The children had been both wolves and sheep and knew which they preferred. But it was not up to them to choose because in this war there had to be both good and evil, winners and losers, the victorious and the defeated. It had always been this way, the Loyal elders said, and always would. But the elders had not expected Raivyn.
She stood at the end of the second row, tall for her age of twelve years, and swished the plait of dark hair that hung down her spine across the waist of her shorts. General Ona and General Lila were conducting their inspection. They clasped their hands behind their backs and marched up and down the two ragged lines of children, checking each one for straight shoulders and downcast chins. Their fingers snapped at crooked collars and flicked at unwashed ears. But when they got to Raivyn their fingers stilled.
Raivyn’s rectangular pupils narrowed. She caught General Ona’s eye with a golden gleam. Ona’s round pupils stared back, rimmed by dull grey. Then she turned and marched back up the line while her black boots gathered red dust.
The children were forbidden to move but Raivyn tilted her head back to watch the two generals confer. The white morning sun revealed the tattered state of their uniforms: the frayed cuffs of their long grey pants, the faded yellows and blues of the stripes across the shoulders of their threadbare jackets. The stars on their caps were no longer silver but outlines of where the badges had once been. Raivyn studied General Lila’s slumped shoulders, the deep creases around her eyes and the line of grime under her chin. The girl watched how General Ona frowned and scratched at the grey stubbled hair on the back of her head beneath her blue bandanna.
They are lost, the voice whispered inside Raivyn’s head. They can’t remember what the war means.
Raivyn’s spine snapped upright, quick as a snake’s strike. The voice in her head had only let itself be heard since her blood had come in, two months before. It was not her own head voice but another’s, and she was as yet unsure of it; did not yet know whether it imparted truths to be trusted or lies to be ignored. Other girls whose blood had come in recent times had signed nothing of a strange voice to her. Her older sister, who had escaped Loyal for the east coast three years ago, had not ever mentioned such a thing in her fluttering-fingered words.
You are the one to show them, the voice hissed. Raivyn flicked her almond-shaped eyes from side to side. She scanned the row of recruits opposite her. But no one looked her way; none had heard the voice. The knowledge thrilled her, sat like a dark diamond nestled deep in her belly. The voice was hers, and hers only, and it gave her power.
A sharp whistle pierced the morning’s quiet.
‘Listen up!’ General Lila stood at the head of the two lines, feet apart, hands concealed behind her back. ‘When General Ona calls your name, step forward to receive your collar.’
One by one the recruits were called. One by one they shuffled forward in the dirt, their bare feet sending up small clouds of red dust until they stopped in front of the generals, heads bowed to receive their ribboned collars. Those assigned as sheep, their necks ringed with green ribbons, stood in a straggly line behind General Lila while the blue-collared wolves gathered behind Ona. The two groups stared at each other and with silent fingers passed their wishes, good and bad, between themselves.
She was not surprised to be the last called. She was not surprised to be assigned as a sheep. But when she lowered her head to receive her green ribbon, and the voice in her head shouted False as clear as cowbells, the shiver that scuttled across her shoulders made her stumble.
Raivyn looked up at General Ona’s face, and watched her grey eyes twitch under stumpy pale lashes.
The general’s nostrils quivered, and she barked, ‘What are you waiting for?’
Raivyn suppressed the urge to flick her knuckles from under her chin. She shoved her thumbs in her belt loops and slouched to the end of the sheep’s line.
The war had rules. The first rule was that the sheep had to stick together, no matter what. The second rule was that the wolves always won. Then, when it was all over, the wolves dragged the sheep’s carcasses onto high land to provide meat during the floods.
It was just a game of course; no one ever died or got eaten although many got bruised and cut from being dragged across the red dirt and stones up to the plateau. The war was not real but it was serious, the generals said. Before they let the children scatter, they stalked up and down the lines and talked in low tones.
‘A wall of brown water, taller than a silo, wider than the sun,’ said General Ona.
‘It roared like a hell-beast crushing houses into piles of sticks and people and animals into slivers of bone,’ said General Lila.
You must practice as sheep and wolves, as followers and leaders, because when the floods come again we must win the war, the generals said, and practice makes perfect.
