Christian Blacksmith is born a slave and expects to die as one, like every generation before him since the human race lost the Ascension Wars. Not that Christian knows about the Wars – his life and his knowledge is confined to the village of Four Horse Crossing, a place he can never leave due to the Brace on the back of his neck and the invisible Boundary around his village.
Trapped in a manufactured medieval society designed to control the population, Christian seethes with hatred for the Blood Lords. When he defies them, he sets himself on a path that will make him question everything he knows about himself, his heritage, and his world…
Blood saturated the rough bedding beneath the woman. It drenched her spread thighs and clogged the air with its acrid odour. Torment rendered her
beauty fine features? into a haggard mask, the skin stretched like dirty parchment over her bones. Her eyes were empty, drained by the unyielding pain she had endured since before the sun’s rising. Not sure ‘rendered’ is the right word. Passive voice too – how about ‘Empty eyes, drained by…, stared into a private hell, something like that?
Her husband wrung his hands with impotent anguish as she vainly tried to expel the source of her misery. He turned away as the midwife thrust her hand inside his wife in one last desperate attempt to manhandle the baby from her reluctant womb. With a bone-melting screech from the woman, the child emerged onto the blood-soaked sheets with a nauseating squelch, followed by a torrent of black, clotted blood
Quickly, the midwife slipped her bloody hands into the pockets of her apron and smeared her fingertips with the paste hidden
within inside. She pretended to clear the newborn’s airways and instead rubbed the paste onto the roof of its mouth.
Intent on protecting his nose from the stench, t
The man standing in the shadows was too intent on protecting his nose from the stench to didn’t notice what she had done.
Within seconds, the child’s eyes fluttered closed and a blue-grey tinge appeared around its lips.
“The child is stillborn,” the midwife announced
flatly, and held the baby out for Vilaine Breckin to inspect.
All eyes, even those of the woman on the bed, watched
him as he shuffled from the shadows, first his fat belly and then into the dim light ahead of his pock-marked face emerged into the dim light. With visible disdain, the handkerchief pressed firmly against his nose, he bent his head and briefly listened to the child’s chest, taking care not to soil himself on the bloodied remains. His weasel eyes narrowed in annoyance.
“Burn it,” he commanded.
The midwife moved across the room, spotlessly clean save for the mess on the bed, and presented the child to the father. Their eyes met in silent communication.
A piercing scream from the woman ruptured the air. She
had almost raised herself from the bed, her face contorted into new agonies.
The midwife’s eyes widened with panic. “Oh Blessed Estra!
” she moaned. “There is another!” She leaned towards the father and shoved the lifeless child into his hands. “I only had enough for one!” she whispered, and rushed back to the woman on the bed.
“Come, Elena!” She grasped the woman’s hands. “Push, my love!”
The second child slipped from his mother’s womb, his passage greased by the
never-ending effusion of blood erupting from her destroyed body. He started to wail as soon as his head emerged.
“Ha!” The Vilaine snorted with satisfaction. “A lusty one! Good news for the village!”
With great tenderness, the midwife laid the bawling child on his mother’s depleted chest. The woman tried to lift her head, but the effort proved too much.
“Call him …” Her eyes rolled up into their sockets and the child’s cries intensified, as if sensing the woman who had given him life had departed from it.
Vilaine Breckin marched over to the father, still cradling his other lifeless child, and slapped him on the back. “You will have to take another wife soon,” he instructed. “Your seed is strong, Blacksmith, and the Lords are hungry.”
Without taking his eyes from his dead wife, the blacksmith’s jaw clenched. “As you wish, Vilaine.”
The Vilaine withdrew a small golden disc from a pocket in his jerkin. “Turn the live one
child over,” he said.
The babe writhed and bucked in the midwife’s hands, displaying none of the usual passivity of a newborn.
“Hold the child still, woman!”
The Vilaine held the device in his thick fingers with surprising delicacy and pressed down on the raised sigil in its centre. The
sigil raven crest rotated in its bed with an almost imperceptible whir and tiny filaments unfurled from the underside of the disc. They quivered in the air like the probosci of a strange insect.
The blacksmith’s hand crept to the disc at the back of his own neck and he cringed with loathing and despair.
The Vilaine lowered the device over the nape of the child’s neck. It quivered eagerly, flew from his fingers and attached itself to the newborn’s skin.
The baby screamed as the filaments burrowed into his flesh. The sigil rotated back to its original position with a soft click, the device now securely and permanently attached.
“A good fit,” the Vilaine said. “The child is Braced.” He waddled from the room, and out into the night, whistling.
The midwife rocked the squalling baby in her arms and cooed meaningless words to quieten him.
