Edward sat down in his chair with a thump. “You know about Earth?” He hadn’t made a list, but Edward was sure this was one of the last responses he expected from the Westerings.
“Yes,” Anna said gently. “Everyone on Midhbar came from Earth before it was destroyed.”
Amelia looked at Edward and saw that his brain was in deadlock — it happened when he had so many questions, he couldn’t pick which one to ask first. “But we’re from Earth!” Amelia said, a little too loudly. She took a breath and went on, more calmly. “And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t destroyed five hundred years ago, because we were just there last night.”
Anna shook her head and glanced around at the other Westerings around the table. “Nevertheless, it’s true,” she said, almost as if apologizing.
Edward blinked and came back with a question, “But how do you know it was destroyed?”
Anna looked around for support, and Collie interjected. “There are many accounts, written and handed down, from the last people to escape Earth. There are survivors from the Horn of Africa to Cathay and everywhere in between, but they all tell of the same terrible destruction — floods, earthquakes, the skies on fire.” Collie paused, and spread his small hands on the table. “After that day, no one from Earth ever came to Midhbar again.”
~ ~ ~
“What do you think about that, Nestor?” Ralph pointed at where the King’s Road met the road leading to the South gate. There were miles of rolling meadow and farmland around Westering. Most of it had been cleared many years ago, reclaimed from the forest that once ran from the Iserwood all the way down to the river. Now, the King’s Road emerged from the woods by the river a mile east of the Wall and passed a half mile south of Westering, where it intersected with the the road that led up to the South gate. This far west, the King’s Road was just a smooth double-track of hard-packed sand and dirt, not the wide corridor of interlocking stone pavers that ran for hundreds of miles out of Almaren. Still, every town of a respectable size was expected to do their part in keeping up the road, and the people of Westering made sure their part was smooth and free of holes.
Nestor looked East, where a single rider was approaching on a galloping black horse. “He’s in a hurry, isn’t he?” The two guards both watched carefully, but no other riders appeared. “Well, he ain’t being chased,” Ralph said, squinting. “Oh, something’s chasing him all right,” Nestor said, still watching the rider as he drew closer, “We just can’t see it.” Ralph nodded, understanding Nestor. “My granny always said, Nothing travels faster than bad news.”
Ralph shaded his eyes from the midday sun and watched carefully as the rider neared the intersection of the King’s Road and the South gate, still several hundred yards away. “That’s Squire Watson’s horse, Fuego!”
“You have good eyes, Ralph,” Nestor said. “I think you’re right.”
“I’d bet this week’s pay on it,” Ralph said. “I can see that white star on his forehead from here. Only that ain’t Squire Watson in the saddle. Too small, whoever it is.” Squire Watson ran the biggest farm for many miles around. His dairy and property were located on the outskirts of the small town of Bradford’s Mill, about a twenty miles east down the King’s Road. Watson and some of his household were in Westering every week for the Wednesday market. Solomon Cozen had an exclusive arrangement with Watson to sell some of his best cheese. Ralph squinted again, “In fact, there ain’t no saddle — riding bareback, with a bit and reins.” Ralph put his hand down and stood up straight. “I got a bad feeling about this, Nestor.”
Ralph also had a bad feeling about the last visitors at the gate, but Nestor was right that Edward and Amelia weren’t anything to fear. This was different, though. The rider had obviously left in great haste, and was now slumped forward against Fuego’s neck, as if he could barely hold on. “This time, I agree with you, Ralph.”
Nestor and Ralph were waiting to meet the rider as he passed through the gate. Besides the Watch, the only other Westerings around were Leo, the carpenter, and his apprentice, Peter. They were leveling some doors and shutters in the gatehouse and had them set up on sawhorses outside in the gatehouse yard. It seemed that the rest of the town was up at the North gate. The word was a farmer from the North had brought a strange animal in a wagon, and everyone wanted to see the beast. Leo heard the horse approaching, and now he and Peter waited by the gate with Nestor and Ralph. Fuego slowed from a gallop as he approached, and trotted up to the gatehouse, stamping and sweating. Now Nestor could see the rider was only a boy, perhaps thirteen years old, with no shoes, dressed in brown leggings and a torn blue shirt. As soon as the horse stopped, the boy looked at the townspeople wide-eyed, and then directly at Nestor, who was the closest to him.
