Megan had no trouble slipping away from the mill. Her grandfather was at the kitchen table, doing his accounts by the light of the single candle he permitted himself, while Gwyneth was in the living room, needing no light for what she was doing with Holt. She feigned a headache, to which neither her sister nor her grandfather paid more than nominal concern, and after retiring to her bedroom slipped unnoticed out of the window.
She made her way along the riverbank. In the distance, the sun was setting over Thicketford, spilling itself on to the thatched roofs of the village. Across the sparkling waters of the Heledor, fields of wheat swayed in the breeze like an amiable drunk. Beyond them lay the forest, where Wade waited for her.
He had disappeared a week ago, when Megan had told him she was pregnant, leaving her to face the prospects of unmarried motherhood with all its shame and hardships. Despite Gwyneth’s advice, she had been on the verge of admitting everything to her grandfather when Alodie had
turned up at the mill and told her Wade wanted to meet. Megan had been so relieved her hug had lifted Alodie off the ground, smearing the little girl’s tunic with the dough she had been kneading.
It would have been more direct to wade across the Heledor at the ford, but saturated clothes would have given the game away when she returned home, so Megan headed for the bridge at the village. Planks rattled under her feet as she crossed. A couple of months ago, Megan had been here enjoying the solitude after the evening’s service, watching the river burble along, when her sister had slid in beside her. ‘You have to come to Cheetham, Meg,’ Gwyneth had said, dangling her legs through the slats of the bridge. ‘What’s so great about Cheetham?’
‘Grandfather won’t let me go alone with Holt.’
‘That doesn’t answer the question.’
‘We’ll only be gone one night,’ said Gwyneth. ‘Wade and Holt have their parents’ wagon. We can stay with their cousin.’ She nudged Megan. ‘Wade really likes you.’
‘No, he does not.’
Wade and Holt were brothers who had moved to Thicketford a couple of weeks ago from Cheetham. Their good looks had prompted much swooning from the village’s female inhabitants and even a couple of the male ones. Gwyneth had secured the older brother in no time at all, then given herself the far harder challenge of setting up her sister.
‘I’ve seen the way he looks at you,’ said Gwyneth.
‘He looks at all the girls like that. Even you.’ Especially you. Sometimes Megan felt like a crude counterfeit of her twin. Gwyneth’s hair was never an unruly mess; her skin never broke out in acne; her clothes were never splattered with mud.
‘Fine,’ said Gwyneth, extricating herself from the bridge’s skeleton. ‘I’ll ask Bliss.’
Megan had caught her arm. ‘All right, Gwyn. I’ll come.’ If Bliss snared Wade, she’d never hear the end of it. ‘But don’t leave me alone with him.’
She had, but Megan found herself not minding. Wade was funny and charming and always knew what to say. Megan continued to see him once they had returned home. He brought her flowers every day, strutted around the village with her, paid her extravagant compliments that Megan in no way believed but brought a smile to her face whenever she thought no one was looking. And she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy making all the other girls jealous, especially Bliss. Jealousy was the last emotion Megan was inspiring now. She reached the temple, whose incomplete sections revealed Brother Rennie instructing some of the younger children in the Book of Faith.
‘And who did the Saviours come to help?’ he asked.
Alodie’s hand shot up. ‘My family, brother,’ she said.
‘My dad’s always going, “Saviours help us”.’
‘That’s not quite correct.’ Brother Rennie’s expression darkened. ‘And tell your father to come and see me.’
‘Yes, brother,’ said Alodie, bowing her head.
‘No, children, the Saviours came to help the first king, Edwyn, who unified the counties of Werlavia into a single realm. They brought the Faith, which . . .’
Megan had heard the story too many times for it to warrant another listen and left the priest and his charges to it. She rounded the temple and passed Freya’s inn, where the patrons were indulging in more secular matters. For some, it was better to sin and be forgiven than never to have sinned at all.
Skirting the wheat fields, Megan reached the edge of the forest. She wondered if the message was really from Wade. It had not gone unnoticed he had skipped town, nor that Megan had been frantically asking after him. Bliss could be there with her coven, ready with jeers and catcalls, which would only get worse once they figured out Megan was pregnant.
She should have resisted when Wade had pushed for something more physical. Megan had hoped her sister would talk her out of it, but Gwyneth hadn’t seen what the problem was.
‘It’s what happens,’ she said, with a twinkle in her eye that betrayed experience. ‘Don’t be such a prude. You do like boys, don’t you?’
‘What about if, you know, things go wrong?’
‘Don’t let him have any wine beforehand.’
