Authors: A.J. Dalton
A terrible anger came into his father’s eyes, an anger Jillan had never seen before and one that scared him more than Minister Praxis did. Jed seethed, ‘I knew that snake couldn’t be trusted to leave well enough alone!’
‘Jillan!’ Maria snapped, demanding his attention. ‘Get your things and be off to school. Now! I need to talk to your father. Don’t worry, all will be well.’ Her eyes blazed as she turned on his father.
Heart pounding and blood roaring in his ears, Jillan fled to his room. He grabbed slate board and chalk and then took up one of his special rocks from its niche in the stone wall of his bedchamber. His collection of strangely coloured and oddly shaped rocks had started when he was young enough to believe they had special meaning and magical properties. He now understood that his father only brought him such rocks when the hunters had failed to catch enough rabbits for everyone’s dinner pots. Nonetheless, today, he put the smooth red pebble that he associated with feeling brave in his pocket.
Jillan ran back through the small kitchen and eating area of their small house, hardly daring to glance at his parents, and out into the daylight. His mother’s voice filled his ears.
‘… if you really do love us, then you will leave it be. When we came here, you promised me you’d cause no more trouble, so that we could raise our son in some sort of peace and safety. You promised me, Jedadiah, and I mean to hold you to that promise!’
His father rumbled something in reply, but Jillan couldn’t catch it.
‘No!’ his mother rejoined in her high pitch. ‘That died in New Sanctuary, along with many good people. If you’re going to start on that again then – as the Saviours are my witness – you can do it without Jillan and me. I will not stand idly by while you put this family in danger.’
Jillan blinked as he tried to make sense of what he’d just overheard. What did his mother mean by
when we came here
? Had his parents lived in a different part of Godsend at some point before he was born? And how had they known of people in New Sanctuary, a place of such shame and blasphemy that its name was only ever whispered in conversation?
As far as Jillan knew, the only home he’d ever had was their small cottage squashed up against the wall of Godsend. The families who had first settled the town naturally occupied the large homes – complete with front and back yards – near the Gathering Place, and usually had a seat on the council. As the town had become more established and the population had grown, however, there had only been hurriedly built crowded homes available for the newer families. Jillan and his parents lived right up against the south wall, behind which were the midden ditches and cemetery, and just beyond which the wilds truly began.
People tended to avoid the south wall. Even the south gate was only guarded by a single Hero, since it was used solely for infrequent burials. It was usually only the very newest families who lived in the higgledy-piggledy warren of the southern part of town, yet while most families moved out as soon as they could, he and his parents had remained in their home even when the houses around them had become deserted and fallen into disrepair. Consequently, rather than thinking of his family as newcomers, he’d always assumed they lived where they lived because his parents liked their privacy. After all, people just brought interference and trouble, with their rules and disapproval. And he really didn’t mind the smell from the middens, at which so many people turned their noses up – he’d grown up with it and somehow found its damp earthiness reassuring.
Blinking, he realised he was almost out of the maze in which he lived and close to the busier parts of town. He slowed his pace, wanting to delay the moment when he would reach the school as long as possible. He watched a bird winging high across the sky and found his steps drifting after it. It led him back to the wall and he climbed the long stairs up and round to the Hero keeping a solitary lookout over the south gate.
Old Samnir the Hero nodded to Jillan in welcome and then turned his grey eyes back towards the wilds.
‘Anything moving?’ Jillan asked as he always did, taking his customary seat between two crenellations.
Samnir continued to scan the landscape. After a second or two, he replied gruffly, ‘Thought I saw one of the mountains move to the left earlier.’
Jillan smiled. ‘It did not!’
The Hero scowled at Jillan. ‘Know much about mountains, do you? Ever even set foot on one? Didn’t think so. And who are you to challenge a mighty Hero of the Empire? I should have you flogged, dragged through the streets and then hung on high for all to see, so that you might serve as warning to all those who allow the pagans to corrupt their thinking.’
Jillan’s smile broadened. ‘The creases in the corners of your eyes always deepen when you’re not being serious.’
