This week’s Saturday-special-I’m-actually-posting-on-Monday is the first chapter of the YA science fiction novel (dystopian before dystopian YA SF was cool!) I just epublished last week: The Chosen. The original version of this book was only the second novel I wrote out of university, but I rewrote it sometime in the last few years. It never found a home with a publisher, but now it has one as an ebook!
By Edward Willett
Beth Foster held tight to her father’s waist, her right ear pressed against his back, as the white stallion galloped across the prairie. Out of the corner of her eye she caught occasional glimpses of the dozen mounted men following close behind. The pounding of all those horses’ hooves and the pounding of her own heart mingled in her head until she couldn’t tell one from the other.
Suddenly the stallion slowed, and at the same instant, Beth smelled the sharp scent of burning pine. She raised her head, sniffing the autumn wind like a hunting dog, as her father lifted his right hand and the other riders reined to a halt around them, horses blowing and stamping, breath and sweat steaming in the frosty air. The wind tossed a strand of red-gold hair across her eyes, and impatiently she tucked it back under her warm red cap of knitted wool.
Her father surveyed the troop of horsemen, and Beth followed his gaze. Each man wore a white surcoat, emblazoned front and back with the red cross of the Crusade, dimmed by the dust of their ride; a saber hung from each belt and a holstered rifle was slung from each saddle.
Beth’s father nodded, then said, “Torches.”
From their saddlebags, each rider pulled out a short wooden torch, greasy rags wrapped around one end. After a few moments’ work with flint and steel, the rags began to burn. One by one the riders lifted the flames in salute to Beth’s father. He raised his clenched right fist in response. “Hold on,” he said in a low voice to Beth, then, “To the glory of God!” he shouted, and slammed his heels into the stallion’s flanks.
Beth’s heart leaped as they surged up the slope, but instead of plunging down the far side of the hill, her father reined to halt at its crest. In the valley below Beth could see a farmyard, with a pre-Trouble white frame house and a few outbuildings surrounded by a much more crudely made wooden stockade about eight feet high. “Aren’t we going down?” Beth shouted as the other riders pounded past them, but her father shook his head.
“It’s too dangerous for you,” he shouted back. “Just watch. Watch how the Chosen purge the land of evil!”
An old man picking corn looked up as the riders thundered down toward him, froze for a moment, then dropped his half-full basket and ran for the open gate, shapeless brown hat flying from his balding head. “Joey! Marta! Close the gate! Close the—”
The broad chest of the lead black gelding struck him in the back and he fell, rolling over and over among the dry yellow stalks.
A woman appeared in the doorway of the house, and screamed as the Chosen pounded through the gate. Three crying children, the oldest no more than eight, ran to her. One by one the horsemen flung their torches through the door of a shed from which stretched two strands of black wire, strung on tall wooden posts.
A dull thump shook the ground, and orange flames engulfed the shed and licked at the wall of the house as the Chosen swept out of the compound and rode back up the hill, past the motionless body of the old man.
“Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” Beth’s father shouted to his men as they rejoined him at the top of the hill, but Beth’s eyes were locked on the woman. She herded her coughing, weeping children away from their burning home, then saw the old man lying in the field and ran toward him.
“Dad!” Beth heard her scream. “Dad!” Beth’s last view, as her own father wheeled the stallion to lead his band home in victory, was of the woman kneeling in the broken corn beside the old man, sobbing.
Beth thought she might be sick. “It was God’s will,” she whispered to herself. “God’s will—God’s will!” Hadn’t her father said so that very morning? He had stood in his stirrups, silver hair and beard astir in the breeze, his voice booming through the Square. “The army of the Lord rides forth to rid the land of evil and prepare the Earth for the coming of its King!”
They had a generator, Beth told herself fiercely. It had to be destroyed!
“Electricity is the lifeblood of Satan!” her father had shouted out across the Square. “From it sprang all the evils of the Old World before the Tribulation!”
But she kept seeing the old man rolling in the dust, the fire licking at the house, the terrified faces of the children, and in her ears still rang the cries of the woman who had seen the little bit of security she had carved from a hard, uncaring world destroyed in an instant.
We saved them from the Evil One. We saved them!
Would Mama have thought so?, another inner voice whispered in reply.
All the way home, Beth listened to the excited voices of the horsemen, rehashing their glorious attack. She didn’t say a word, and when the tree-filled valley that sheltered their village opened below them, Beth suddenly felt she could not face the cheering crowd that would welcome them. “Father, may I get down?”