But Raivyn did not believe them anymore. The floods had not come since before she and the other children were born, and the stories of whole families washed away and bloated and bruised bodies bobbing up and down in wild swirls of brown water sounded thin and brittle.
Not one child remembered the last time it rained more than a sprinkle. Yet the town elders warned of the danger of floods and ignored the relentless sun that withered crops and dried up waterholes and left empty tables and empty stomachs and dull minds. The elders demanded obedience but refused to learn the children’s way of talking. The elders lectured and the generals threatened and they all turned away from the black slit pupils of the children’s eyes, and shuddered.
Raivyn had never heard of any child born after the flood who had grown up to be a leader. So when the voice inside her head said, the rules of the game must change, she listened.
The sheep-children gathered together in a loose circle by the edge of the mud-hole. The older ones sought out shade and sat beneath the sparse leaves of the stumpy ti-trees, swapping gossip with quick fingers while they waited for capture. The younger children bent over, their skinny bums in the air, and poked their toes and fingers in the red mud. They flicked it at each other with throaty squeals and grunted giggles. Raivyn squatted, and watched. Her yellow eyes roamed around the group while inside her chest her heart pumped quiet secrets through her veins. The hair on the back of her neck bristled. She turned her neck slowly and sniffed the scent of the wolves in the dry, burnt air.
Above her, a hawk glided on spread wings across the cloudless blue sky. She watched it wheel in a daylight-moon arc then swoop down to the ground, straight and fast, to snatch up its prey. When it flew up again a small animal hung, rag-like, from its claws.
Raivyn tugged at the green ribbon around her neck, scratched at it with her fingernails until it started to shred. With both hands she ripped it off. She jumped to her feet and ground it into the silver-slimed mud under her heel. Raivyn clapped her hands above her head. The sheep all turned towards her. She signalled to them: come. Three younger ones trotted over with wide grins and mischievous eyes but the rest gathered closer, forming a tight pack. Their thin dusty legs rubbed together and their fingers and hands flapped and wriggled in alarm.
Again Raivyn clapped her hands above her head. She pointed over the lip of the small hill that encircled the mud hole. The older sheep children banded closer again, clutching at the green ribbons around their necks, and sounded the low moan of distress. Two of the younger ones who had skipped towards Raivyn turned and fled back to the group. But the other scrambled faster towards her, his mouth open, his short tongue pushing into the gum below his lower teeth.
The boy, Dart, wiped the dust from his yellow, almond-shaped eyes. He blinked up at Raivyn, and his black slit pupils widened like a grinning mouth.
Good, said the voice inside Raivyn’s head, good good. She grabbed Dart’s green ribbon collar between her fingers and ripped it in two.
Dart picked the ribbon off his collarbone and dropped it to the dirt. He smiled at Raivyn. She nodded and headed up the hill, and he followed.
Dart had grown up playing the war, had played it every year since he could run fast enough to catch a lizard by its tail. The first time he was a wolf he grabbed a sheep by the back of her neck and shook and shook until he was growled at.
Too rough, an older wolf had signed, and waved her fingers one by one. Gentle, gentle. She showed him how to grab the sheep around the chest and drag the limp body to the plateau, and stack it with the others in a loose heap until the final one had been rounded up.
Dart had watched his sheep, a girl named Ela, and made sure she did not move from the heap until the generals gave the all clear. When it was given, Ela jumped up and slapped Dart across his face. She spat at the ground in front of his feet and refused to share her water bag with him the next time they played rocks and bones together in the concrete yard outside the Loyal schoolhouse.
This time, Ela was a wolf and Dart had been named a sheep but as he scampered over the warm dirt and kept Raivyn’s long legs in his sight Dart wondered: if he was not a wolf and no longer a sheep, what was in between?
The whole of Loyal was visible from the plateau: each miserable grey-boarded house with its identical veranda out the front and clothes-line out the back; the dusty-windowed general store; the three rectangular rooms with louvre windows missing like broken teeth that made up the school. There was the grime-brown sandstone church with its rusted iron cross and, behind it, the tin-roofed shed that doubled as the town hall. In the centre of it all stood Memorial Square.
