must see me, but keeps walking. Children follow behind him, a few metres apart, pass me one by one, no reaction. As they go they are getting younger.
A girl of perhaps seven is approaching now. ‘Hello,’ I say.
She smiles. ‘Hello,’ she says, but keeps walking.
Some younger ones, about four or five years old, bring up the rear.
‘Stop,’ I say. The last three children look at me, and stop. Saying nothing.
‘What are you doing?’ I look at the one in front.
‘Standing,’ he answers.
‘No, before I said “stop”. What were you doing?’
He looks puzzled. Smiles. ‘It’s Saturday. We’re doing our Saturday morning walk. The three of them smile, make no move to continue. It’s like they do what I say when I say it, smiling all the while. Just like the others, all walking the same pace, smiling. It’s almost as if—
No. No, it can’t be. It can’t.
I start to shake, horror swirling inside.
‘Hold out your hands,’ I say, unable to stop the tremor in my voice. In unison all three of them hold out their hands. ‘Pull your sleeves up,’ I say, and they do.
And there, glinting on their wrists: Levos. I have just enough presence of mind to take some hasty photographs, hands shaking so that I have to balance the camera against the fence to make them clear, forgetting it might be electric until I realise it mustn’t be, because I’m still standing here. This can’t be, it’s completely illegal. Slating is a punishment for teenage criminals under sixteen. Not little children. What could they possibly have done to deserve this?
And as I focus through the camera at them, I see. The last boy: that crooked grin. No. It can’t be. The day I came to Keswick on the train. That mother and son. It’s the same boy.
I lower the camera, look at him. ‘Where is your mother?’ He smiles back, says nothing, and I repeat the question.
‘I don’t know what that is,’ he says, and his smile is the same as on the train, but his look is blank. The giggles and mischief are gone; whatever it was that made him who he was…gone.
A faint noise, through the trees in the distance. A door? Fear runs through me. Did resting my camera against the fence set off an alert inside? Stupid.
‘Put your hands down again,’ I say. ‘Walk! Catch up to the others!’
They take off, more running than walking now, to try and catch up as instructed. I duck back down behind the fence.
My stomach heaves; I want to be sick. Children, young children, Slated? No. It breaks every law. Four-year-olds like that boy from the train can’t be criminals, no matter what his mother may have done.
Another distant sound intrudes. Is someone coming to investigate?
Get out of here. I slip back the way I came using as much care as I can to stay down, out of sight. Once there is some distance between me and the fence, I stop behind some rocks. Peer back. The children have reached the house now; taller figures are there. I snap a hasty photograph, looking through the zoom. Half a dozen adults, and I don’t need to see their black clothes to know what they are: there is something about the way they move, how they stand, that leaves me in no doubt. Lorders.
A few of them are speaking to the children, and others are scanning the hill, binoculars in hand. I pray Finley has kept out of sight where I left him.
There is no chance I’ll get back to the path above without being seen if they’re watching properly.
The only thing for it is speed, and misdirection. I race back up, taking a roundabout way to make it look as if I’m heading the other way, not looking back. Then shrink down again and out of sight, creeping along behind undergrowth, rocks, until finally I hit the path. I duck down and race along to where I left Finley behind the trees.
‘What’s going on?’
I’m breathing hard. ‘We need to get out of here as fast as we can. Better if we’re out of sight and off the path.’
He peers through the trees. ‘There are figures heading towards the gate below.’ My stomach twists. He holds out my jacket but I stuff it into my pack instead of putting it on. ‘Who are they?’
‘Run now, talk later.’
He gets the fear. ‘Okay. One sec,’ he says, and consults his map. ‘Can you rock-climb?’
We take off at full speed back up the path, but then, once we’re over the peak and out of sight, go off the path to race across rock, dirt, on steep, windy, faint trails made for sheep, not people. But Finley is much like me: he moves like a mountain goat in high places. I can see where we’re heading: a steep scramble over a peak. If we make it there and over before anyone reaches the place we left the path, they’ll never see where we went.
Unless they’ve got dogs. I stuff the thought down. Unless they’ve got them there already, they won’t have time to get them until we’re gone.
We reach the climb, and straight away I can see a few places where just because of my height I’ll have problems. ‘I’ll need to traverse to get over,’ I say, and start up the rocks. Some echo inside tells me to always maintain three points of contact when climbing, but I’m going too fast to do that. One foot slips.
Finley, just behind, grabs and steadies me. ‘No point in being quick if you’re dead,’ he says, and I glance down, and see with the traverse there is a steep drop below us now. That was too close.
