Anastasia coughed. She’d been coughing more and more recently. Her time was coming and, although she told others not to fear it, she was scared of what was to happen next.
She coughed again. Something wet and heavy rattled in her chest.
‘What’s wrong, Grandma?’ Hedwin asked. Sometimes the boy was so quiet that she forgot he was there.
‘Oh, it’s... er...’ For a moment, she thought about lying to him, but she knew that wouldn’t achieve anything. Fate had plotted its course and all that was left was to sit back and enjoy the ride. Maybe it was always meant to be this way. Fate may have chosen this path for her from the moment she was born. Not that it mattered much anyway, everyone had to go at some point, and Anastasia had lived longer than most. That was one of the perks of living in Elkbury. Clearing her throat, she braced herself for what she had to say.
Those were simple words, but they were the most difficult words that she had ever uttered.
‘Ill?’ Hedwin asked. To him, the concept of sickness must have been almost alien. At fifteen, Hedwin’s experience of the world was limited. Illness wasn’t something he’d ever witnessed. Aside from hearing about Crispin Boyd’s murder the day before, Hedwin had never seen nor heard about death. The people of Elkbury didn’t die. They didn’t succumb to illness. They didn’t die of old age.
They were Banished before that could ever happen.
That had been the case with both Hedwin’s parents, and it was going to be what happened to his grandmother.
‘It’s nearly time for my Banishment,’ she said. ‘I need you to go and tell Father Arcadius so that he can start making arrangements.’
‘But... Grandma...’ he said, his voice barely audible.
‘What’s wrong, child?’ she asked.
‘I don’t want you to go.’ he said.
‘It’ll be alright,’ she said, not sure if she really believed that herself. Unlike most of the village, Anastasia was old enough to know the origins of the Banishment. Worse, she knew what was due to happen. But she knew it was the way it was meant to be.
As the sun rose, Wren came to a decision: she would visit Grima. After all, it wasn’t like it could do any harm. Wren had spoken to everyone in Elkbury and she was no closer to finding out who was responsible for Crispin Boyd’s grisly murder. In fact, her investigations had turned up absolutely nothing. The only gut feeling she had was that Heather Boyd knew far more than she was letting on, but her constant sobbing made it impossible to have a conversation with her.
Out of options and out of any other ideas, talking to Grima was even starting to seem like a sensible idea. She supposed there was a chance that a few ounces of truth could turn up in the deluge of bullshit that was bound to fall out of the old woman’s mouth. Fortifying herself with a draft of ale, Wren prepared herself for the day ahead.
Grima’s house was a small building consisting of only one room; she liked to keep things simple. The room was split into two sections; one for sleeping and one served as her living quarters. Like most of the homes in Elkbury, there was an outhouse a short distance from the back of the house. Unlike most of the other dwellings, there was no cooking area. As the village’s seer, Grima was granted a seat at the table of anyone who believed her visions. The number of believers had dwindled in recent years, but Grima wasn’t bothered. She’d seen it coming and, as a result, had plenty of time to get used to the idea. Whether people chose to believe her or not, that was their choice. She could only tell them what she saw. Today she knew she’d be visited three times. She also knew that she wasn’t going to particularly enjoy any of those visits. But there wasn’t much she could do about it. Grima was able to see things, but she couldn’t change them, no matter how much she might want to. To any onlookers, it would have been difficult to tell Grima was blind. She moved from one part of her home to the next with ease, never stumbling and never knocking into anything. Eventually, she settled in her chair in the living quarters and awaited her first guest. They were already on the way. The door creaked open and Grima felt a cool breeze against her skin. Sighing, she shifted in her seat. The first visitor had arrived. It was one of the unbelievers.
‘Hello?’ a voice called.
‘Come in, come in,’ Grima replied. ‘Make yourself comfortable. I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything to eat or drink. As you can see, there’s very little here.’ If the visitor was disappointed at the lack of refreshment, they didn’t say anything. It may have been customary to look after your guests, but the seer was the exemption to that rule - whether you believed her or not. ‘Now I suppose you want me to tell you about Crispin Boyd?’ Grima asked.