The Square was the only patch of green among the red-brown and yellow-grey township, a patch of grass which no bare feet were ever permitted to touch. In the centre of the patch of grass stood the four metre high piece of black granite rock that had been dumped there after the last big flood. The whole town had worked to chisel a base into the rock, and to carve the names of the hundreds of dead and missing into its sheer face. Then they hauled the rock upright so it stood vertical, right in the place it had washed up. The elders said the rock was the exact height that the flood had been at its peak. There was no one who could dispute them so the fact stuck, a piece of lichen clinging to the town’s pride as stubborn as the rock itself.
Raivyn squatted on the edge of the plateau and shielded her eyes against the sun’s glare as she surveyed the town’s empty streets below. In the middle-day heat the elders would be snoozing under rattling fans while the two generals lazed in the town hall, pretending to strategise while drinking beer and snacking on boiled peanuts. Raivyn thought of the generals’ faded stripes and missing stars, their slumped shoulders and soft bellies, their minds dulled by the relentless sun.
Dull, slow, lazy and narrow, said the voice, they do not deserve to lead.
Dart squatted beside Raivyn. His skinny legs were slick with sweat that turned the dust on his skin into a muddy paste. He scratched his fingernails into the paste, making quill-like marks.
Echidna? Raivyn signed.
Dart shook his head. He gave a sly grin and clawed his fingers. He tapped his nails on bared teeth. Fangs.
Raivyn snickered in the back of her throat and repeated his sign. Fangs. She pointed down at the town hall.
Dart put his index finger to his lips, and nodded. Together they clambered down the steep side of the plateau, keeping their bodies low to the ground, scurrying from straggly bush to stumpy tree across the red dirt and stones. The wolves were nowhere to be seen, and Raivyn and Dart reached the outside of the town hall unnoticed. They crept around to the side door. The generals had left it half open. Raivyn and Dart peered inside.
General Ona and General Lila sat with their backs to the door in the middle of the hall, each of them sprawled on an orange plastic chair. At their feet, a dozen empty amber bottles littered the scratched timber floor in among coils of thin white rope and a fire-blackened metal brand. Above them, an overhead fan rattled and wheezed.
Raivyn calculated the distance between the door and the chairs. She listened to the noise of the fan, the way it hummed low for two beats then rattled loud for four. She counted the number of empties on the floor, and craned her neck back to check the position of the sun. The calculations whirred inside her head and the voice said, That’s it, you got it right. Raivyn checked again, just to be sure, then signed the instructions to Dart.
He nodded. He pressed his fist under his chin and flicked it out towards the generals, his lip curled in a sneer. Then he crouched low, and on light feet followed Raivyn into the hall.
Ona’s head lolled back as she sucked on the long neck of a bottle and drained its contents. Through half-lidded eyes she glanced across at Lila, who cracked the cap off another bottle with her teeth and spat it out.
Ona watched the bottle top spin on the floor, a piece of fool’s gold.
‘What a life.’ Lila’s throat bulged as she gulped from the bottle. She bent forward, elbows on knees and let out a long burp. ‘What a fuckin life.’ Lila knocked the back of her hand against Ona’s knee. ‘Eh?’
Ona shrugged. ‘It’s livin.’
‘Is it?’ Lila burped again. ‘Coulda fooled me.’
‘Better check on the kids soon.’ Ona drained her bottle and set it on the floor. ‘See how the old sheep and wolves are goin.’
‘Stuff ’em.’ Lila took another drink. ‘Let em give emselves heat stroke runnin around out there, pack of dumb loonies, too stupid to work out they’re all damn sheep no matter what.’
‘Not their fault to be born the way they are.’ Ona glared at Lila. ‘After that dam burst with lordy-knows-what chemicals mixed in it, no-one’s kids came out normal.’
‘Don’t get touchy.’ Lila raised her hands, as if in surrender. ‘Not sayin anythin’s anyone’s fault. Just saying a bit of home truths. They can’t talk, they can’t think and those eyes of theirs give me the creepin willies.’ She swigged on her beer. ‘Sometimes I think them that died in the flood were the lucky ones. Least they got out.’
Ona frowned and scratched at her grey stubbled hair. ‘You don’t mean that.’
‘Don’t I?’ Lila snorted. ‘Every day we wake up scared and fall asleep at night the same. In between we look to the sky for rain, praying for some but not too much. We practice for flood and fight fires that burn every stick of tree to charcoal. And we got nuthin to show for it but a bunch of mute kids with mutant eyes.’
