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Children of the Bloodlands
Excerpt

The One True Child

 

Northern Scotland

 

Stop crying and be braver, Albert had said. But now his mouth wasn’t moving. The skin of his forehead was as split as the crack in the world they had found, but his forehead was leaking red, leaking too quickly and too much. Saskia had crouched stiff and numb more than an hour, pressing her whole body weight into the wound to make the red stop.

Stop crying!

But she couldn’t. Not in the dark, in the cold, as she made slow progress through the woods. She thought about all the things Albert had said, the things that led to this.

She exhaled a shaking breath, dragging the heavy sack through the crunchy leaves. The rope burned her small hands. Albert wouldn’t say a thing anymore.

~

It had been their secret — his and Saskia’s. What they’d found down in the woods at the bottom of the scrabby glen that day, months ago, just after Saskia had turned eight. Papa had been home, rare occasion that it was. She understood that they needed money to pay the bills and that Papa needed to work as much as he did, but sometimes she resented the long road that kept him from them for weeks and weeks. And there was also the invisible road inside of them that divided their hearts. The road paved black when Mum had died.

On that brighter day, the day after her birthday, Papa took them for a walk. He wasn’t as strong as she remembered him being. He seemed bowed as a croggled tree. His knees weren’t in good shape, and he was not young. Albert was fifteen, but their parents had had them late in life. Saskia didn’t mind; this is how she thought all parents were. Old and grown and wiser than she ever could be.

But she could see age in Papa’s stiff walk, the hours and days of driving taking its toll. It made her feel sick. “Go on ahead, ye wee gomeral,” he’d said, sitting on the crest of a hill. “I can see ye from here.”

But they’d gone too far into the woods, and Saskia knew Papa couldn’t see them anymore. Albert always had to go far, as far as he could, to make it count. Saskia only ever wanted to be near him. She wanted his protection, and she wanted to protect him, too. But above all, she wanted to show she could be brave.

Albert stopped at a massive split in the rock of the munro — it was as if a big axe had cut it in half. The sun shone into it, revealing the barest crack in the world.

Albert climbed down to investigate. Saskia didn’t protest, but she wanted to.

“There’s something down here,” he said, frowning into the small crater. “You’ve got small hands. C’mon.”

Saskia twisted her shirt in those small hands and picked her way down. She and Albert bent, heads touching, and she put her hand in —

“Sss!” Saskia pulled her hand back, shaking it.

“What?” Albert grabbed her hand, alarmed, and they both stared at the cut, the blood trickling around Saskia’s wrist and dripping into the crack.

The ground shook, and Saskia screamed. Albert grabbed her hand, pulled her up the hill, and they took off in a blur back the way they’d come.

Papa was close to laying an egg because of how long they’d been gone. Albert was too breathless to explain the cut on Saskia’s hand, to waylay Papa’s anger as he wrapped it up too tightly in his handkerchief, making Saskia wince as he dragged them both home in furious silence. “Where did you get a knife?” Papa asked gruffly, not believing either of them when they said there was no knife. Just a crack in the ground whose darkness haunted them all the way home.

Albert stayed up most of the night thinking about that crack. “I had a dream about it,” he said. “We have to go back.” It didn’t matter what Saskia felt about it — she would go where Albert went, and that he’d said we meant he wanted her there, meant she had to. They rushed out when Aunt Millie had fallen asleep in her chair in front of the telly. They knew they’d have more than a chance the minute the whisky bottle clattered onto the sideboard. It was summer — what little they have of it in the north — and out here, children could do as they pleased. They could chase the massive herds of deer, they could scrabble up and down rocks. They could get into trouble. It wasn’t like in the cities or bigger towns like Durness or Thurso. So much desolate freedom here. Saskia knew it’d have to end sometime, but she didn’t suspect it would be this soon.

They went back to the crack, and it was so much wider. The ground around it was black. “Probably that earthquake,” Albert guessed, but Saskia didn’t remember there being earthquakes in the Highlands.

Then there was a bang, loud like thunder, and Saskia jumped and ran, ran fast and far without looking back until she realized she was running alone. She twisted and screamed, “Albie!” But he hadn’t followed. She couldn’t leave him behind, knew he’d never do such a thing to her, so she turned around, and he was just as she’d left him, standing there above the crack, mouth open, frozen in awe.

