Authors: A.J. Dalton
‘The Saint will know!’
‘But will not be able to get here in time to stop him getting away. As parents, what would we not be prepared to suffer by way of reprimand from the Saint? Nothing, beloved! And Samnir will have his own reasons for helping us, reasons I doubt we could not even begin to guess at. Always was a strange fish, that one.’
‘I should be there to protect my boy!’ Jed said helplessly, his shoulders bowing and his voice breaking.
‘You can protect him best by letting him go. He is almost of age, husband, no longer a boy. These events must show you that clearly, no? Do not seek to keep him a boy, therefore, else it prove his undoing,’ Jillan’s mother replied firmly, apparently becoming stronger as she saw Jed weaken. As fragile and small as his mother had sometimes seemed next to his hulking father, it was now she who stood over Jed and filled the room with her presence. Then, more gently, she said, ‘Now is the time for speed, beloved. Pack Jillan’s things into a leather bag while I get some provisions together. Quickly! Jillan, are you strong enough to finish the soup yourself?’
‘Yes, Mother.’ Jillan nodded, fresh tears in his eyes, knowing it might be the last time he ever tasted his mother’s wonderful soup. ‘Father, remember my rocks, please?’
Jed’s face became pained and he self-consciously turned away. ‘Of course, son.’
Maria began a constant chatter as she set about gathering dried meat, hard cheese and small apples into a cloth. ‘Jillan, make for Saviour’s Paradise, where there is a man who once knew your father and me. He goes by the name of Thomas Ironshoe, if he hasn’t changed it. Repeat his name so I can hear it.’
‘Good. When he asks you what you want, tell him you seek Haven. Say it!’
‘I seek Haven. But what is Haven?’
Maria glanced at him. ‘I don’t know, and it is not important. Thomas Ironshoe will either take you in as his own, until your father and I can come and join you, or he will send you to other good people. No, don’t interrupt! Every second is vital. You will leave by the south gate and circle around to the north. Follow the road, but stay off it during daylight. Travel through the woods to the side of the road and always keep the road in sight. If anyone should meet you by chance, you are on a pilgrimage to Hyvan’s Cross, to worship at the Saint’s temple. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Mother,’ Jillan replied, although she was talking so quickly that he found it hard to follow.
‘Ready!’ Jed declared, thumping the bag down on the table and placing Jillan’s bow and quiver next to it.
Maria bundled the food inside the leather. ‘The bag is heavy, and when you tire you may be tempted to throw something away, but resist. The things in here will keep you alive on a cold night. Never lie on the bare ground, as it will leach the heat from you and you might never awa—’ Her voice caught at the last and she shut her lips tightly, not trusting herself to continue.
‘Enough, Maria,’ Jed said softly. ‘I will tell him the rest as we go.’
Maria nodded and finally managed a shuddering breath. She threw her arms wide and bent down. ‘Then come kiss your mother goodbye, my baby boy and young man grown! Look upon my face and remember its lines. Feel no guilt as it fades with time; just know that I will always love you and will always be thinking of you, no matter what happens or where you are.’
She hugged and kissed him till he couldn’t breathe, and even then he thought she would not let him go. Finally, she pulled away to wipe her cheeks and straighten up. ‘If they come while you are gone,’ she said to Jed, ‘I will tell them that he never came home from school and that you have gone into town to look for him, imagining that he is dallying somewhere with Jacob the trader’s daughter. Go now, for I need to replace blankets and food so it does not look like anything is missing. Go!’
Jillan stared back at his mother, not wanting the last look to come. No one was more beautiful than his mother, not even Hella. There were care lines at the corners of her mouth and hazel eyes, but they only helped to make her look loving and kind. She complained of white hairs among her long fair tresses, but to Jillan’s mind they caught the light like gold and silver. And then there was the look she had just for Jillan, a look she never bestowed on anyone else, not even his father, although there was a different, special look for him too.
But then the door to the house was closed and his mother was lost to him. He turned round and saw nothing but darkness. He waited for his vision to adjust and then trailed after his father, who shouldered the bulging bag and Jillan’s weapon.
‘You can walk on your own, yes?’ Jed suddenly thought to ask.