Ona shook her head and cracked open another bottle. ‘One looked at me funny today,’ she took a gulp and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. ‘That tall girl, Raivyn.’
Lila nodded. ‘She was Emma’s kid, I think. Got big boot ideas, that one. But I bet—’
Lila was flat-back on the dirty wooden floor with her boots in the air before she took another breath. Beside her, Ona wheezed.
Raivyn and Dart crouched next to the two generals and worked quickly to bind their ankles and wrists with the thin white rope. Each general’s sweat-stained bandanna was wrapped around her mouth. But neither bothered to yell or scream or swear.
Raivyn picked up the metal brand, its edges as flat as sheep’s teeth, and slapped it against her thigh. She turned it this way and that, studying the bronze and black smears that had burned into its surface over the years, and shoved it into the back of her pants. Raivyn pulled Ona to her feet and gripped the front of the general’s grimy shirt. She stared into Ona’s eyes, at the thin sliver of grey around large, round, black pupils.
Fear, said the voice in Raivyn’s head, and she grinned.
She beckoned to Dart as he checked the knots around Lila’s wrists. Together they shuffled the generals to the tool shed at the back of the hall. Raivyn dragged out two wheelbarrows marked Property Of Loyal Township in flaking white paint. She grabbed Lila under the shoulders and motioned to Dart to take Lila’s feet. They dropped her in a wheelbarrow and then did the same with Ona.
In the burn of the afternoon’s sun, the odd parade made its way back up the hill, towards the plateau.
The white-sun crept towards the western horizon, streaked with orange clouds. Raivyn’s feet slipped on loose rocks as she pushed her wheelbarrow up the final metres of hill before it met the lip of the plateau. She dug her heels into the dirt. The muscles in her legs and arms ached with strain. She listened for the voice inside her head. It had faded to a faint hiss. She shut her eyes and summoned it, called it clear into her mind. Push, push, it said.
She gritted her teeth and narrowed her eyes against the salty sting of sweat, and kept going.
Good, said the voice inside her head. Almost there, almost done. Good good.
Just ahead of her, Dart’s leg muscles strained. The wheelbarrow’s metal handles were slippery under his palms and his shoulders ached. Raivyn clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth in time to the shuffle of his feet. He had only five steps forward to go…three steps, two steps, one. Raivyn gave her barrow a final push and then she was beside Dart. They stood at the edge of the plateau and gazed at the backs of the wolves who sat scratching at the dirt at their feet and tugging at their dusty blue collars.
Raivyn and Dart lifted their eyes to the puzzled stares of the sheep, gathered in a huddle in front of the bored wolves.
Raivyn raised a finger to her lips.
Wait, she signed. Quiet.
She glared at a young sheep who nudged his neighbour, and made the Wait sign again.
Raivyn and Dart left the wheelbarrow-bound generals at the plateau’s edge and crept up behind the wolves. In this war there were five wolves—one more than usual—because the fifth wolf, Calvo, was not much taller than an undersized wallaby and so didn’t really count. But it was Calvo who heard Raivyn and Dart first, Calvo who turned first and tugged on the sleeve of his big sister Junip. Junip shook Calvo away three times before she bothered to turn around. When she did she jumped up and stared into Raivyn’s chest.
Junip stepped back. The other wolves stood and gathered behind her. The seven sheep Raivyn and Dart had left behind got to their feet and shuffled this way and that, confused with the sudden change in the game.
We have captured the generals, Raivyn signed.
The sheep and wolves moved closer together, their fingers whispering.
It is time for the game to change, Raivyn signed.
The sheep and wolves huddled closer again. Their yellow eyes darted this way and that.
We will light the fire, signed Raivyn, and wait for the elders to come.
The wolf children and sheep children looked towards the plateau’s edge, at the wheelbarrows with the captured generals, and at their town below. They nodded their heads. They scratched their toes into the red dirt and tapped their fingers against their calloused palms, an orchestra of rain-soft sounds.
Raivyn clapped her hands above her head. The sheep children and wolf children stopped, and became still. They watched as Raivyn put her hand to her neck and lifted her chin. They did the same.
