The infernal light.
Tom lowered his hat against the sharp sun. The once-golden fields of wheat on either side of the road hung beaten and bleached to a white that burned the eyes. His father said it was the worst dry he could remember, and the old folks of the village warned the big dry of 1439, the Devil’s Breath, had started with the same maddening weeks of hot winds from the southeast. A poor harvest meant less money in the village, fewer favors offered with meaner terms—and a shortage of grain over the long winter meant more deaths. Even Mother Nature was against them. As if there weren’t already too many problems in these alien days.
He continued along the dusty road towards the church, absently avoiding the deep, rock-hard wheel ruts. He stopped outside the churchyard and gazed further down Hole Road, between the oak trees losing their leaves early from the dry. Poor Spooky, he thought, peering into the dark shadows of Alice Holt Forest where his problems had begun two weeks ago. If he was honest, the signs—the crop circles, the wolves in Pember Forest twenty miles away, the missing young men, showed the aliens had been here for much longer. Two weeks ago the aliens chose to play their hand.
He’d only ever seen one, but nobody—alien or not, would travel through outer space on their own. He’d survived their test, but that single event had changed him from a gamekeeper who hunted prey to being the prey of a far-superior hunter. Although he was the biggest man around these parts—two inches taller than his father, not as broad but that would come, he was small compared to the alien hunter. Quick reactions could overcome any physical disadvantage in hand to hand combat, but he stood no chance when the opponent also had the ability to be invisible. He had to run. If only it was that simple.
He tucked his shirt in tidily and ran his thumbs up and down under his braces, wriggling his trousers straight. He spun his walking staff and pointed to the tall cocksfoot grass moving a hundred yards away on the side of the road, even though it was too early in the day for the hot winds from the southeast. Twenty-two years old in two days’ time and his normal life was over.
He opened the churchyard gate and stopped by the rotting wooden crosses in the cemetery. His sister who died when a few months old, his brother; James aged four from pneumonia; George killed by a horse kick when he was a toddler in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was a cross for Frank, but it was in remembrance only as he never came back from the war. Blown to pieces by a cannonball. All his siblings were born before him, lived a few short years and died. He was the last in the bloodline of William and Mary Ryder.
The crosses, overgrown with broken stalks of sun-withered grass, were for the lucky few who’d been loved enough in life to have a final, gentle place of rest, unlike the hundreds who’d died a century and a half ago in the Black Death and were thrown into the sunken trenches behind the cemetery, covered over with lime, and swept from the mind by the passage of time. At least they were at peace.
He rubbed the toes of his boots on his trousers for polish and proceeded up the path towards the congregation waiting in the shade under the yew trees. All were dressed in the same Sunday clothes content with their bounded, predictable world. How did they endure their mundane lives ruled over by wealthy landowners, priests, and royalty? The pursuit of fame and fortune were beyond them and so couldn’t be distractions from seeking out what truly mattered. Why weren’t they curious about the wonders of Nature? Yet, in the greatest personal irony, their ignorant and simple ways blessed them with an ongoing peace of mind—the beating heart of existence he craved above all else. If only he could let the world be. Was it a vain hope to think he might one day understand his true nature and rise above the worries of the world to live in a lasting peace? He knuckled the side of his head to ease the rising strain and massaged his throbbing temple. Careful, he told himself, a scattered mind is easily harvested.
“Here comes King Arthur,” young Brian yelled down the path, waving his mock sword around his head until he hooked his mother’s shawl. “Dragon slayer,” he added meekly, as he untangled the stick and ducked a clip around the ear.
“So glad you could make it on such a trying day,” Father Martin said. “You look beat.”
“It’s been a crazy few weeks.” The Father’s black robe hung like sackcloth in the breathless air compared to his mother’s fine dress.
“Thanks to you, Tom, we don’t have to worry about the Beast of Woolmer anymore.”
Tom lifted his hat and swiped his long hair back underneath and looked nervously over his shoulder. “All the same, Father,” he said, moving to his mother’s side. “It can’t hurt to keep up your fire and brimstone sermons a little longer.”