I slow down, listen to him this time about the best way to go, and at last we clear the top. A quick glance back shows heads just coming up the path in the distance and we duck down. ‘I’m pretty sure they didn’t see which way we went,’ I say, not sure if that is true, but we’re in trouble if it isn’t.
‘We’re on a part of the trail now I’d wanted to come back on anyhow. But not by climbing over the top without ropes.’ He laughs.
‘You’re crazier than me.’
The wind is howling again now that we’re on the other side of the fell, and I put my blue coat back on. ‘Turn your coat inside out?’ I suggest. ‘So we look different.’
Finley stares back, then takes his coat off, reverses it: swapping blue for grey. He takes another hat out of his bag and swaps his blue one for a red one. ‘All disguised?’
‘Yep. Now let’s get out of here. Fast.’
We don’t run on the ridge – that would be suicidal – but keep the pace as fast as is reasonably safe. The temperature has dropped and clouds are pulling in.
Another path joins to this one. ‘That’s where we would have joined to here if we’d done it the sane way,’ Finley says. We continue on, dropping down now and out of the wind. I’m breathing easier, and—
‘What was that?’ Finley says.
‘I didn’t hear anything.’ Then I do. Faint behind us. ‘Could they have gone the long way and caught up?’
‘No way. It’s miles longer, and we were going fast.’
‘Are you sure?’
We carry on, faster again; there are some rocks ahead, and we duck down behind them, out of sight and out of the wind. ‘I’ll take a look,’ I say, and get my camera out. I zoom it back down the path, and there. One figure; a walker, and he looks familiar. ‘It’s that guy; he was at the Moot Hall the other day.’
I hand him the camera, and he looks through. ‘It’s Len,’ he says. ‘The fell checker.’
‘Should we take off?’
‘Len’s all right, and anyhow, there’s no point. Soon the way the path opens up he’ll see us no matter what. I vote we stay put and have some lunch.’
Finley opens his pack, takes out sandwiches, a flask. ‘Tea?’
‘Yes, please! You think of everything.’
‘I try, but with you it is hard keeping up.’ He finds cups, pours tea for both of us, and I hug the heat of it in my cold hands.
‘So. Are you going to tell me what is really going on?’ Finley asks.
‘Sometimes it is better not to know,’ I say, and he stares back, nods after a while.
He opens the sandwiches. ‘Cheese okay?’
We’re well into them when Len rounds the path. ‘Hello there, young Finley,’ he says.
Finley nods. ‘Hello there, old Len.’
‘Cheeky brat. Good place for a picnic on a cold day: okay if I join you?’ Lens says, and sits on a rock just above where he can see the path on both sides.
Finley introduces us, and Len finds biscuits in his pack to share. Part of me doesn’t want to move, from the shock of the orphanage, the cold, the protesting muscles from the hasty run and climb. Part of me is screaming in fear at the delay and wants to run.
Finley is asking Len about weather conditions and the path ahead, but as Lens answers some part of me is wondering if his eyes are on me too curiously.
Len has stayed sitting on the rock above us despite the wind, now and then looking back down the path. ‘We’ll have company soon,’ he says, and there is something about how he says it that raises my alarm. He looks back at us. ‘Shall we get our stories straight?’
Finley and I exchange a glance. The flight impulse is in my feet: I want to race down the path the other way.
‘No point in running, you’d be seen,’ Len says. ‘Besides, we’re just three walkers who had a nice time on yonder ridge today together, didn’t we, before stopping for lunch: we’ve got nothing to hide.’
I can hear the approaching footsteps now; they’re moving fast. If they’ve come up from the orphanage they’ve moved much quicker than I’d have thought they could. Then two faces appear: they must have split up where the paths diverge.
Lens nods. ‘Hello,’ he says.
The Lorder smiles; it’s unnatural. ‘Heh there. Good walking today?’
‘The wind cuts through you,’ Len answers. ‘Just the way I like it.’
‘Where’ve you been?’ the Lorder asks, and Len gives the cover story while Finley and I eat biscuits with concentration.
The Lorder nods, thoughtful. ‘I see. Have you seen two other walkers, one a girl? We think they may be lost.’
‘There were two girls a while ago. They took the last branch I think, back the way you came.’
They move off, talk a moment. Speak into a com, take one last look at us, then go back down the path.
‘Well then,’ Len says. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here before they realise they’ve been had.’
We stuff things away hastily and set off in the other direction. Len sets a hard pace, and every time the path branches we go a different way, winding and twisting around in convolutions we’d never have worked out without him, until we’re heading back down again on the other side.
Len gets Finley to lead, slows down in front of me so we drop back. ‘I think we need to talk,’ Len says, voice low. And yes he has helped us today, but what can I tell him?