‘Yes, Father, if we can go slowly at first.’
They reached the stairs up to the south rampart and began to climb.
‘Who goes there?’ Samnir called from above.
‘It’s me,’ Jillan replied as loudly as he dared.
A pause. ‘Jillan? What are you doing out at this time?’
Jed and Jillan climbed in silence until they reached the walkway. The two adults nodded a wary greeting to each other and then Samnir looked to Jillan.
‘I need to leave, Samnir. I’m in trouble,’ the boy explained without preamble.
Samnir sighed. ‘Aye, I heard some sort of ruckus earlier and there are a lot of folk running back and forth all in a tizz. I don’t miss much from up here, you know.’
Jillan wondered if Samnir had actually seen and heard everything. ‘I need your help,’ he said simply.
‘Aye, and I promised it to you, lad, I promised it to you. My help you shall have, and I’ve already had your generous company and friendship in return. By my reckoning, a bit of excitement’s good for the town anyway. Shakes them up a bit and reminds them they’re still alive, if you know what I mean. You’ll be leaving through this gate with no one else the wiser, though I hate to see you go, lad, really I do. Still, leave you must, so follow me.’
‘Thank you,’ Jed offered. ‘You don’t know what this means.’
Samnir stopped and looked back at him with an unreadable expression. ‘Ah, I know all too well what it means, Jedadiah the hunter. But let us not think of such things, lest we tarry too long.’
A minute later Samnir and Jed were levering the heavy bar off the south gate. They swung one of the heavy doors inwards until there was a gap big enough for Jillan to squeeze through.
Jed rested a hand on one of Jillan’s shoulders and turned him back towards him. ‘Be brave, Jillan, for you are a man, as your mother says. Know that I am always proud of you, no matter what happens, or what you say or do. Always remember that there is nothing wrong with you, and that there are things far beyond the ken and experience of the simple people of Godsend or the simple words of the Book. Perhaps you will discover some of them and have an adventure of sorts. There is little advice I can give you about the Empire, my son, for to my great shame I have seen little of it. But I will tell you this: there are many bad and dangerous things that are not even deserving of a quick death. Even so, if you are ever to be a hunter, you must not hesitate to kill, else you be undone in that moment of hesitation.’
Jillan nodded silently, not really wanting to think of the death he was sure he had already caused. Karl’s collapse had been so quick, he could only wish he had hesitated longer.
‘Jillan, I would take it as a personal favour if you would take this blade with you,’ Samnir interposed. ‘It is from the Great Temple itself and will always find you should you call. It is freely given and therefore yours to command.’
‘Thank you, Samnir,’ Jillan said softly, the short ceremonial sword cumbersome in his hands.
An owl screeched in the woods and the night stilled as the predator’s shadow swept over the trees.
‘Goodbye, Jillan!’ Jed choked. ‘Your mother and I will see you soon. We will follow on as soon as we may.’
‘Goodbye, Father! Tell Hella … tell Hella that I … liked her a lot.’
‘I will, son, and I’m sure she already knows,’ Jed whispered and gave his son a fierce bearhug and an awkward kiss on the forehead.
Jillan looked at the dim faces one last time and then stepped out into the darkness. Long seconds later the gate closed behind him with a soft
Jillan followed the path past the noisome midden ditches and weaved his way across the uneven ground of the cemetery. He looked back once to scan the ramparts. There was no sign of his father, who had no doubt hurried home to play his part in the deception of the Minister and elders. Yet there was the silhouette of Samnir, a lone sentinel against the corruption of the pagans, the pagans among whom Jillan was now numbered.
Jillan wanted to run and scream to be let back in. He wanted to deny he had done anything wrong. He wanted to be forgiven for having asked Minister Praxis questions and for what had happened to Karl. Yet such things were far beyond forgiveness, he knew.
Instead, he peered tiredly at the higgledy-piggledy graves and wondered where they would put Karl’s body. If he’d had a flower, he’d have placed it in some open area. He half wanted to lie down with the dead himself, but this was not a cemetery for pagan bodies, so he dragged himself into the woods. After all, the bad things in this world were not deserving of a quick death, he’d been told.
Samnir watched the small figure disappear among the deep shadows beneath the trees.
