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THE HERETIC by LUCAS BALE
Somewhere outside, the dog ceased its barking.
Caught up in the roiling of a dream, Jordi had woken suddenly to the sound of the animal’s distant baying. But almost as abruptly as he’d been roused, the noise had ended.
Awake, Jordi lifted a hand to his aching shoulder and kneaded the muscle. The acid still burned from the toil of the previous few days. The cold had descended early and without warning, and the whole village had scrambled to begin the Gathering and rescue the crop from spoiling in the glistening hoarfrost. Now Jordi lay on the low cot he had slept on for almost all of the fourteen years of his life, and shivered.
He glanced over at the fire. The pale embers smouldered gently amid the ash. Another log on the tiny hearth should see them through to morning, he thought, and perhaps a third blanket from the small cupboard in the hall. He glanced over at Ishmael, watched his chest rise and fall in time with the soft hum from his lips. Jordi smiled despite the cold. Even asleep, his brother wore a rakish grin.
Jordi swung his legs off the cot and pulled both blankets around his shoulders. A stabbing cramp pinched his muscles. Papa had been relentless, pushing both of them to cut and sweep more quickly than they had thought possible. From first light to the fall of dusk they had laboured without respite. Cutting, sweeping and carrying armfuls of crop to the waiting carts beneath a cool winter sun.
Again he shivered and closed his eyes. Back to sleep soon, he thought. There would be more to gather tomorrow. Carefully, so as not to wake Ishmael, he padded over the wool rugs laid across the cold wood floor and peered through the tiny window. This time of year, with both moons shedding silver and crimson across the fields and the forest beyond, the light was enough to see by.
The village was home to a handful of dogs, and he wondered which had been disturbed this deep into the night. The closest was Johanssen’s tiny mongrel, but it was so unassuming and guileless that Jordi found it hard to believe anything might disturb its slumber. Most likely it was Vaarden’s hunter. That ill-tempered creature could weed out a rat in a field of rape, and nothing living seemed able to dodge its attention. That was Vaarden’s doing. He’d sharpened the animal’s senses until Jordi thought it could almost read minds.
It left him wondering what might have disturbed the animal. It wouldn’t have been concerned enough to open an eye to a wandering grey weasel from the forest, he guessed. Vaarden wouldn’t have permitted that. He’d never get any sleep.
Jordi ducked a little and tilted his head to see through the window’s grime, across the field towards the Vaarden place. He could make out the roof and doors of their barn, and the curl of smoke beyond from the fire in their bedroom. There were no children; it was just the warden and his young wife from town.
Jordi had never warmed to the warden’s wife. She was not much older than him, but she wore her past affluence like a cloak wrapped tightly around her to keep the rest of the village away. She was far too good for the likes of them. Papa had often grumbled to Mama that whatever had caused Vaarden to want to wed her was a mystery. But Jordi understood fine well why: she was pleasing to look at. Her hair tumbled across her shoulders like a silver waterfall, and her green eyes glimmered as she took after him and Ishmael with a broom. On the warm summer days when she took to the fields in a light dress that did little to hide her olive skin and the curves of her smooth body, he experienced a stirring in a place he didn’t fully understand.
Ishmael spoke coarsely of her, and old Vaarden knew as much of his brother’s lust as he cared to. A few times Vaarden and Ishmael had exchanged tense words without mentioning her name, but Jordi knew what it was about. What else would it be about? Everyone loved Ishmael. Everyone except Vaarden. Talk in the village was that Vaarden couldn’t please his young wife, and turned his rage onto Ishmael for it.
As Jordi squinted through the dirty glass, he thought he caught a shimmer of movement among the shadows on the edge of the forest. He stared, tilting his head to improve the view, but couldn’t make it out.
Had he really seen something, or was it a trick of the light? The remnants of his dream dancing in front of his eyes and mocking him?
Jordi turned and made his way out of the room he shared with his brother, then along the hallway of their tiny cottage. The stove in the main room was cool and dark now. Only the bedroom fires were alight. He crept to the main door and silently lifted the latch; he had long ago taught himself the knack of opening the door without a sound. As the cold night air seeped into his bones, he shivered again, and his heart began to simmer in his chest. He pulled the blankets more tightly around his shoulders and eased into the shadows outside the house.
The woodpile lay to his left, but the fire was forgotten now. He wanted to know what he’d seen. Wanted to prove to himself that he wasn’t still dreaming. Perhaps he’d be lucky and spot a deer on a nighttime jaunt, or maybe even a wolf prowling for food.