Gasping slightly, Wren hadn’t expected Grima to be this accurate - or this forthright - quite so soon. Then again, her reason for visiting was pretty obvious. Why else would Wren be talking to the old woman if it wasn’t for the previous day’s murder?
‘Yes, I’m here about the murder,’ Wren replied. ‘My name is Wren, by the way.’
‘I know,’ Grima said. It was hard to tell if she was telling the truth or not, but Wren decided to go along with it for now. ‘So... how are you?’ Wren asked.
‘Let’s forget the small talk, shall we?’ Grima said. ‘It’s a waste of both our time. You don’t care how I am and I don’t care how you are. I’m sure we both have things we’d rather be doing right now.’
The woman was right, of course, but her blunt words stung a little. ‘Right... erm... so...’
‘Spit it out, child,’ Grima demanded. ‘You want me to answer your questions, so ask them.’
Thinking that if the old woman knew so much about what she was going to ask then she should just come out and give her answers, Wren cleared her throat. Being a seer had obviously given Grima plenty of gifts and luxuries, but she hadn’t been blessed with any people skills. Her bedside manner was terrible.
‘Fine,’ Wren said. ‘What can you tell me about Crispin Boyd’s murder? What have you seen?’
‘Nothin’ and nothin’,’ Grima replied with a hint of a smile. Wren frowned and, even though the old woman couldn’t see her, she seemed to sense it as she recoiled slightly. ‘Good,’ thought Wren, ‘Rude ol’ bat.’
‘Funny, I thought seers could see everything,’ Wren said, hoping to goad an answer out of her.
‘Yeah? Well, you thought wrong, didn’t you? Can you imagine how much power I’d have if I could see every sodding thing? Can you imagine how exhausting it would be if I could see every little thing?’
‘I’d hardly call a murder a little thing,’ Wren said. ‘So what can you see?’
‘It’s a little thing in the grand scheme of things, my child. But, I understand your point. It is rather unnerving. And Crispin was a good man. He listened to me... although he hadn’t been to see me in a while.’
Wren wasn’t surprised. After this conversation was over, she was planning to avoid the cantankerous old woman for as long as possible.
‘In answer to your question, I can see what the Verum Visus wants me to see. So far today I’ve seen that I will have three visitors... the first being you. But that’s it. I don’t just wake up with a brand-new set of visions every day. They come when they want to come and not a moment sooner.’
‘There’s no way to hurry it along?’
‘I can read palms... but I don’t think that will do much good in this situation... unless you have Mr Boyd’s to hand?’ Grima chuckled at her own joke.
‘No, I don’t,’ Wren replied. An idea was starting to form in her head. It was an idea that made her stomach roll, but she figured it was worth a try. ‘But if I was to get it, could you read it?’
‘I could try,’ Grima said. ‘I’ve never tried to read a dead hand before. There aren’t many opportunities for that here, you know.’
‘I don’t imagine that there are, no,’ Wren replied.
‘I could read your palm if you want,’ Grima said. ‘Now, I know you want to say no, but I also know you’re curious. Shall I have a read and tell you what the Verum Visus has to say about you?’
‘You’re right, I’d rather not know.’ Wren said, getting ready to leave. ‘Whatever the future has in store for me can remain a secret. I like surprises.’
‘Do you really?’ Grima asked as if this was absurd.
‘Really,’ Wren replied, before leaving without saying goodbye. She didn’t think Grima would care.
As she walked, Wren considered the foolishness of her current errand. What was she trying to achieve here? The idea that Grima would be able to read the dead man’s hand was preposterous. For a moment, Wren thought about abandoning the whole thing, but what would she do then? How else could she solve this mystery?
There was also the added bonus that if the old bag failed to read Crispin’s cold, lifeless hand, it would prove her to be the fraud Wren knew she was. Thinking about it like that, it felt like a win-win situation.
With a renewed enthusiasm, Wren quickened her pace. Every now and then a villager would try to interrupt her to wish her a good morning, but she ignored them. Such behaviour may have been rude, but now was not the time for small talk. Perhaps Wren and Grima weren’t so different after all. Wren shuddered at that thought. She may have been a little awkward and a tad socially inept, but she wasn’t that bad. Was she? She really needed to make more of an effort with those around her.