“What?” He looked back at her. “Why?”
“I’d like to walk from here, that’s all.” She didn’t meet his eyes.
He hesitated, then pulled on the reins. The other riders halted a little further on and waited as he helped Beth to the ground. “Don’t be long,” he said. “There’ll be a celebration feast tonight, and I want you looking your best.”
He pulled off her cap, leaned down and kissed the top of her head, then handed her back the cap and urged the stallion to a trot. A moment later the entire troop disappeared into the valley.
Beth looked back the way they had come. Was that distant smudge the smoke from the destroyed farm? She stared at it a moment, then shivered and plunged down into the valley herself, to escape the wind that suddenly felt much colder. Winter’s coming, she thought. That recalcitrant strand of hair had escaped again; she tucked it up under her cap once more, then pulled her patched brown homespun riding cloak closer around her shoulders. Maybe this will be the last raid for a while.
But an icy gust rattled the yellow leaves of the birches and aspen like scornful laughter, and she shivered. She knew better. As surely as the snow would come, the raids would continue. “God’s will does not wait for good weather,” her father said, and she knew his scouts were scouring ever further afield for any sign of the Old Ways.
She reached the trail at the base of the slope and walked slowly toward the village, wishing that when she got there she would have someone to talk to, someone who could help her sort out her feelings.
But there was no one. No one questioned her father. He had risen to oversight of the Chosen through the combined force of his intellect and personality; no one had ever withstood him in debate, no one, it seemed, failed to be mesmerized by his fiery oratory. When Elder Silas had dropped dead of a heart attack ten years ago, Elder Joshua Foster had been the unanimous choice as his successor—and had not been challenged since.
If only Mama were still alive. But that was foolishness, like wishing the Tribulation had never happened. If her mother had not died a year ago in the outbreak of Blue Plague that took more than twenty of the Chosen in all, her father might never have begun his Crusade; but die she had, drowned in the fluid that filled her lungs as surely as if she had sunk to the bottom of Lake Katepwa. Beth’s father had taken his wife’s death as a sign. She could still hear him thundering to the Chosen on the Sunday morning that had launched the Crusade. “Evil remains in the land!” he had shouted, voice hoarse with emotion, face tight with pain. “God sent the Tribulation to purge us of evil, but He has let some remain to test our faith. It is our duty, as the sons and daughters of God, to finish God’s great work—before God repents of our survival and destroys us all!”
Beth could also hear her mother’s voice, saying “God is love.” But love seemed to have little place in her father’s new creed…
And then Beth’s heart skipped a beat and she suddenly forgot her doubts as she heard men’s voices—voices she didn’t recognize.
She darted off the path into the woods. Anyone not of the Chosen was to be feared; that was one warning of her father’s she believed fervently. She knew what had happened to others of the Chosen who had come upon some of those who wandered the Wild…
Yet despite her fear, she had a duty to her neighbors. As silently as she could, she crept toward the strangers. There were two, she decided as their voices became clearer; two men, just off the trail, hidden by a stand of bushes. They spoke English, but with such a strong, drawling accent she had to get closer than she liked to understand them.
“Ain’t seen nothing bigger’n a sparrow since day before yesterday,” one whined. “Where’s them deer that old man promised?”
“We’ll find them down here,” said the other in a deeper tone. “He must have known what he was talking about. You saw all those hides.”
“So why should he tell us where he got them?”
“I paid him, didn’t I? I gave him that flashlight thing. That should be worth a deer.”
“Yeah, and who said you could do that? That was mine, that was. Why’nt you give him them silver gloves you lifted?”
“Because I need gloves worse’n you need a flashlight. Anyway, you’ve got those binoculars and the best rifle. And we’ve each got a couple of those—what’d the Technos call ’em?—solar batteries, that’s it. They ought to be worth a winter’s lodging just about anywhere, if they put out as much ’lectricity as they said.”
Beth swallowed and nervously shifted position, and a twig under her foot snapped like a rifle shot. “Someone’s watching us!” the whiney man cried.
Beth burst from cover like a startled rabbit. A branch snagged her cloak, but she twisted free and raced for the village, ignoring the shouts behind her and praying she could outrun the men if they pursued her.
The chill air stung her face and her arms grew cold without her cloak, but she hardly noticed. Electricity! Flashlights! Satan’s work, brought into the Chosen’s valley!