The grey amorphous thing crawled out of the world and into the air. A column of ash. A straight cloud of smoke. It opened a mouth and words came out. “I am the Gardener,” it said. “Thank you for raising me.”

The voice was soothing, calm and clear. Saskia was shaking all over, but she wouldn’t leave Albert. And when she looked down at her hand, with the big scratchy bandage, she knew this was all her fault.

~

There was no road in the woods. Saskia was following the brook, which crept along an impassable munro. What’s inside the mountains? Albert had asked whenever Aunt Millie took them driving for a change of scenery. The sharp, dead peaks have many secrets, she’d say, but Aunt Millie wasn’t prone to fairy stories. Or tales of monsters.

But they’d found themselves in a monster story anyway.

Saskia stumbled, pitched, and slid on her knees. She’d dropped the rope, but when she whirled around, the sack was still there. She’d wrapped Albert in his Ninja Turtles bedsheet, but it was faded from years of washing. It seemed to glow in the dark.

She whimpered when she noticed the dark patches showing through. She clenched her bloody hands and stood on shaking feet.

Her hands stung even worse now, as if the cut were still fresh. Picking the rope back up and continuing on was so much harder than starting out. Why did she have to be such a crybaby? Why couldn’t she be like Albert? Why did she have to do this alone? There wasn’t much she really understood — not in the way grown-ups did — but she knew that if she didn’t do this, she’d lose her brother forever. She would be in the biggest trouble of her life. And not with Papa or Aunt Millie. What waited for her in the dark woods scared her most.

She could tell she was getting close, though. The humming in the ground thrummed through her tired legs into her bones. So she kept going.

~

Urka told Albert and Saskia that they were special. That it had come from a land plagued with ruin, and that she and Albert were the key to saving the three rulers of this faraway place who were imprisoned there forever.

These three rulers, according to Urka, had a precious child, and it had been sent to the Uplands — that’s what it called Earth — to get help. To find a family. And Saskia and Albert were the family they were waiting for.

Every day that they snuck out to visit it, Urka got bigger and the forest around it got smaller. It said that eating the trees was the only way to get its strength up after the long journey, and that the trees here weren’t like the trees back in its home. “But soon that will change,” Urka promised. “Soon this world will be covered in the trees I know.”

Saskia tried to look Urka in its eyes, all six of them, to try to see if it was telling the truth, the way she did when Albert told her a fib to get a rise out of her. But it hurt to look into those eyes — like looking too long at the sun. She should have known then.

Albert asked, right at the start, if Urka could grant wishes. Urka was quiet a long time as its ash body hardened to stone, grew huge in the shadow of the mountain that hid it. It said yes, a horrible bone-grating affirmation, then praised Albert for his cleverness. Saskia scrunched her nose and questioned how, especially because Urka could barely move a few feet from the crack it had crawled out of and seemed weak despite how many trees and dead things it had shoved into the big mouth in its growing belly. That was when the eyes fell on Saskia, and she turned away. That was when Urka saw she doubted. That was her second mistake.

~

In the deep, dark woods, she finally collapsed. The moon shone through the cleft in the rock, shone onto the place where the crack had opened into a valley and devoured the light. Her head pounded and she was impossibly hungry.

“Child,” came the voice, like the metal hangers in her closet grating on the rusty bar Papa said he’d replace but never did. Saskia shrank and instinctively covered the sheet-covered lump of Albert with her body. “Child,” it said again. “At long last.”

~

Albert became loyal to Urka the minute its smoke-column head came out of the ground. Albert trusted it and everything it said. “It’s a proper quest,” he said, almost to himself, nodding and walking with a determined spring all the way home. “I knew I was destined for it. I knew it.”

Papa had always given Albert a hard time for not being more into sports, for not getting better grades. Papa was a hard person with high expectations. But Saskia always saw that it hurt Albert, even when he pressed his mouth closed and said, “Right,” after each critical blow. Saskia thought if she did her best, it would be good enough for both of them, but it never was.