He gazed into the darkness, but could pick out nothing. He felt a curl of disappointment. There was no movement amid the gloom on the fringes of the forest. There was no wind, so the trees were still. For a moment he stood and waited, but still nothing moved. He shook his head and turned towards the woodpile.
Then he saw them.
A handful of dark shapes gliding along the edge of the field, stooped and silent. Figures shaped like hunched men, cloaked in shadow.
Jordi had seen Vaarden’s rifle enough times to know what it was these men were holding. Vaarden owned a rifle because he was both warden and a hunter; he had a permit from the Magistratus. Ishmael had stolen it once, a foolish prank, and Vaarden had flown into a fury. He’d stormed through the house and dragged Ishmael into the street and beat him. Mama had called in the Watch from the town, but it was Ishmael who had been lashed. Vaarden had offered no explanation, and none had been asked for.
Jordi’s mouth was suddenly dry. He wanted to cry out, but the words froze in his throat. Why would men be approaching the village at night, with guns?
He knew the answer, but he refused to believe it. How could they know?
Run, a voice inside his head screamed.
Vaarden’s dog. It had been Vaarden’s dog barking, and Jordi realised why it had suddenly silenced. Vaarden was a hunter and he owned a gun. If they knew that…
Jordi’s legs wouldn’t move. He pleaded with them to carry him inside, but they felt brittle beneath him. He felt his chest tighten and his hands begin to shake. Then, suddenly, he was running. Into the house and into their bedroom.
Over to Ishmael, fingers digging into his brother’s skin, shaking him, clawing, biting.
‘Wake up!’ he hissed. ‘Wake up, please!’
Ishmael’s eyes snapped open.
‘What the hell are you—’ he began, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
‘Vaarden,’ was all Jordi could say. His throat was so dry, it was agony just to speak. ‘Someone’s… coming. I think they’ve killed Vaarden.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Ishmael moaned, rolling his eyes. ‘If this is another one of your stories, Jor—’
‘Please, Ish,’ Jordi said, his shoulders trembling. ‘It’s no story, I promise. I saw them. They’ve got guns. Like Vaarden’s.’
Ishmael slid off his cot and sloped over to the window, still unbelieving. He ducked, rubbed his eyes and peered out. Jordi watched his brother’s eyes widen and his mouth sag. Then Ishmael turned and reached for him.
‘Grab some clothes,’ he hissed. ‘As much as you can carry. And put on your boots.’
‘It’s because of the preacher,’ Jordi said.
‘It’s too late for that now,’ his brother replied. ‘We have to go.’ He sprinted out of their room.
Jordi ran over to the small chest where they kept their clothes and began to pull out everything he could, shoving it into the shoulder bag his mother had once sewn for him out of burlap. He pushed in clothes until he couldn’t fit any more, then slung it over his shoulder.
He heard shuffling behind him and spun, his heart pounding. His mother stood in the frame of the door, her face pale and smooth in the moonlight. Her eyes betrayed her panic, and she reached for him, imploring for him to hurry to her. He pushed past her and she turned and followed.
Ishmael stood by the main door, almost silhouetted against the crimson and silver light of the moons. His face was tight, his lips pulled back over his teeth as he spoke, and his eyes were wide and danced with fear.
‘The back,’ he whispered and pointed. ‘I can see them at Johanssen’s place. They’ll be here next! We have to go.’
Jordi’s father appeared from the main room with a large sack in one hand and a loaf of fresh bread in the other. He pushed the loaf into Jordi’s hands.
‘Head for the forest,’ he whispered. ‘Stay low and don’t look back, no matter what you hear.’ His deep voice trembled. ‘I need to wake as many as I can.’
‘We should warn the preacher,’ Ishmael said.
‘There’s no time,’ their father said, shaking his head.
‘I’ll make time. We can’t leave him.’
‘Ishmael,’ their mother said, imploring. ‘You must listen to your father.’
But Ishmael didn’t listen. He turned and ran out the door. It was the last time Jordi would ever see his brother alive.
Breathless, Jordi ran. He kept his back hunched and his head low. He tried not to think about what was behind him, but as he dodged through the gate and into the fields, he glanced over his shoulder and back at the house. Dark shapes floated across the windows and he turned and ran harder.
He’d put his boots on the wrong feet, and his toes dug into the leather, scraping and biting. He hadn’t even had time to lace them. To his left, more shadows creased the moonlight.
It’s not possible! They were just in our cottage. They can’t have got to us that quickly.
No, the shadows to his left were familiar—Mr and Mrs Ingmarrson. Huddled and running, like him. Carrying sacks stuffed with whatever possessions they’d had time to grab. There were more beyond them, all stumbling for the forest. He searched for Ishmael but couldn’t see him.