“Vampires!” he gasped, and the Westerings around him looked at each other in alarm. “Vampires came to Watson Farm last night. We were all sleeping,” he choked, overcome with emotion. Ralph was holding Fuego’s bridle and soothing the horse. “Vampires are in Bradford’s Mill?” Ralph said, “Did you ride all the way from there?”
“Yes,” the boy said, wincing with pain. Now that he was close, Nestor could see dried blood through the torn cloth on the boy’s left shoulder. Nestor reached up to steady the boy, “Where are you hurt, son? What happened to you?”
“Something leapt at us as we rode out, and it scratched or bit me,” he touched his arm near the shoulder, “I never saw it, but it had to be one of them,” the boy said with a grimace.
Nestor reached up with both hands as Ralph held Fuego steady. “You’re safe now, son. Let me help you down.” The boy dropped the reins and shifted uneasily to one side. “What’s your name, son?”
“Will Taylor, sir,” the boy replied. When he tried to dismount, Will cried out from the pain and stiffness in his legs and slid off Fuego’s back, into Nestor’s waiting arms.
Will looked at Nestor and Ralph. “Please take good care of Fuego. He’s master’s favorite,” the boy said, “And he saved my life.”
“I’ll take good care of Fuego, don’t worry, Will,” Peter had already fetched a blanket from the gatehouse. Ralph threw the wool covering over Fuego’s back and then started to walk him around the wide area of flagstones in front of the gatehouse, so that the horse didn’t cramp while he cooled down.
“Let’s get you over to the bench,” Nestor said. He supported most of the boy’s weight as he helped him toward the small wooden benches that sat in the shade of the maple tree outside the gatehouse door. As they walked, Nestor looked for the source of the blood. There were three deep scratches starting on the boy’s left collarbone and continuing down to the shoulder blade. Nestor looked at Leo and Peter, who were standing nearby. “Can someone please find Jess the Herbal?” Peter said, “I’ll get her, Nestor.”
“Thank you. And please tell her the wounds are probably from a vampire.” The boy nodded. “Back in a flash,” and he was off like a young deer. Nestor wished that Jess would be able to return with the same speed. Ralph handed Fuego off to the carpenter and caught up to Nestor as he helped Will over to the benches, “What should we do with his news, Nestor?”
Nestor sighed, “The council is already meeting at the Hart. We should send word.”
Ralph rubbed his neck. “Right, I better go myself. What with the children this morning, and this news of a giant raven up at the North gate, Erik and the rest will think we’re playing a joke on them.” Nestor nodded in agreement. “Well, I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Ralph said over his shoulder as he walked away. “Quite a day, eh, Nestor?”
“And it’s only half over,” Nestor replied. He was trying not to hurt Will’s shoulder as they walked; the boy was trying to support his own weight and not cry out in pain. Nestor helped Will sit down on a bench’ then gave him a flask of water he found by the sawhorses. The boy took several long drinks while Nestor pulled up another bench and sat down in the shade. “What happened, Will?”
The boy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I was sleeping in the stables last night when I heard some shouting. I got up and then Master Watson came with James, who works in the house, and Ben, who works in the great barn. Master had a knife. They all had knives, or axes. Master looked angry; James and Ben looked scared. I heard someone scream, and Master Watson told me to get up into the hay loft. He covered me up with hay, and said, We’ll come back for you, when it’s safe. Until then, you stay put.” Will wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and went on. “I heard shouting, and screaming, and some of the men from the house ran through the stables once. The horses reared and kicked in their stalls. I stayed under the straw and listened. Sometimes I’d hear someone yelling outside. After a while, I don’t know how long, everything was quiet again. I was about to sit up and look around when I heard something.” Will shuddered and shook his head. “I never seen a vampire before. There was blood…all over. They were all bald, and so pale. I could see all their veins. They were talking, but the horses made such a noise when they went by, I couldn’t hear what they were saying.”
Nestor had fought and killed vampires. He was a grown man, and a big one, but he was still afraid every time he saw red eyes looking back at him from the dark. He couldn’t imagine how frightened Will must have been, trapped in the stable with a horde of the creatures for most of the night. “How did you get away from there, Will?”