‘What if I get pregnant?’ said Megan.
‘That can’t happen,’ said Gwyneth. ‘Not your first time.’
‘What about the times after that?’
It hadn’t mattered. Once was enough. Wade hadn’t pushed for an encore. He stopped calling on her, and what time they did spend together became shorter and more awkward. Then nausea set in and her period had failed to arrive.
Megan’s destination was an old oak tree whose carved inscriptions revealed she and Wade weren’t the only lovers to have met here over the generations. She rested against it and brushed leaves and bits of twig from her bare soles. No tormentors, no Wade either. Had his nerve failed him?
There was a rustle from the forest behind her. ‘Megan.’ She composed herself before turning round, swallowing her fear and anger and the need to call him every bad name she could think of. Absence had reduced the once-beautiful boy to a beggar. His tunic was torn, his trousers splattered with mud, his bare feet criss-crossed with fresh scars. Megan doubted he had washed since she had last seen him.
The two of them stared at the ground, kicking at the undergrowth, both too nervous to bring up the subject that had brought them here. Eventually Megan blurted out, ‘You’re not going to marry me, are you?’
Wade shook his head. ‘We’re too young.’
‘We’re sixteen. We’re old enough. Grandfather’ll give us permission.’ Megan caressed her stomach. ‘We were old enough to get pregnant.’
‘You,’ said Wade, backing away a little. ‘You were old enough to get pregnant.’
That was it, was it? This was all Megan’s fault; she had to deal with the consequences. She and she alone. She had chosen to accept the flattery, she had to pay the price. A lifetime of shame for a few moments believing she was special. Maybe if she prayed hard enough to God and the Saviours they could undo all this. But why would they? Wasn’t she getting what she deserved for her stupidity, her breaking of the Faith?
‘What do you expect me to do?’ she asked.
‘Go north. Eastport maybe. The Sisters of the Faith take in fallen women. They’ll look after you.’
He didn’t even have the decency to run away himself. He expected her to do it, leave Gwyneth and her grandfather for a life in a convent. ‘Eastport far away enough for you?’ she said, contempt sharpening her voice. ‘How about I keep going north? Slink off to New Statham? Or the Snow Cities? Perhaps you’d like me out of Werlavia all together?’
Raucous shouts drifted in from the village. Freya’s ale must be extra good tonight. Megan wondered if she should pop in, get a tankard to take home to her grandfather. It might help the news he was to be a great-grandfather go down better.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Wade.
‘You’re sorry? That makes things better. It’ll be something to comfort your child with. Daddy can’t be with us, but it’s all right because he’s sorry.’
‘Megan . . .’
‘Oh, get lost. I didn’t want to marry you anyway.’
As she uttered the words, Megan realized they were true. She was better off on her own. Sure, the village would jeer and her grandfather would rant and Brother Rennie would rave – sexual immorality was his bugbear unless he was hungover, in which case it was alcohol – but that would fade. Being married to someone who didn’t want her, whom she didn’t want, wouldn’t. Gwyneth had promised to be there for her; she’d help bring up the baby. Megan didn’t need anyone else.
The cries from the village were getting harsher, wilder. One was almost a scream. Had a fight broken out? Wade paled and nudged her deeper behind the treeline.
‘Wait there,’ he said. ‘What? Why?’
‘I’ll explain later. Just stay there.’
Megan hugged the tree as she watched Wade plunge into the wheat field and head towards the village, the ears of the ripe wheat brushing his waist. A figure peeled away from the cottages and moved to intercept him, the twilight reducing him to a stick figure. Even as he drew closer, Megan failed to recognize him. There was an odd bulkiness about him, a stiffness to the way he carried himself, that matched none of the men she knew.
He and Wade met halfway between the village and Megan’s position. Wade held up his hand, said something the wind failed to convey to her. The other man raised an axe. Wade started to turn. The setting sun flashed off metal. Wade’s head was struck from his shoulders.
The shock saved Megan, prevented her from screaming, prevented her from revealing herself. She slithered down the chestnut tree, her legs weak as a newborn foal’s, as the horror of what she had witnessed played itself again and again in her mind.The blood spurting from Wade’s neck, his head arcing into the field, his body toppling into the wheat, his executioner barely breaking stride.
He was coming towards her. He was coming towards her. She had to get out of there right now. Megan crawled a couple of feet into the forest. No, she had to go home, back to the mill, warn Gwyneth and her grandfather. She started back towards Thicketford, but it was apparent the almost-screams coming from there were actual screams. The screams of the terrified, the screams of the slaughterhouse. She retreated to the cover of the forest. Who was doing this? Why?