“Mary was just saying Mrs. Chambers is poorly.”
He looked at his mother. “I don’t think she’s got long. Her eyes were cloudy when I dropped some food off earlier in the week.” He turned to Father Martin. “Can you say a few words for her?”
“Of course,” he said. “How is Sarra taking her mother’s illness?”
“She’s putting on a brave face, but her mother is all she has left.”
“She has the Lord,” Father Martin said.
“I meant her father hasn’t been around for a long time.”
“Sarra’s the strongest woman I know; tougher than most men.” He looked to the gate. Still no sign of Sarra. Her mother must be more sickly than he’d thought.
Mary slipped her closed parasol in front of Tom. “A reasonable turnout today, Father,” she said, “considering the trial is over.”
“Yes, but I’m fighting a losing battle. People forget all too quickly and return to their old ways. These days, people have strange ideas about religion.”
“It’s a changing world, Father,” Mary said. “Columbus has found the New World across the Atlantic and our world will never be the same.”
“I fear for the future,” Father Martin said, clasping tighter his rolled-up sermon papers. “What will become of us if we worship ourselves above God?”
Tom turned to the wheat field shimmering through the trees and considered the Father’s fear of the future. Would Man in five hundred years have solved the mystery of Life to become master of the world with full domain over the birds and beasts, or would he weaken on his final march and yield to his darker side and corrupt nature to create monstrosities like the aliens’ giant boar? Anything was possible in that faraway, imaginary future. Maybe even the church—the bulwark against today’s harsh world, would fall under the weight of Man’s hubris and be replaced by a shrine to a god more to his liking. It was impossible to know the destiny of man, but one thing was for certain: his own troubles in these troubled times would count for as little as those forgotten souls in the sunken trench.
“My biggest hope for the future,” he said, returning to Father Martin, “is for Man to be at peace with the world. Wouldn’t that be something to behold—no war on Earth? That’s what it’s about, isn’t it, Father?”
“Yes, peace with your fellow man,” Father Martin said, gesturing to the congregation to move inside.
Tom hung his hat on the stand and followed his mother up the aisle to their regular place on the front pew to the left of the pulpit, beneath the stained-glass windows of divinity scenes and heroic kings fighting dragons and monsters.
Sarra brushed into the empty place he’d kept for her, carrying on her arm a small, woven cradle of freshly cut wildflowers. “Sorry I’m late,” she said, smiling over to Father Martin. “It took longer than I’d hoped to get mother comfortable.”
Tom squeezed her hand. “The main thing is that you made it in time.” He sat upright and solemn, loosened his tie, briefly admired the large Roman vase of flowers and settled upon the halo floating above the head of Christ.
The golden sunlight soothed his tired head and Father Martin’s fiery sermon faded away. What was he to do with his life? His talents made him the best gamekeeper round these parts but what use were they in the real world? At least Michelangelo of Italy had something to do with his God-given talents. Rumors coming out of Florence say his Pietà sculpture will be the greatest sculpture ever made. He had to find his purpose in life; his place in the world of Nature, or he would never find true peace. His eyelids drooped lower and the soft light bathed the back of his tired eyes, whispering him deeper and deeper.
A sandy desert of undulating dunes drifted into his mind. Behind and to his right, enormous golden bands held shut pearl-white gates in a fortress wall that curved away beyond sight and towered forever up into an ascending spiral of winged angels. Archangel Gabriel raised his sword at the front of the Gates of Heaven and flames blazed into the stormy sky.
The desert air quivered and a righteous creature appeared. Golden from tip to tail, the long-limbed creature had a triangular head and half-open mouth revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth. The light surrounding the creature intensified as it balanced back on its long tail and snorted a fiery, golden breath over the approaching horde of demons and beasts from Hell ridden by men with fiery eyes. The darkness above the charging horde melted away but returned stronger as though nourished by the devoured light. Red veins of hate pulsed through the deepening gloom of boiling, spectral clouds. A dark angel, Satan, surrounded by its hideous minions, laughed and flapped its black feathered wings in delight.