“When it was light, all the vampires came into the barn, which joins up to the stables at the back. The barn is big, and there’s plenty of dark places, so I heard them moving around and talking even after dawn. The stables face east, though, and there was light coming in, so the vampires stayed out of there. That’s how I was able to escape. I crept down from the loft as quiet as I could, and down into Fuego’s stall.” Will looked up at Nestor with a flicker of a smile. “Fuego is master’s favorite, and he and I are the only ones who can ride him. He’s a handful, but he’s fast. I put a bridle and reins on him, and didn’t bother with the saddle. I led him out of the stall and to the door as quiet as I could. I thought I heard something behind us, but I didn’t look back, I just threw open the door and leaped up on Fuego’s back. The sun came streaming in, and I heard a hiss, but it still came after me. I never saw it, but it grabbed my shoulder,” Will put his hand gingerly where the scratches started, “It tried to pull me off, but Fuego reared up and then we were outside in broad daylight and it let go, but it raked me pretty good, I guess.” Nestor knew that Jess could keep a vampire wound, even a bite, from festering. Blood poisoning from filthy claws was the real danger for Will. To become a vampire, you had to be so near death that they could possess your body with their own evil spirit. This boy was tired and scared, but he was also young and strong.
Will looked over to the yard, where Leo was rubbing down Fuego with the blanket. “Then we just rode as fast as we could for the King’s Road. When we reached it, I went east toward Poplar Camp, which is the closest town, but when I got to the bridge, the way was blocked with two burned wagons. So, I turned and headed west.” Nestor nodded. “Did you see anyone else?”
Will moved his shoulder and gritted his teeth with the pain. Nestor looked toward town, hoping to see Jess coming toward the gatehouse. “I saw some bodies along the way, on the side of the road,” Will continued. “Then a horse with a saddle, but no rider. A few miles outside of town, we passed a group headed east on foot. I warned them and everyone else we saw along the way. Probably a dozen people, in all.
“You did well,” Nestor said gently to the boy, as he would to his own son after a nightmare, “You did very well, Will Taylor.”
Will gave a humorless laugh. “I don’t even know if they believed me. I probably would’ve thought I was crazy, too.” Will looked up at Nestor. “I mean, vampires don’t attack towns, do they? Even when we heard what was happening here in Westering, we thought it was just because you’re out here in the Wilderlands. We didn’t think it would happen to us.”
“It’s all right, Will,” Nestor said, “Neither did we.”
~ ~ ~
Edward and Amelia were stunned. Their big secret was out, and no one believed they were from Earth.
“I can prove we’re from Earth,” Amelia said. Edward looked at her with concern, but Amelia grinned at him and pulled out her smart phone. “Take a look at this!” She said, with satisfaction. She held the phone up, screen outward as she pressed the power button. The phone flickered to life, and Amelia tried to think of the most impressive app she could show them without an internet connection. She pulled up her photos and went to the other side of the table, where all the adults were gathered. Amelia flipped through pictures of her and her friends, her and Edward and Lucy, pictures of her old room on Dunbar Street, and some of the roof of their attic apartment with sunlight slanting across the rafters. “Hey, those are good,” Edward said. “Thanks,” Amelia replied. She was interested in photography, but didn’t own a real camera. The only reason she hadn’t taken more pictures since they arrived was fear of draining the battery — the phone was the only link they had to their mother, and their home.
Anna seemed, unwillingly, to have taken on the role of debunking the idea the Lockhearts could be from Earth. “These are very interesting, but they aren’t proof,” she said. “We have mirrors that can capture and preserve images, and in a much larger form.”
Solomon sounded sympathetic, “This is very interesting, though, and I’ve never seen anything like this device,” he said, “It’s very clever.”
“But if anything,” Anna interjected, “This is simply more evidence that you aren’t from Earth.”
“Oh,” Edward said, nodding, “I understand what you mean, but things on Earth have changed a lot in the past five centuries.”
“Yes,” Amelia said. “For example, this can not only take pictures, but it can send them, and your voice, over huge distances,” she protested. “If you have another one like this to receive them,” she faltered. “And some cell phone towers.” Amelia was dismayed, and Edward shrugged, which annoyed his sister. She thought about showing some video, but decided that was just more magic mirrors. Amelia found an app that would work off-line. “OK,” she said, sounding hopeful, “How about this?” Amelia started up the game and let the Westerings look over her shoulder. Edward leaned forward. “Is that Bejeweled?” he said, incredulous. “I don’t have a lot of games!” Amelia said, defensively.