The only way home was the direct way. Megan would have to cross the wheat field and ford the river by the mill.
Her legs refused to move. She’d be spotted for sure and then . . . and then . . . She screwed up her face as if trying to squeeze the tears back in. At least make it quick. It had been quick for Wade. She thought again of his execution and wanted to throw up.
She risked a glance out from behind the tree. The axe man was about a hundred yards away, wading through the wheat. Megan had to move now, while distance offered her some protection. She crawled out of the forest and into the field, fast as she dared. Stalks brushed her face as she snaked along, making her want to scratch and sneeze. She tried to keep her progress as soft as possible, placing her hands and feet on the patches between the wheat, praying the grass would reward her care by springing back into position behind her and concealing her movements.
The axe man was close, close enough Megan could hear him tramping through the field. She halted, held her breath, shrank to the ground, hid herself among the long stalks. Something crawled up her thigh. She gritted her teeth and swallowed.Worse things were out here. Far worse things.
She heard a second figure crashing through the wheat. ‘What are you doing out here?’ he said. His accent was refined, like that of the northern merchants who had passed through Eastport when she had been at school there.
Megan assumed this was the axe man. His voice was harsh, raspy, as if someone had slashed his vocal cords.
‘There’s no one out here.’
‘I’ll decide that.’
‘The captain says we’re to group at the mill.’
Fear twisted Megan’s muscles. The mill – her home. She had to get there now, had to get her family to safety, but any movement would attract the axe man. He was still here, a faint whoosh occasionally coming from his direction. Swinging the axe through the air, seeking his next victim.
‘He can wait.’
‘You know what the captain said he’d do to anyone who disobeyed him. I bet he’s got an actual rusty knife. He looks the type.’
There was a hesitation. Megan could hear the blood singing in her ears, a blade thwacking at stalks, the chirrup of birds settling down for the night.Then there was a snort and the sound of the two men tramping away.
Megan held herself still until the last trace of them was gone. They were heading for the bridge at Thicketford. They’d have to double back on the opposite bank of the river to get to the mill. Going directly, Megan could arrive there five minutes ahead of them. Five precious minutes to lead her family from danger.
She couldn’t bring herself to move though. She was safe here, hidden in the fields of wheat. Surely Gwyneth and her grandfather would have heard the commotion from the village and run? They didn’t need Megan. She’d be putting herself and her unborn baby in danger for nothing.
Coward, whispered her conscience. She silenced it by dragging herself a yard forward. One yard became another, then another, then her momentum was propelling her through the field. She crawled as fast as she could, ignoring the dirt and stones that scraped her knees and elbows.
Cultivated land gave way to scrub and the thickets that gave the village its name. Megan was nearing the river. She looked through the bushes. Her journey across the field had carried her upstream of the ford, a little past the mill. Home was tantalizingly close, a few seconds’ dash were it not for the river.
She was about to squeeze through the vegetation and head down the bank, when a figure emerged from the mill. A strong, reassuring figure silhouetted against the day’s last glow on the horizon. Her grandfather had come out to meet someone: a man on horseback approaching from downriver who had the same bulk as the axe man, a bulk Megan now recognized as armour.
The horse shook its head, shifted from side to side. Her grandfather hoisted his axe over his shoulder and held his ground. That blade had only ever cut wood, but he knew how to handle it. He’d commanded a company in the war against the witches, been rewarded for his bravery by the priests. Pride surged through Megan. You didn’t get past her grandfather.
A deep hum split the air. Megan’s grandfather staggered, a crossbow bolt sticking out of his chest. He groped for it, tried to pull it out.Another bolt joined the first. Men on foot had joined the horseman. A third one fired his crossbow. Her grandfather keeled over. Megan bit down on her fist to stop herself screaming.
The men drew axes.They rushed past her grandfather’s body and into the mill. A boy – Holt, it took Megan a few moments to register – called out Gwyneth’s name, but he was cut off before he could get out the second syllable.
Get out, Gwyneth! Megan screamed inside her head. She stared at Gwyneth’s bedroom window, waiting for her twin to sneak out, waiting for her lithe form to drop to the ground like she had done so many times over the years, like Megan had done an hour earlier. Gwyneth didn’t appear. The horseman dismounted and followed his companions inside. Still no one emerged from the window.
There was nothing she could do. Megan couldn’t rescue the dead. Hating herself, she fled for the sanctuary of the forest.
Excerpted from True Fire by Gary Meehan. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Meehan.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.