He sighed and shook his head. ‘Damn that boy!’
he had been born in darkness and had grown in darkness. Her earliest memory was a scream. Whether her own or her dying mother’s, she had no way of knowing. Cries, a wet slap, sticky warmth and bad smells. The instinctive need for milk, minerals, sustenance – anything! Lying on her side there in the dark, she’d sucked in whatever she could, swallowing water, grit and something that was half-congealed and had a metallic tang.
The dark was timeless. There she remained in the womb of the earth until she found the ability to move and grasp at different places and textures. She gorged on new thicknesses and slurries, physical need forcing her to eat even the ones that smelt bad. Afterwards, she would sometimes feel bad, and her body would spasm and physically reject what she had just eaten; but she would take the stuff down again, and again, until her body became used to it and she could start to grow more.
She began to hear … well, not herself … the darkness rather. Whenever she moved, sound came from the womb around her. The sound repeated and shifted, allowing her to get a sense of where substance was thick, thin or absent. Movement and sound, limit and space. She began to perceive differences in the darkness without having to move. What lay beyond the gaps? she wondered.
She moved freely through the darkness to the largest gap. Suddenly, there was a terrible rumbling and the womb shook. She moved back quickly and crouched down in fear. The rumbling continued, finally became quieter and then stilled. She decided she would not go near the gap again, but then she heard cries from the other side, cries like her earliest memory. Perhaps there was another one of her through the gap.
She waited. The cries became quieter and more infrequent. Worried that they would disappear and leave her alone again, she ventured closer to the gap once more. There was no rumbling this time. She went through and then moved into the absence beyond, following the cries, chasing them before they could escape.
‘Who’s there?’ wheezed a voice.
Sounds she didn’t understand. Not a movement and not cries exactly. Something different. She turned this way and that, trying to make it out.
‘Is someone there? Help me, please! The cave-in has me pinned. I can hardly move. For the love of the Overlords, help me!’
The other her seemed stuck in the thickness. It couldn’t move freely in the way she could. The sounds it made were unpleasant to listen to, as if it were … scared. It smelt odd, but not scary. Her mouth watered hungrily, but she was not used to eating something that moved. And if she ate it, she’d be alone again. So she pulled the other her out of the thickness instead.
‘Aieee! Careful! Thank you, thank you! Who are you? How are you so strong? Do you have any light?’
Unintelligible sounds. The other lay hardly moving. She remembered back to her earliest time. She had been like this once, lying in the dark. She’d needed darkness she could eat, the runny kind. She scooped it out of a nearby hollow and poured it into the other’s mouth.
A gasp. ‘Thank you, that’s better. I was so thirsty!’
Physical contact. She grunted and shuffled back, uncertain.
‘Oh! I’m sorry. You have the blight, you poor soul. I didn’t know. May the Overlords bless you. And I don’t mind, truly.’ A pause. ‘My name’s Norfred. I thought I was a goner that time. Probably would have been if you hadn’t happened along. They don’t make much effort to find the old ones like me, you know.’
The other was not as thick or hard as she was. It was not the same as her. And it still didn’t move much. She nudged it.
‘Here! What are you about? Man who’s just been through a cave-in needs a moment to recover, you know. Who do you think you are, one of the Overseers?’
The other had flailed out and slapped her. Startled, she hunkered back. She wasn’t used to feeling something that wasn’t hunger. She wanted more. She came back and nudged him again and waited for the slap.
‘All right, all right! No rest for the wicked, eh? Help me up then.’
The other made contact in different places at the same time. She froze, utterly overwhelmed by the sensation. Here! This was otherness! An infinite wonder beyond the womb! She wanted to consume it entirely, wanted to be consumed by it entirely. It was everything she wanted and could ever want.
‘Okay, okay. I’m fine. Let go now! Overlords, but you’re heavier than the cave-in. Easy, easy! Oww!’
The other was making the unpleasant scared noises again, so she eased her hold on it, but did not let go completely.
‘We need to go this way, but there’ll be tons to be moved. Don’t know another way to the home chamber, do you? Didn’t think so. Then we’d better get started while our strength lasts, eh? If we’re lucky, they’ll hear us working and start digging from their side.’