Half a mile later she staggered through the open gate of the village’s palisade and fell to her knees on the flagstones of the Square, gasping, heart pounding, unable to speak.
The Square was crowded with people and horses, as the men who had been on the raid mingled with those who had come out to greet them on their return. John Ramsey, the village butcher, and one of that morning’s raiders, was the first to notice Beth. “Here, now, Beth, what’re you in such a state over?” he said, helping her to her feet as a crowd gathered. She tried to speak, but a stitch in her side doubled her over again and for a moment she thought she would throw up. It seemed to take her forever to summon the breath to blurt out what she had heard.
Shouts of anger greeted her news. Leaving her in the care of Sarah Goodman, a grandmotherly woman Beth knew mainly as the village’s biggest gossip, Ramsey called for men and horses and sent his eight-year-old son, Amos, running toward the big house overlooking the courtyard to summon Beth’s father.
Mrs. Goodman settled Beth on the wooden bench ringing the well, then drew up the bucket and offered her a ladle of water. Beth gulped the icy liquid gratefully, but then almost dropped the ladle in a fit of shivering. Mrs. Goodman’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, dear, I never thought…here.” She pulled off her green wool cloak and wrapped it around Beth’s trembling shoulders. “What you need is something warm. Come inside and I’ll fix you some mint tea.”
Teeth chattering, Beth followed Mrs. Goodman across the Square, but paused as her father strode from their house, still wearing the dust-grimed uniform he had worn on the raid and buckling his sword-belt around his giant, gaunt frame as he walked. His ice-blue eyes glittered in the waning sun, and the cold wind ruffled his white hair and beard. He looked magnificent and frightening, and as Beth watched him mount his stallion once again, she almost pitied the two strangers.
They brought Satan’s handiwork into our valley, she reminded herself. And Father won’t harm them if they don’t resist…
But what if they do?
“Come along, dear,” Mrs. Goodman said, and Beth gratefully turned away from the forming posse and hurried after her.
Mrs. Goodman’s hot mint tea, poured out in a cozy kitchen warmed by a potbellied stove, soon warmed Beth’s body, but did nothing to ease the chill in her heart, and she excused herself as soon as she could, leaving Mrs. Goodman’s myriad questions about what had happened in the woods and on the raid that morning unanswered.
Half an hour later, she watched from the door of her own house as her father and the half-dozen men who had ridden with him returned to the crowd awaiting them in the Square, bringing with them two strangers, bound together astride a barebacked pack horse.
The posse halted, and her father dismounted. He pulled his saddlebags free, lifted one flap, and upended them. Bits of metal and glass scattered across the stones of the Square, glittering in the sun like diamonds.
Joshua Foster drove his boot down onto one of the largest pieces of glass, grinding it to dust against the rock. “Thus do we treat all the works of Satan!” he shouted. The Chosen cheered.
Then he saw Beth and motioned her to him. She reluctantly obeyed, holding her arms tight to her body against the deepening chill. From the other side of his saddlebags he pulled out her old brown cloak; as she took it, he bent down and kissed her on the cheek. “I’m proud of you, Beth,” he whispered, then stood and shouted, “Let my daughter’s devotion be an example to us all! It was she who discovered these pawns of Satan and exerted all her strength to warn us!” He motioned to John Ramsey, whose horse was leading the packhorse bearing the prisoners; Ramsey slipped out of his saddle, then jerked the two strangers to the ground so roughly they almost fell.
One was a tall, stout man, his black hair and scraggly beard salted with gray, his face brown and deeply lined. The other, thinner and younger, had dirty blonde hair and a straggly mustache. Both looked around sullenly, and for a moment the older man’s eyes met Beth’s.
She read anger and disgust there, and suddenly all she wanted to do was escape. “May I go now, Father?” she said, looking down at her hands, twisting the rough wool of her cloak.
“Of course,” he murmured. “You should rest before the feast.” He lifted her chin and smiled at her. “You’re a hero, you know.” Then he released her and turned toward the crowd as she walked quickly toward their house. “These strangers will be questioned,” his voice boomed out again. “They may yet redeem themselves by telling us where they found these tools of the Devil. And tonight at the feast, perhaps, we will be able to celebrate not only a great day in our Crusade, but the hope of more great days to come…”
The front door banged shut and cut off his voice. In the dim hallway just beyond Beth pressed her cheek against the smooth, dark wood paneling and closed her eyes.
“You’re a hero,” her father had told her. A hero—to the Chosen.
But not to herself.