‘Damn this traitorous face of mine!’ Samnir sighed. ‘It knows me too well. It means I can never play cards with any of the other Heroes.’
‘Is that why you’re always out here on your own?’ Jillan asked without much thought.
The Hero tightened his grip on the haft of his spear until a few of his knuckles cracked. He quickly turned his face back towards the cemetery and the forest. His voice became cold. ‘You are presumptuous, boy! I don’t owe you any answers. You should get along to school. I don’t want the Minister saying I’ve been keeping you from your studies.’
Jillan was crestfallen. Samnir had always seemed different to everyone else, less judgemental, less disapproving. The Hero had seen the world and wasn’t scared of anything, even keeping guard alone in a lightning storm. For a few years Jillan had dreamed of becoming a Hero just like Samnir – with a face as weathered and muscles as hard as rock – until he’d learned Heroes were never allowed families of their own, lest their willingness to do their duty be compromised by sentiment. Even so, they’d spent many hours in each other’s company over the years, whether in companionable silence or talking about other communities, trees, animals and all manner of things Samnir had seen – although, Jillan now realised, they had never spoken about exactly why Samnir chose to stay out here on his own. Until now Jillan had always felt safe in Samnir’s company, and the world had seemed to make a bit more sense each time he spoke to him.
Yet today something was different. Something had gone wrong. He’d managed to make his parents argue, and now he’d made Samnir angry. Perhaps he’d been fooling himself in thinking he and Samnir were friends. After all, what could a grizzled warrior and a thirteen-year-old boy have in common? Clearly, Samnir had merely been indulging him up till now, or being kind because he felt sorry for the boy from the southern part of town. Angry at himself, and resolving never to bother the Hero again, Jillan shifted in his seat and prepared to jump down and make for the stairs. The sooner he got to school, completed six more months of study and was Drawn to the Saviours by the Saint, the better.
To Jillan’s surprise, however, Samnir said quietly, his back still to him. ‘Wait.’ A sigh. ‘Why am I out here commanding nothing but the wind, when I was once a leader of men in the Empire’s army? Why am I in the remotest backwater of the Empire, when I once marched side by side with Saints in the campaign against the barbarians in the eastern desert? Why do I now oversee nothing but a graveyard of dusty bones, when I once guarded the temple of the Great Saviour himself?’ He paused. ‘Because I am like all other men, Jillan. Once, I thought I was better than every other mortal, that my proximity to the sacred heart of the Empire made me special, made me something more. I refused to see otherwise, even when my joints began to pain me as I rose from my pallet each morning and as the weight of my armour began to make my shoulders droop. I began to see younger and more capable men as a threat and began to say and do things to undermine them, even when it was not in the best interests of the Empire. I put my hubris and self-interest before the will of the Saviours, despite everything they’d given me. But the Saviours are all-knowing and saw the blasphemy in my heart.
‘I was asked to step aside, and when I refused I was exiled from the holy temple complex. I was denied all sight and sound of the holy ones. I was not worthy to be in their presence, you see. Even then, I was allowed a chance to redeem myself, for the Saviours are merciful even when punishing transgressors. I was put in charge of the Heroes on the walls of Hyvan’s Cross, a large community no more than a week’s march from the Empire’s sacred heart. Yet still I was ungrateful and in my anger sought to blame all those around me. The Saviours forgive me, but I took their name in vain on many occasions.
‘Saint Azual was forced to banish me from Hyvan’s Cross and after several other unhappy postings I ended up here, on the edge of the wilds. My fall from grace was caused by my thoughts, words and deeds, and they have taken me as far from the sacred heart as it is possible to get. I am all but become pagan, so far have I strayed and so corrupted am I.
‘Why am I out here?’ he asked, turning back to Jillan with wide staring eyes. ‘I have condemned myself to this place! Everyone finds their right and proper place in the scheme of things, Jillan, and this is mine. Ultimately, mortals are only ever victims of their own selves. I am the lowest of the low and must now spend my remaining days doing this lowly duty to the best of my ability, else I may as well leave the Empire altogether, join the pagans in the mountains and embrace the empty Chaos entirely.’