Soon enough, she found herself at her destination.
Set back and surrounded by green pastures sat the small church. Built of grey stone and standing at least two storeys high, it could easily be mistaken for any church in the region, but two glaring nuances made it stand out. The first was the lack of gravestones surrounding it; there wasn’t a single one. They hadn’t been moved or destroyed; they’d simply never been there to begin with. The second difference was the scene depicted in the building’s solitary stained-glass window. While other churches displayed images of the gods, this one showed an unknown man surrounded by water. The man had hypnotic purple eyes and wore a wide-brimmed hat.
The inhabitants of Elkbury knew that their church - and their village - was different, but they didn’t mind. They had no reason to. Life was good in Elkbury. People avoided the perceived indignities of old age, diseases were snuffed out before they could be spread, and violent crime was almost non-existent. Everyone knew the Banishment was to thank for that - and everyone knew the Man-in-the-Water was the one to thank for the Banishment. Just like most villages, their church was the most important part.
Goosebumps danced up and down the back of Wren’s neck as she walked up the path towards the church. She came here every week, but this time she was on edge. It wasn’t because she was about to mutilate a corpse on hallowed ground or anything like that. Wren put about as much stock in the teachings of Father Arcadius as she did the ravings of Grima. This was something else. It was a strange sensation quite unlike anything she’d ever felt before. It started in the tips of her fingers. A bizarre numbness. Creeping slowly, it made its way through her arms, rendering them useless. She couldn’t move.
Continuing its journey, the numbness travelled up the back of her neck before finally getting into her head. Upon reaching its destination, it clouded her thoughts and toyed with her vision. The church before her became blurred and indistinct, wavering in and out of focus, before disappearing completely. But that wasn’t all; everything had vanished.
Adrift in a sea of nothingness, Wren had never felt so vulnerable, alone, or exposed. Certain that something evil was about to befall her, she braced herself for the inevitable. It was all she could do; she couldn’t move or see.
Even though the pain was expected, it didn’t make it any more bearable. It shot through every nerve-ending and wreaked havoc with her internal organs, tying her stomach in knots that were simultaneously white-hot and ice-cold. Wren found herself missing the numbness that had claimed her originally.
Without any outside stimulus, it was hard to tell how much time had passed, but it couldn’t have been as long as the aeons it felt like.
After a while, something changed. Wren couldn’t tell if the pain was fading or if she was just getting used to it.
Her vision started to return, but she still couldn’t see the church. Instead, her view filled with red, the colour snaking across her line of sight until it was all she could see. The red void felt huge. And it felt dangerous.
Shapes started to form in that redness. For a few moments, they shifted and morphed before eventually settling on their final forms.
Had she been able to, Wren would have screamed. It seemed like the most sensible option, considering she was convinced she was looking at the face of the Devil. Its teeth were long, sharp, and promised violence. But it was the creature’s eyes that scared her the most. Those eyes, while purple and alien, had an almost human quality. Those eyes understood her; they knew what made her tick. Given time, Wren thought she might be able to understand them too.
But it wasn’t to be. Not right now.
The vision faded far faster than it had arrived, taking the pain with it. In less time than it took for her to roll her eyes at one of Father Arcadius’s Sunday sermons, Wren was able to see clearly and regain full control of her body.
Standing in the late morning sun, it was easy to believe that what had just happened had all been the product of Wren’s imagination, but she knew it was more than that. Whether or she believed everything Arcadius said, she knew one thing was certain; the Devil was coming to Elkbury... that was, of course, assuming he wasn’t there already.
‘Everything alright?’ a voice asked, bringing her back to the here and now.
‘Er...’ Wren replied, wondering if she should tell Perry about the vision. He was a religious man who spent a lot of time with Father Arcadius, so there was a chance he would know what to do. Either that, or he wouldn’t have a clue and demand that the village agree to Banish her. It was probably best to keep this to herself. For now at least.
‘Wren?’ Perry said when she didn’t answer.