One by one each sheep and each wolf tore off their ribbon collars and threw them to the ground. And as they did, they knew exactly who they were.
All the children agreed that Raivyn should have the branding honours, and they were eager for the ceremony to start. As soon as night fell they lit the fire, tipped General Ona and General Lila out of their wheelbarrows and left them, tied up and sorry, at the fire’s edge.
The children stood in a single row across the plateau and watched the stars unfold in a scattered silver ribbon across the night sky. Each child, the younger scampering ones and the older ones who preferred to move slow and watch fast, held a fire torch, the same as the ones the generals had held over them in wars past. Behind them, a cloud shadowed the half-moon and coated its edges with creamy yellow. Below them, the first orange flickers of battery-torches appeared from the dark centre of Memorial Square.
The children watched the two-by-two procession of townspeople march up the hill. A few of the younger ones jumped from foot to foot, until Dart stilled them with a light tap upon their shoulders.
Stand tall, he signed. Stand together.
When dusk fell Raivyn had gathered them into a group and had listened to the voice inside her head. She’d signed the words it spoke.
Don’t be scared. The war is different now. The rules have changed.
Yes, the children had signed. We understand.
Now the children watched as the townspeople slowed to a shuffle and their two-by-twos became scattered threes and fours and fives. The mob straggled up to the plateau. Feeble battery-torches dangled from their hands.
Raivyn met the gathered townspeople with her torch held high. She flared her nostrils. She put her fist under her chin. She flicked her fist towards them and spat on the ground. Behind her, the line of children pounded their bare feet into the dirt.
Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right.
They raised their fire torches into the air and pounded their feet faster.
Left-right, left-right, left-right.
They marched towards the captured generals and picked them up from the dirt. Raivyn took the metal brand from her back pocket. She grabbed its wooden handle and shoved it into the fire until the metal glowed orange-red.
Dart faced General Ona. He ripped apart her shirt buttons to expose the top of her chest then moved across to General Lila and did the same. The children swung the generals around and pushed them towards their leader.
Raivyn scanned the elders and townspeople with her yellow eyes. Her rectangle pupils widened in the firelight as she waited for the townspeople to come closer, waited for their murmurs and mutters and whispers to stop. She held the brand, red hot and glowing, in her left hand.
The generals fell to their knees.
Raivyn’s eyes shifted across the gathered Loyal townspeople once more. Their mouths gaped and twisted at the sight of the children gathered around her, and the generals kneeling before her.
An elder moved forward. The hem of his faded red robes rustled against the dirt.
‘You must not,’ he pointed his polished-nail finger at her. ‘You must not!’
Raivyn raised the brand above her head. She swooped it, graceful as a wing, then found her mark.
First Ona. Raivyn pressed the brand into the general’s bare skin.
Then Lila. Raivyn gripped her shoulder tight and pressed the brand down. Metal to skin, she covered the scars that had once marked the generals as wolves, and made them sheep.
Sweat dripped from the generals’ foreheads to their chins and into the warm dirt below. Their lips pressed in a tight grimace, their eyes squeezed shut. They did not scream but the shouts and curses from the townspeople and elders shot loud as thunder-cracks into the silent night air. The children moved forward, stamping their feet left-right-left-right and shaping their hands shh-shh-shh.
Raivyn tossed the brand to the ground.
The elders were silent.
The townspeople hushed.
The voice inside her head said Wolf, wolf, you are the wolf.
Raivyn looked down on the former generals and flicked her fingers at them until they scuttled behind the townspeople. She strode across the dirt. She signed for the children to gather around her, and faced the eldest of the elders. In the light of the flames, his watery eyes were liver-yellow, and he winced as Raivyn bared her teeth.
She raised her hands and hooked her fingers into fangs, and nodded to the children.
They raised their hands.
It’s our war now, they signed.
We are all wolves now, they signed.
We are the wolves now, and always.
Loyal is a story about breaking the rules, and there are so many rules that girls and women need to break. The story’s main character, Raivyn, lives in a small town that is bound by fear: fear of the past, and fear of difference. But as she grows into puberty, Raivyn senses and hears the growing power within her. She decides to act on the inner voice that tells her she is powerful to make fundamental change in the way the township is organised.