Jillan could not move, pinned where he was between the crenellations by the looming Hero. He’d leaned back as far as he dared, clinging desperately to the stonework with his fingers to prevent himself from falling fully thirty feet to the midden ditch and cemetery below. He dared not breathe lest Samnir’s wild and tortured gaze suddenly focus on him, rather than looking through him.
‘Do not become like me,’ the Hero whispered. ‘A ghost wailing in the wind. A being of so little substance and worth that even the spirits of the dead below shun his company and search elsewhere for the warmth of life. Promise me!’
Jillan nodded and swallowed fearfully. His assent seemed to appease the soldier, who blinked several times and then apparently came back to himself. ‘I’m sorry, boy. I didn’t mean to scare you.’
Jillan dragged himself up and planted his feet safely back on the walkway. ‘I-I still like you, Samnir. I don’t think you’re the lowest of the low,’ he mumbled, but then betrayed his words by running for the stairs.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow?’ Samnir called after him. ‘I’ll tell you more about the mountains if you like! They’re a stronghold for the pagans and the Chaos. They are a place so cold and inhospitable that not even the Saints will venture there alone. Boy! If you ever need my help …’
The Hero watched the boy go. He turned his bleak gaze towards the forest of nodding fir trees which stretched all the way to the distant mountains. A chill wind rattled his teeth and he hunkered down into his armour. If he was any judge, there would be snow early in the mountains, and that meant a long hard winter that not everyone would survive. The harvest had barely finished. What had happened to the autumn? So short, and gone like his youth. ‘Damn that boy! He makes me forget myself,’ he murmured.
Shaken, Jillan ran all the way to school. Everything had been turned upside down so far today, so he was eager to see the familiar faces of his few friends and have some sort of comforting routine restored by the school day.
The other children of Godsend stood waiting outside the large oak door to the school. They mainly kept together for shelter from the wind that whistled across the expanse of the Gathering Place at the centre of town.
‘I was worried you’d be late!’ Hella said with a dimpling smile.
Breathing hard, Jillan only nodded by way of reply.
‘What’s that smell? Middens are strong today!’ Haal, Elder Corin’s son, said loudly. His friends Karl and Silus snickered.
Haal was heavily built like his father, but where Elder Corin was something of a gentle giant, Haal used his size to get the other students to do whatever he told them. Jed had told Jillan that nature sometimes gave those who were slow of wit extra strength, as otherwise they would not be able to survive in the world. Jillan didn’t know if that was true or not, and it really didn’t matter either way, since Minister Praxis knew better than to be hard on the elder’s son for being dull and lazy. As far as Jillan could tell, Haal could be the stupidest and weakest person in the world but he would still survive more easily than others, and stupidly think to mock them while doing so.
Normally Jillan would have ignored Haal’s comment, for he’d been saying such things for years, but Jillan wasn’t feeling normal today. Today was not a normal day. Today was a day when parents argued, Heroes faltered and friends became angry. Today was a day when Jillan had confessed his fear of the Minister, told his dream of becoming a hunter, looked forward to being Drawn and worried about finding a wife one day. Today was a day when Jillan could no longer pretend to be a child. Today began the fight that would last the rest of his life.
He squared his shoulders, faced Haal and glared at him. Jillan was gratified to see uncertainty creep into the other’s eyes.
‘Jillan, don’t do this!’ Hella breathed, sensing Jillan’s mood and becoming nervous.
‘What you are no doubt smelling, Haal, is your own breath, for the rubbish that comes from your mouth is as foul as any midden. One wonders what you eat to be so malodorous and bloated. What festering garbage do you gorge on and where do you get it all from? You haven’t been sneaking out to the ditches in the dark of the night, have you? With such a creature abroad, no wonder the pagans fear to come near Godsend. The Chaos itself fears the enormity of your appetite, and that you will pig it down whole!’
There was silence. Even the wind stilled as if in shock.
‘What, Haal?’ Jillan sneered. ‘So stupid that you don’t even know when you’ve been insulted?’
Karl and Silus stood with their mouths hanging open. Their eyes flicked from Haal to Jillan and back again. All the other students instinctively drew away.