“And it doesn’t prove anything! Don’t you understand their point?” He looked over her shoulder as she kept searching through her apps. “You don’t even have Plants versus Zombies,” Edward said in an angry whisper. “That phone is totally wasted on you!”
“Oh, give me a break!” Amelia said, whirling to face Edward, “You’re just jealous!”
“It’s not fair!” Edward shot back. “You shouldn’t get a better phone just because you’re older!”
The three men in the room all took a small step back and looked at Anna. She took a deep breath and tried to intervene. “Children,” she began, but Edward and Amelia didn’t miss a beat.
“And you shouldn’t get one just because you think you’re more responsible than me!”
“I am more responsible than you!” Edward said, rolling his eyes.
Amelia held up her phone like a trophy. “Then how come I still have this, and you lost your pocket watch?” Edward looked like he had been punched in the stomach, and Amelia instantly regretted her words.
Edward’s shoulders dropped. “That’s not fair,” he said. Edward’s jaw was clenched, and his face got very red. “I know,” Amelia said softly. She was about to apologize, but Edward cut her off. “You don’t know!” Edward wiped his eyes; he was trying not to cry. “You don’t understand, because you’re too busy being Amelia,” he turned and started walking quickly to the door.
“What does that mean?” Amelia said angrily. “Edward — wait! Where do you think you’re going?”
Edward looked over his shoulder, but didn’t stop walking. “Stop acting like Mom, Amelia.”
If Erik, Anna, Solomon, and Cyrus hadn’t understood everything that passed between the siblings up to now, they certainly understood the significance of that remark. The room got very quiet. Amelia’s lips squeezed together until they were white and bloodless. “That was a cheap shot, Edward!” Just as Amelia knew only moments before that she had gone too far, Edward regretted his comment, but he was too angry and embarrassed to apologize now. He had almost reached the door when he heard footsteps pounding down the hallway and skid to a stop before the door burst open.
Ralph’s red head appeared, followed by the rest of his lanky body. He had run all the way from the South Gate and was breathing hard. “Sorry to interrupt,” he gasped, then looked around, sensing the tension in the room. “There’s news from Bradford’s Mill.” Ralph leaned against the door, and wiped sweat from his eyes.
“Out with it, man!” Solomon said impatiently.
“Vampires,” Ralph said, wheezing. “Good lords,” Collie said, “Come and sit down, Ralph.”
It was bad news, and yet everyone was grateful for the distraction. Edward walked back toward the table. He and Amelia didn’t make eye contact, but it was understood there a truce was in effect. As Ralph sat down heavily to catch his breath, Erik walked over and patted him on the back. “Good timing, Ralph,” he said. The tall guard smiled, without knowing exactly what was funny, and then everyone else joined him.
Erik leaned against the table beside Ralph’s chair. “Vampires where?”
“Bradford’s Mill,” Ralph gasped.
Erik frowned. “What, you mean the whole town?”
Collie handed Ralph a glass of water, and Ralph paused to take a few gulps. Erik let out a sigh, and drummed his fingers loudly on the table while Ralph drank. The guard put down the glass and coughed. “Sorry,” he said. “We don’t know about town, actually, but we do know they’re all over Watson’s Farm.”
Erik rubbed his chin through his short beard. “Well, that’s bad enough,” Erik said. All the Westerings nodded. Solomon looked up from his journal, where he’d been making a note. He looked puzzled for a moment. “Do you mean because of the ‘Sacred Springs’?” he said, raising one long eyebrow. “I assumed that was something the Watsons said to sell more cheese.”
Erik scowled at Solomon. “The springs are blessed. The great barn was built hundreds of years ago, right beside the source of the waters, precisely because of their power.”
Collie nodded, and explained to Edward and Amelia as much as the skeptical Solomon. “There’s no sickness near the springs. Everything from the grass on the banks to the fish in the streams is as healthy as you’ll ever see. The cows and goats that drink from those springs are bigger, and give more milk than any others this side of the kingdom. ”
“And are the women beautiful as the livestock?” Solomon chuckled. Erik ignored this, and went on. “So, maybe it’s coincidence, or maybe the vampires are there because of the springs.”
Collie shook his head and frowned. “Not a good sign, them getting together like this. If there were enough of them to take over Watson Farm, they must have planned and organized.”