“Mary Baker delivered a stillborn not two days past,” she said. “I shall take the babe to her.” When the husband did not respond, she slapped him none-too-gently across his wide face. “Cley!”
Cley Blacksmith turned to her, his eyes swimming with tears. “I want to kill him,” he muttered
“Save the child,” she admonished, nodding her head to the baby in his arms. “Time is running out already. Go.”
The blacksmith took one last agonised look at his dead wife and bestowed a reluctant kiss on the sniffling child in the midwife’s arms. He rushed down the narrow stairs and into the kitchen, brightly-lit with candles. He didn’t even notice the clay vase of flowers Elena had put on the table that morning — a lifetime ago now — and left the house through the forge, the baby clasped protectively to his chest.
He crept through the village, hugging the shadows like a jealous lover, not a sound marking his passage despite his huge frame.
He had trained himself for this from the moment they learned Elena was with child. Yet in all their planning, they had never anticipated two children. How could they not have
planned prepared for this? He gritted his teeth. He had no time to berate himself now. He tried to banish all thoughts of the second child from his mind. He would deal with that situation when he returned from the Boundary … if he returned.
At the edge of the village he slipped into the forest, moving faster now, confident that he would not be spotted by any enthusiastic Batonnier of the Vilaine. Even those murderous thugs would not risk approaching the Boundary. Only a fool would stray too close. As he approached it, the first stabbing pains lanced through his head.
The Brace at the nape of his neck grew hot and his footsteps faltered as he fought to breathe through his suddenly restricted throat. His head throbbed in syncopated rhythm with each fluttering heartbeat as he willed himself to put one foot in front of the other. Sweat
erupted from his body, running ran in hot rivulets down his face and into his eyes, blinding him. Excruciating pain exploded in his head, as though giant hands squeezed his temples together, urging his head to pop like an over-ripe melon pumpkin – no melons in England now.
No amount of training made the pain any less agonising. He had approached the Boundary countless times in preparation for this one moment and each attempt had left him weaker than the babe in his arms. But he had to try. Otherwise Elena’s death would truly have been in vain.
Another two steps and tears mingled with the sweat as he cried out with the agony of it, every
sinew of nerve in his body burning in twisted torment. Each second he wasted was a second lost and he summoned every ounce of his huge strength to force himself to move forward, forward, onwards to wards the limit of his endurance, to the Boundary.
When he could bear the pain no longer he sank to his knees. His chest heaved with ragged gasps as he tried to force air into his depleted change this – Elena was ‘depleted’ earlier lungs.
He had to use all his concentration just to place the baby on the damp ground without dropping it. The muscles in his arms trembled and shuddered with the effort to push the child as close to the Boundary as possible. When he could move the child no further, he collapsed onto the ground, exhausted.
He had walked no more than five yards since that first warning stab of pain.
He crawled backwards on his belly, the strength utterly depleted there it is again from his legs, unable to tear his eyes away from the child on the ground before him. There was no sign of life from the babe. The pain in his body receded to a dull ache, but the agony of defeat overwhelmed him in a great tide of self-recrimination. He had taken too long! Where were they? Perhaps he had not placed the babe close enough to the Boundary and they wouldn’t come. Perhaps the midwife was wrong: they did not exist; he had led himself on a fool’s errand; condemned his child to death after all. Yet … he could not bring himself to leave. Better death, he thought, than the life condemned to the child he had left behind.
So he lay in the cold grass and waited.
They rose like mist from the surface of a lake at dawn.
One of the hooded figures approached the child in the grass, showing no signs of pain or discomfort on crossing into the Boundary. Cley watched with undisguised awe … and a terrible, yearning sense of loss and envy.
It was true then! It wasn’t until this moment … he trembled with relief.
The hooded figure carried a small clay pot and knelt beside the lifeless body in the grass. Long, thin fingers smeared something over his child’s lips.
He heard its intake of breath, a weak spluttering cough, and his heart exploded with fierce joy.
The hooded figure unwrapped the swaddling and examined the child. It looked up and glittering blue eyes met Cley’s for the briefest of moments.
“A girl.” A man’s voice floated across the distance between them
like the intimate promise of a lover. Too many similes, not really needed here White teeth flashed in the moonlight.
“You have challenged the Boundary,” he said. “We accept your offering to take the child beyond.”
How can a heart break and soar at the same time? At least one child would be free. Cley watched as the hooded figure swept his daughter up and turned away.
“Call her Elena!” he cried, but they were already gone, lost to the forest, before the words left his mouth.
He retreated back to the village, torn between the child he had saved and the child he had condemned to a lifetime of slavery.