He stared ahead, breaths coming in ragged gasps as the cold air scratched at his lungs. The tall grass whipped his fingers and tugged at his knees. The forest was still at least fifty metres away.
The crack of gunfire filled the air.
Jordi knew the sound. He’d heard it many times, emanating from deep within the forest when Vaarden and his friends from the Watch hunted in the early dawn. Jordi hunted too, but he had his own places to hunt and forage. Places Vaarden and the Watch would never go. In the spring—as no man or woman ventured into the forest in winter if they could avoid it—he’d take his slingshot to hunt grey weasel and tree jumpers. And he would sometimes hear that sound. But it had always been so distant, it had seemed little more than an echo on the wind.
This was different. Loud and hard like thunder overhead.
It terrified him.
The moonlight vanished each time it sounded, and a white, incandescent light seared the night sky. He felt something tiny hiss as it hurtled past him. Too fast almost to notice, like a summer firefly. But he knew what it was, and he whispered desperately to himself, tears blooming his eyes.
Immediately he felt ashamed, but he ran harder.
The trees were closer now, but under the tall grass the fields had been furrowed deep and were uneven and hard from the hoarfrost. He fought to keep his balance. Every time a foot hit the ground he felt it turn over.
The white light flashed again and again. The crack of thunder shattered the silence of the night.
Ish, where are you?
But he couldn’t look around. He just had to run. A scream shrilled to his left, but he forced himself to ignore it. He knew there were more running now, but he didn’t look—couldn’t just stop to count. He hoped as many as possible had been woken and were fleeing.
Make the trees and you can hide.
Another scream, followed by a wretched whimper. Somewhere, someone wailed.
Twenty metres. His lungs burned.
One after another, fireflies hissed past his ears.
Then his knee buckled on a ridged furrow and he fell. The ground rose up to meet him, and iron, frozen earth punched his face and tore his cheek. He rolled and pitched and dragged himself up.
Scrambling forward, he staggered and fell again. He glanced back. He couldn’t help himself. It was like something pulled his head round and drew his eyes. Dozens of dark shapes, threading their way through the grass, ducked low. Flashes exploded in front of them, bathing the field in brilliant white light for a split second each time. The brightness stung his eyes.
He turned, sucking in deep, panting breaths. He crawled and jumped and clawed, trying desperately to get up again and run at the same time.
The trees were so close.
The gnarled shapes within the forest appeared ghostly in the shadows cast by the searing white flashes. The swarm of fireflies splintered and tore away shards of bark.
Suddenly, he was inside.
He didn’t stop. The ground was flatter now, softer from the wet moss and brown leaves of the Gathering time. He’d reached the forest quicker than anyone else. No one in the village could run faster than him. He knew instinctively where to go, where the men wouldn’t find them. There was only one place they could go. He knew his father would follow, and that everyone else would too. Suddenly, Jordi was leading them all, saving them. As the screams from the field echoed in his ears, he led his people away.
He carried on running until his legs wouldn’t allow him to run anymore. His lungs collapsed, and he fought to haul in air. He crumpled onto the cool, wet ground and wept. He tried to stop himself, but he couldn’t.
It seemed a long time before he felt rough hands on his jacket. He panicked and turned, scrambling backwards.
They had him. No!
He looked into the eyes of the face leaning over him, felt the hands clawing for him. Recognised the kindness and sorrow.
‘No time to rest, little man.’
Jordi nodded and dragged himself up again. He glanced around. There were other figures in the shadows. Only a handful—ten or twelve maybe. He could hardly make out who they were.
‘I know where to go,’ Jordi whispered.
‘I know you do,’ his father said and hugged him tight. ‘So take us there.’
Jordi began to run again, ducking under branches and climbing over fallen trees. They all followed. He couldn’t remember how long they’d been running. It seemed like all night.
And still they ran.
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About the Author:
Lucas Bale writes the sort of intense, thrilling science-fiction and suspense stories which make you miss your train stop. The sort of stories which dig into what makes us human and scrape at the darkness which hides inside every one of us. When he looks up at the infinite space above him, he sees the myriad worlds which are waiting for us, and which need to be explored. His debut novel, THE HERETIC, is the gateway to the BEYOND THE WALL series, an epic story about the future of humanity and the discovery of the truth of its past. He wasn’t always a writer. He was a barrister for fifteen years before he discovered crime doesn't pay and turned to something which actually pays even less. No one ever said he was smart, but at least he’s happy.