Cyrus spoke up. “That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you all about,” he said, “May as well say it now.” Cyrus went on, “The vampires up our way have been hatchin’ plots, too. All the families got worried when we heard vampires was attacking Westering in groups.” The farmer shifted in his seat. He seemed uncomfortable having everyone’s attention focused on him, “But they seem to have left us alone for the most part. Seems there’s something specific they want with Westering. There is one thing, though,” Cyrus leaned forward over the table. “Last week, a boy up in Carter’s Glen was out rounding up some stray goats one evening, right at dusk. He heard a goat bleatin’ and carryin’ on up by the old mill they have there. The boy figured it had wandered into one of those ruined buildings and got stuck or hurt, so, he went to look for it. His father had warned him to stay out of those old, crumbling buildings, so he only got close enough to see the goat through the door of the old storehouse. He called and called to it, but it didn’t come out.” Cyrus rubbed his tan, balding head. “He got his older brother to come back with him and they brought a couple of their dogs. Well, the dogs went crazy, ran inside the storehouse and flushed out two vampires, who took off into the woods. The boys found the goat was tied up in there.” Cyrus looked around the room, to see if this had sunk in. “It was a trap, to lure some careless passerby into that dark old building. I never heard of a vampire laying a trap before.”
“This kind of organization among the creatures is unprecedented,” Solomon said. “And very troubling.”
Erik snorted. “Unprecedented. He’s been in the Wilderlands for a year, and now he’s a vampire expert.” Ralph chuckled, then stopped himself when he noticed how quiet the room had become. Erik turned to look at Solomon, who was sitting at the opposite end of the long table. “You ever cleaned out nest of vampires, Solomon? Have you actually seen a vampire?”
“No,” he admitted. “We can’t all have lives as colorful as yours, Erik.” Even Edward and Amelia, who didn’t know Solomon and Erik’s brief, unfriendly history, could tell the merchant meant more than he was saying. Every adult in the room knew that Solomon intended “colorful” to mean “disreputable,” with the implication of “criminal,” as well. Erik smoldered, and Ralph, who was closest to the tavern owner, shifted in his chair uneasily.
“Now, Solomon,” Collie said cheerfully, “We can’t all make a living selling tea and blankets,” he said with a wink. “There’s all kinds of work to be done in this world, and not all of it is pleasant.”
Solomon’s face was flushed, but he swallowed what he was about to say, and sat back in his chair. “Then I’m glad we have you and Erik to help us with this problem at Watson’s Farm.” He leaned forward on his elbows and steepled his long fingers. “What do you suggest we do?”
Erik crossed his arms. “Good question,” he said. “And we’ll be glad to give you our advice.” He looked across the table to Edward and Amelia, who had maintained a sheepish silence since Ralph interrupted their argument. “But this is a discussion for the grown-ups.”
Collie hopped up from his chair and chimed in, “And a good time for us all to get something to eat!” He winked at the Lockhearts. “Why don’t you two come with me, and let’s see what we can find for lunch.” He looked around the room. “We’ll bring up something for all of you,” he said to the adults.
Ralph stood up. “I’d best be getting back to my post.”
“I’ll talk to you and Nestor after this,” Erik said quietly. Ralph nodded and went out.
As the Lockhearts followed Collie to the door, Solomon came around the table and spoke to them. “Children, I’m sorry we weren’t able to finish our discussion.”
“That’s OK, sir,” Edward said, “There are more important things going on right now.” Solomon indicated they should keep walking. Collie went ahead of them down the stairs, and now they were alone in the hallway. Solomon lowered his voice slightly. “Things that require our immediate attention, yes, but not necessarily more important.” He slid his green journal into a pocket inside his crimson robe. “I would be very interested in talking to you again as soon as possible. You’re welcome at Cozen’s anytime.”
“Yes, we’ve heard,” Amelia said wryly. “We’ll stop in as soon as we can,” she said, and Edward nodded.
Solomon was tall, and he loomed over the children as they stood in the empty hallway. The merchant leaned forward slightly; he was almost smiling. “Very few in all of Midhbar know it yet,” he said quietly, “but great changes are coming. We live in interesting times, children. Interesting and dangerous times. And you, Edward and Amelia Lockheart,” Solomon said, pointing one long finger at them, “are here for a reason.”