‘Sorry, I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m here to speak to Father Arcadius... or someone... I could talk to you.’
‘Thanks,’ he said, no doubt feeling like second best. ‘What about?’
‘I can’t help with that,’ Perry said, perhaps a little too quickly.
‘What about the Father?’
‘He’s busy,’ Perry said, already turning away to head back into the church. ‘I just came out to see if you were alright, but I’ve got to get back inside. I’m really busy now.’
‘Sorry to bother you,’ Wren said, hoping her voice was sincere enough. ‘I’m just trying to work out what happened to Crispin. How about I just take a look at his body and you can get back to your work.’
Perry scratched his head as if in thought. ‘I’m afraid that’s not possible. Father Arcadius said the body’s not to be disturbed until we’re ready to bury him.’
‘Why’s that?’ she asked.
‘How should I know?’ Perry said. ‘I’ve never done a burial before, have I? I reckon it’s all part of the process. Crispin needs to be pure for the ceremony.’
‘Are you saying I’m not pure?’
‘No... I mean, I don’t know. I told you I don’t know why you can’t see him, but you can’t. It would be best if you were on your way.’
‘Right. I’m sorry.’ Wren said. ‘I’ll let you get back to your work.
‘Thank you,’ he said, before adding an afterthought, ‘and you are forgiven.’
‘Now good day,’ Perry said before walking back up the path, entering the church and slamming the door behind him. Unable to help herself, Wren stuck her tongue out as the door shut. Now that she was certain Perry and Father Arcadius were otherwise engaged, Wren wandered to the back of the church. The grass here was trimmed neatly and the trees and bushes that marked the end of the church’s land were pruned with exquisite care, even if some of them were starting to turn away from their summer colours. It put the rest of the village to shame, but that wasn’t what had brought Wren here. She was more interested in the sturdy-looking back door.
All around her was quiet, but she still glanced about to make sure that no-one would see her. How could she explain breaking into a church? It didn’t matter if she had the best intentions in the world, she’d be Banished before she could say the word ‘investigation’. Standing in the building’s shadow, Wren shivered. It may have been a gloriously warm morning, but goosebumps still covered her skin. Perhaps they were anticipating what was to come. It was like her body was developing a sixth sense when it came to the macabre. Such a thought was ridiculous to Wren, but that devil’s face was already shifting her beliefs. Maybe there was more to life than what she already knew. It didn’t pay to dwell on these things though, so Wren rubbed some warmth into her bare arms before trying the door. To her surprise, the handle turned easily. It almost seemed too easy. And it was.
Although the handle turned, the door wouldn’t budge. Frustration started to well up in her chest. She rattled the door handle, only realising afterwards how much noise it made. Cringing, she looked around to see if Perry had come to investigate. The garden around the church was silent, empty, and still; her luck was holding out. She let out a breath she hadn’t realised that she’d been holding and returned her attention back to the door. It was a normal-looking door, if slightly better fortified than any other in Elkbury, but Wren felt like answers waited behind it. All she had to do was open it. ‘It’s just a bit stuck,’ she thought, and, with that, she forgot about caution and barged into it shoulder first. Pain jolted through her, but she pushed it to the back of her mind. Wren had more important things to worry about; the door was open.
‘Nesta!’ Lucien called as he entered the small house on Oak Lane that he shared with his wife and baby daughter. His twin sister, Von, followed close behind him.
‘What is it?’ she asked, walking over to greet him while simultaneously dabbing at a baby puke stain with a damp cloth. Lucien hugged her tightly and kissed her on the cheek, ignoring the smell of vomit. It was amazing how little time it took to get used to the smells of bodily functions once a baby was in your life.
‘Well, me and Von have been talking,’ he began.
‘Talking in the tavern no doubt,’ Nesta said, but she didn’t mind. Not really. A sheepish smile crept across both Lucien and Von’s faces, the expression proving beyond a doubt that they were siblings.
‘Well, I think it’s a great idea. I’m sure Father Arcadius will snap you two up in a heartbeat. You’re both worthy additions to the cause.’ The twins smiled at this. ‘And I know you’ll keep Elkbury safe. We’ll all be in good hands.’