A tall, pure black figure, impervious to Gabriel’s flames and the creature’s fiery breath, walked through the hordes to the front. Satan launched into the sky and circled the battlefront, leering as the moment of God’s downfall had arrived. The Shadow swept its long arm to the sky and banished Satan to the periphery. It dug its boots into the sand and pointed at the Gates of Heaven. A crack ruptured in the white bedrock beneath the gates and the golden bands stretched.
Gabriel and the golden creature turned to him. He covered his face, unable to bear witness as their hopeful eyes searched the depths of his soul. How could he make a difference in a war between the supernatural armies of Light and Dark? He was a physical man. What could he do against such power? What do you want from me?
A horrible scream rang across the desert. Again and again, it echoed, desperate and shrill. “Thomas!”
The vision blurred and the golden bands across the Gates of Heaven changed into the cedar ceiling beams of the church. A semi-circle of questioning faces stared down at him.
Mary wiped away her tears and stroked his forearm. “Thomas,” she whispered. “It’s all right.”
Father Martin crossed himself and muttered a prayer. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Sarra said, helping Tom to sit up. “He’s been under a lot of strain. That’s all.”
“I prayed to the good Lord the nightmares were over,” Mary said, avoiding Father Martin’s incredulous gawp.
“They needed my help,” he said, struggling onto his elbows, “but I didn’t know what to do. Why won’t they leave me alone, like everybody else?” He rose to his feet, staggered, and grabbed hold of a pew. “Why me?” He pushed through the wall of stupefied faces. “I must find a way through,” he gasped, stumbling towards the open doors. “I have to get into the light.”
He fell in the middle of the churchyard. He reached out to crawl into the shade, but the burning sunlight pressed him to the ground. What was happening? He could hardly move. His arms and legs were like limp rope, as though the angelic realm had drained his mortal energy. Was the mystery of the world too much for his soul to bear and he’d gone mad? He was only a man, physical—limited.
Sarra ran to his side and helped him over to the shade. “What’s wrong, Tom?” she said, laying his head on her lap. “Tell me.”
“It was the end of the world. Light against dark.”
Mary rushed to his aid and held his hand.
“Get rid of them, first,” he said, looking up as the crowd circled around. “What I have to say is crazy enough without them thinking I’ve gone totally mad.”
“Shoo,” Mary said, standing up. “He’ll be all right. It’s just the heat. Give him some air.” She glanced up to Father Martin. “Carry on with your sermon, Father, please.”
“This way,” he said, leading the congregation back to the church.
“They’re gone,” Mary said, brushing his hair from his clammy face.
“They’re after me,” he said, blinking hard to clear his thoughts.
“They?” Mary said, drawing back. “I told you those troublemakers in London with their crazy ideas of a republic would get you in trouble. King Henry won’t stand for…”
“It’s not them.” He searched around for his hat. “My mind feels like it’s going to explode.”
“Don’t think so much.”
“Might as well ask a fish not to swim.”
“Then what’s wrong?” Sarra asked. “I thought life would be easier after you killed the giant boar and got your revenge for Willie, and me.”
“I can’t win.”
“Stop caring so much about the world and settle down, with me.”
“I cannot leave the world alone. For some reason, I have to understand nature—my nature.” He grimaced and bit his bottom lip. “I wish it wasn’t so, but only then can I rest in true peace.”
Mary wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Ever since you were a small boy, I prayed you’d outgrow your curiosity, but over time I’ve come to accept God has a plan for Thomas Ryder. Have you spoken to your father about this?”
“He’s away hunting. I’ll call into Ol’ Smokey’s stables tomorrow, but I already know what he’ll say. ‘A Ryder never runs. He stays and fights.’ But he hasn’t seen what I have. Anyway, what good did staying and fighting do for Frank?”
“Frank, bless his soul, was never the fighter you are. He was gentler.”
He squeezed his eyelids together and held them closed until the moment passed. “You go back inside,” he said, urging his mother away. “I need a minute to gather my thoughts, with Sarra. I’ll come back in, if I’m up to it.”