And Urka bestowed easy praise. It was grateful that Albert tended to it. The bigger its body got, the bigger its promises became. Promises of great power, of rewards, of wishes granted. They gathered bigger and bigger bundles of wood, stole the axe from the garden shed. “I don’t think we’re supposed to do this,” Saskia had warned. Cutting down the trees here seemed like a crime, but Albert told her to stop whining. That this didn’t happen to every kid, and they should be grateful.

Then Urka spoke of their mother.

“Do you miss her?” it asked. Albert flushed in the way he always did when he was about to cry, but his jaw compressed and he nodded. Urka seemed only to speak to Albert now, almost wary of Saskia. She missed their mother, too, though she barely remembered her.

“My masters can bring her back.” Urka’s biggest promise of all. “They can bring back anyone you have ever lost.”

“How?” Saskia asked. Her doubt was sharp still, and her words echoed loud off the split mountain.

Urka smiled, feeding a massive tree trunk into its belly. That was the first time Saskia had noticed the dark flames there. “With a power I can give to you. A power you have earned.”

Albert was desperate. He demanded that power, like it was Christmas and he wanted lordship over Saskia’s new toys. She thought he’d been changing more into a grown-up before this, but when they’d met Urka, Albert’s eyes shone with a petulance she’d never seen. A willingness to do anything blindly for what he was owed. “Give it to me!” he barked. Urka was more than happy to deliver.

Something black and cobweb-wispy floated out from the horrible furnace inside Urka’s belly into the daylight. Saskia screamed when it touched Albert. To her shame, she went totally numb, unable to stop it, because she knew it was bad, knew she could never abide it on her skin, knew she wasn’t brave enough. But moments after it touched Albert’s hand, it vanished.

Albert jerked. “What did you do? It’s gone! I don’t feel any different!”

Urka bowed its head. “Patience,” it said, and Albert looked insulted. “Soon all our family’s dreams will come true.”

Albert got reckless after that. He pushed his mates too hard. He didn’t play fair. He hit his best mate Roger right across the mouth and broke the skin, all because Roger said Albert was acting funny. No one said anything after that. No one said much to Albert in the days before Aunt Millie said the same, reaming him out for hitting Roger. Albert was scratching his neck, the place where the black splotch had appeared the night before.

“What’s happened to Ava’s sweet boy?” Millie muttered, resurrecting their dead mother. “Imagine what she’d think to see ye now.”

Saskia yelled, tried hard to wrench Albert’s hands away from Aunt Millie’s throat the minute they shot there. Saskia clawed and scraped at him like an animal, but he swept his sister aside like tissue paper, and she crashed over the table, taking a lamp with her. She looked over her scabby knees to see Albert pull away from Aunt Millie gently, like he’d planted a kiss on her neck with his hands, and Saskia saw that she was still breathing, clutching the arms of her chair like the room was spinning.

A collar of black webbing spread over her pasty neck. Her feet hammered against the chair like she was trying to run away but couldn’t get up. Then her shoes burst, and horrible black tendrils — roots — stabbed through the carpet and the hardwood, and as Albert slipped out of the house smiling, Saskia screamed and screamed.

~

“Come closer, child,” Urka spoke to Saskia now, out of shadow, reaching her with smoke tendrils. “The time has come to reclaim what has been lost. Do not be afraid.” But Saskia knew better.

“The time has come,” Urka said again. “Bring the boy to the Gardener. Urka will make it better. My masters will be your new fathers and mother. They will heal all.”

“How?” asked Saskia. “What will you do with him?” She hadn’t realized she was crying so hard, tears and snot mixing, drowning her, falling onto the blackening face of her brother, who could have been sleeping but for the blood. She dared not ask, “Can you really bring him back?” in case Urka changed its mind.

“Oh my sweet child of earth and ash,” Urka said, and Saskia felt something in her hair — something hard and sharp, that must have been Urka’s hand trying to soothe her. It clenched her scalp. “Give the boy to me, and I will show you.”

~

When Saskia had stopped screaming and retching in the living room, she was afraid to move. She stared at Aunt Millie, who had become some kind of horrible tree, her feet roots throbbing and churning the floor, her hands and arms stretched above her head, branches reaching into the ceiling, searching for a way out through the cracking drywall.