“You and Sarra need to sort out whatever’s going on,” she said, letting go of his arm as she stood up. She touched Sarra on the shoulder. “Take good care of him. You’re the only one he’ll listen to.”
“I promise I will, Mrs. Ryder.” Sarra waited until they were alone. “I’m used to you staring into space… a million miles away thinking about goodness knows what with a silly smile on your face, but these days your brow’s knitted tight as a weaver’s thread. What’s wrong, Tom?”
“I’m being hunted,” he said, sitting up. “It’s flesh and blood, but not like us, or any other of God’s creations. It’s from beyond the stars.”
“You’re sure about this… monster?”
He lifted his hat to block out the sun. “I could feel its presence on my skin and at the back of my mind when preparing the traps. But, if it wasn’t for Dougal, I’d never have found it. Instead of sniffing along scent trails or barking at small, noisy birds, Dougal would just sit and stare into the forest, head tilted to one side—puzzled by something odd in the trees.” He rubbed his tight brow. “It’s my job as a gamekeeper to know where a predator might lie in wait and after a time an outline emerged of something watching me—still and patient, cunning, and keeping a wary distance. A master of the game.”
“This outline… it’s not something you thought you saw?”
“It’s as real as you and me. I could sense it watching over me as I dragged the stretcher with Dougal’s body and the head of the beast from the clearing.”
“You have seen this alien?”
“I circled back after a few hundred yards. The carcass had been moved and there were only two arrows in its side instead of three.”
Sarra folded her arms and leaned in. “What did you see?”
“The outline I saw in the trees was next to the beast. I threw my spear as hard as I could, but it stopped mid-air inches from the target. The demon showed itself, gripping my spear in its scaly hand. It was maybe eight feet tall, with a head mostly lizard, a scaly body underneath its camouflage clothes, spines down its back and a tail that stumped the ground. Mainly blue with red gills—and a long forked, purple-black tongue like an adder. Before I’d actually seen the demon, I thought I could trap and kill it the way I did with its beast, but the demon was beyond anything I could ever defeat; beyond any man. It spun the spear around, hissed, and drew back to throw the spear, then for some strange reason it stabbed the spear into the ground, covered up again, and ran away.”
“It didn’t throw the spear. Are you sure it’s after you?”
“It has plans. The beast was a test…” His words trailed off to whisper. “You don’t believe me.”
She sat round to face him and wetted her lips. “Last month I went skinny dipping in the pond.”
“Nobody was around; at least that’s how it seemed. I checked the paths and made sure there weren’t any peeping Toms.”
He rolled his eyes. Even that hurt.
Sarra giggled. “Not you, silly. I was out swimming when I felt… watched, like you did. I swam back and dressed as fast as I could. Further round the pond, there was a sound—as if someone had knocked a small stone into the water, then ripples at the edge. Nobody was there, but it wasn’t a fish. I can tell you, it put the fear of God in me.”
The reason why the alien demon was so interested in them hit like a horse kick. They were a breeding pair. “We have to leave, now.”
“Elope, how romantic. Cornwall by the sea?”
“No. We have to go to Europe—Spain, or further away… one or two years and then we can come back. Things will be all right after that and we can settle down.”
“Europe! I can’t leave. You only want to go and see that Michelangelo you’re always talking about.”
“It’s too dangerous here.”
She helped Tom to his feet. “No. This is my home and yours too. I’m not running away.”
“It’s after us. You and me. We can’t win this fight. It’s here now, outside the church gate.”
“I don’t feel anything, at least not like at the pond.”
“Its presence is stronger for me.” He grabbed Sarra by the elbow. “It’s playing with us the way a cat plays with a mouse; just before it eats the mouse.”
“I’ll never leave my mother. I’m all she’s got left.”
“I can’t explain why, but time is squeezing in around us. Soon, we’ll be trapped. We have to run.”
“We can beat whatever is out there.” She shot a startled look towards the gate. “Did you hear that?”
She picked up a stone and threw it at the gate. The stone ricocheted off the gate post into the air and vanished.