Albert had killed Aunt Millie. Or had turned her into a monster. Either way, he had done this. Air still rasped out of the place Millie’s mouth had been. Her eyes were covered in hard black bark. She looked like she was trapped in a nightmare.

Albert had not returned, and Saskia was afraid to go after him, afraid to move and wake up the thing occupying Aunt Millie’s chair. But she wanted to be brave, even now, so she went outside shakily. It was morning, grey and overcast. Looking out onto the glen, there weren’t many places Albert could be, but Saskia zeroed in on the middle distance where the woods dipped down towards the brook and the cradle of hills. She knew Albert was there, but she wasn’t about to go. She would wait. She would scream and cry and beg and she would get Albert far away from here, from the monster they’d woken in the woods, and to a hospital in a city. Because surely he was sick. Surely a doctor could help.

Saskia sat on the wooden step, knees drawn up, head buried in her arms, until it was dark. She heard a stick break and whipped her head up. Albert stood very close by. He looked much older, and grave. But more than that — even in the darkness, Saskia could see the black creeping up the collar of his T-shirt, the tips of his fingers. He stared at her like he couldn’t believe she was there.

“Urka said it could bring Mum back,” he said. His voice was distant and more childlike than ever. It was a reason, but even Albert didn’t sound like he believed it.

“Aunt Millie . . .” Saskia started. But she was so tired. She wanted her mum, too, wanted Papa more than anything, but she and Albert were alone now. The roots of the tree that had once been Aunt Millie had ripped out the phone line. The nearest neighbour was a car ride away. They were trapped.

“Roger is a believer now, too,” Albert said quietly. “It’s starting. Soon all our dreams will come true. We will be a proper family. You’ll see.”

He reached for Saskia, but she was lightning fast, on her feet, off the stairs, and away from him, a bit down the hill. Albert didn’t reach for her again. “You’re so selfish,” he said. “Stop crying.” And then he went into the house for the last time.

Saskia shouldn’t have followed. But she was too young to stop and think. “A-Albie,” she sobbed, in the living room. “We have to . . . to call someone. We can’t —”

He twisted and lunged so suddenly Saskia barely had a breath to get out of the way. Albert smashed into the sideboard, glass and wood exploding with strength that had never been his. Saskia stumbled deeper into the house, towards their shared bedroom, blinded by tears and terror. But when Albert struck out again, like a venomous snake, something turned to rock in Saskia’s stomach.

“Stop it!” she shouted, as if it were just a game and she’d had enough.

And she met the blow of her brother’s whole body, turning him aside with a powerful shove. Slowly, as if underwater, Albert’s shoe caught the carpet, his eyes his own, only for a second, before his head struck the bedpost, and the light left those frightened eyes forever.

~

Be brave, Saskia thought again. She unwrapped Albert all the way and did so gingerly, afraid that she would catch the black sickness that had twisted her dark-haired brother so. But she would do anything Urka said if it meant bringing him back. If it meant untangling the thing that had wrapped itself so firmly around his heart. Or erasing her own horrible mistake.

She stood back and turned. Urka had grown enormous, like it was carved from the munro it had split in half. It spread its arms; at the end of them, the two axes it had for hands twisted and changed into claws. It gathered Albert up and fed him into its belly furnace. Albert did not burn but glowed like a coal. Saskia held herself in a tight hug, because there was no one else to hold her, to tell her it would be okay. Because she knew she could never go home again.

“You must believe,” Urka said, straining its horrible hands to the sky and then to the ground, its rocky body growing and humming and glowing ever brighter. “Will you help my masters rise to their rightful place? Will you devote yourself to your fathers? Your mother?” A flicker in the furnace. “To their one true child?

Saskia was not stupid, no matter how many times Albert had told her she was. Saskia was bright and selfless and knew deep down she was a good person. But she would have done every terrible thing she was afraid of to bring Albert back. So she took that goodness and locked it tightly away, hoping, maybe one day, it might save her.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”

Deep within Urka’s furnace, she saw Albert’s eyes open, and a black tendril from her brother reached for her and made her part of it.

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