It’s strange, the way the Sentenced run into the forest.
At first they’re trialled by psychics, which is enough uncertainty to make anyone tremble. Once convicted for a crime yet to pass, they’re dragged through the crowd to the very edge of our protection, digging their heels into the dirt or falling to their knees.
Eight times I’ve witnessed a Sentencing, and eight times I’ve clench my fists and urged the victim to stand up to our leaders, to show the same spirit which condemned them in the first place. At least that would make some sort of sense.
When they reach the village boundaries, they’re shoved through the gates and onto the grassy knoll called The Circle. It’s the last place we see them alive. Yet instead of begging for their life or trembling into the grass, they act the same way as every Sentenced before them.
Their shoulders loosen and their breathing calms – I’ve even spotted a man smile. It’s like the forest sings to them, telling them to forget the predators that lurk between the trees.
And then they run.
Through the gaps in the gate, I study the flight path into the forest, clinging to the bars the same way I did at my father’s banishment.
Three winters have passed, but I will always remember the heaviness of the hand that rested on my shoulder. It belonged to my older brother Jacob, who towered above the crowd, even back then. His jaw tightened as he watched the gatekeeper drag our father to the fence. I envied his view as I struggled to see past the wall of torsos and legs.
A storm of emotions brewed inside of me. This was it. Either I would never see my father alive again, or he was moments away from becoming the hero that would break the cycle. I knew which he’d be. I knew he’d never let me down.
The hinges of the gate screeched in a noise that grinded down my spine like sandpaper. I pushed up onto my tiptoes for a last glimpse of my father, but my brother’s hand weighed me down.
“Ruby,” Jacob said in a warning tone.
I couldn’t stop myself. What was the point of the Sentencing if I didn’t get to say goodbye?
The wall of bodies parted, and I took my chance. I tore out of my brother’s grasp and squeezed inside the pit of sweat and itchy woollen clothes. I knew it was dangerous, disobedient, yet only one thought beat with my racing heart.
What if my dad didn’t see me in time?
The gate screeched shut; I needed to see him now. I needed to show him my support.
I wrestled to the front row, grabbing the bars and pulling myself through. My sweat reacted with the iron, stirring up a metallic smell reminiscent of blood. The smell sickened me, yet I pressed myself close to the railings so that I could peer between them and at my father.
He glanced over his shoulder; my heart pounded against my chest. His copper brown eyes searched the crowd from the other side of the gate, the side that no one returns from alive, not when they’re Sentenced.
He wore the same leather trousers and woollen shirt as always, but a burlap bag hung from his shoulder, a bag I had never seen before. The village Seers, the ones who Sentenced him, must have given it to him to prepare him to run into the forest of monsters. It would all be in vain, because I knew my dad would never run. Not willingly, at least.
“Come on, Dad,” I whispered, waiting for him to snap. Any minute now he’d pump his fist in the air and yell his mind to the crowd like he always promised.
I tapped the bars impatiently and studied his face. How did his stubble grow so quickly? Two days ago, when his chin was smooth, he had chased me up the stairs, tickling me into bed. Now a gruff shadow lurked on his face, and he would never set foot in our home again, not unless he acted now.
Do it now! I screamed in my head. You promised you wouldn’t become like the Sentenced before you. That if anyone came for you, you’d put up a fight.
But as he stood before the forest, his skin wasn’t a passionate pink. Nor was he pallid with fear, or frowning, or cursing. He didn’t look like the father who raised me.
My breath caught in my lungs as our eyes met, copper to copper. His strong featured relaxed, the age melting from his face as his frown loosened.
With a burst of energy, he ran into the forest faster than anyone I had ever witnessed. I screamed, breaking the traditional silence our village held during a Sentencing, yet it changed nothing.
His footsteps were thunderous. Each thump of his foot stomped against my stomach and pulverised my hope. Every promise he had ever made, I had taken to heart; those promises shattered inside of me as my father grew smaller and smaller, tearing into the distance.
He had offered himself to the monsters of the forest, just like the Sentenced before him.
The crowd dispersed. The heat and sweat of their bodies dissolved. An icy breeze doused me in a freshness I never asked for. It cooled the burn of betrayal from my skin, and blew tears from my cheeks.
My brothers’ voices echoed around the hollowness inside of me. They tried to coax me from the gate, but I wasn’t ready to let go of the bars. A trail of blood trickled down my wrist from clinging so tightly, but the biting pain in my heart drowned out my other senses. I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to forget.
If cameras still existed, I could have captured the moment exactly how it was, or so the books from the once modern age seem to suggest. Instead I replayed his banishment over and over. The way he winked. His powerful run.
How could he do this to me?
It took me until nightfall to finally understand. My dad wouldn’t leave me here. My dad would never follow orders set by The Cult and their Seers. My father always believed there were others out there, people who still owned technology capable of saving us all.
My dad had a plan.
I haven’t seen him since.
“So, Ruby,” my friend Alex says as he picks up a stone from around my feet, scooping me from my daydream. “Seen anything worth staring at yet?”
He chucks the stone over the fence and it clatters against the elm’s trunk at the very edge of the forest. I don’t have to spare him a glance to know he’s smirking.
I shake my head. “I’m not staring. I’m thinking.”
“Alright, then. Any thoughts worth sharing?”
“None you’d be interested in.”
“You know that isn’t true.”
My eyes flit to his and he reads my mind. His look of pity riles me as he says, “Thinking about it can’t change what happened.”
My hands slip from the bars and I step away from the railings. His full lips and dark brows are a good match for the constant expression of despair he pulls at me.
“I get it,” I say. “My dad’s a walking corpse. Now let me stare in peace.”
His forehead crumples with worry but his gaze is rigid. He was expecting my blunt tongue.
He knows me well.
“We could skim stones across the lake?” he offers. “Or...erm...I think something’s happening in the square-”
I cut him off with a snort. We both know I’d much rather glance at the forest, at the same set of trunks and mesh of leaves I have spent the last two years searching.
“If anyone could survive out there, it’s him,” I say.
Before I can cross my arms, Alex reaches for me and curls his fingers around mine. I bristle, and he breaks away as if my skin burns him; he knows I do not love him the way he loves me, but sometimes it’s as if his body forgets.
The burn spreads to his cheeks, and before any more awkwardness can build, I force out a grin and say the first thing I can think of.
“He’s found another village, I bet you.”
Alex sighs. “You should really keep your voice down.”
He replies silently with a serious expression.
“If it ruffles anyone’s feathers, then I’ll give them a proper reason to Sentence me. Do you reckon they’ve ever had a reason before?”
He pinches the bridge of his nose to help conceal his smirk. “Please don’t say that. How can I convince you to stop saying things like that? Name your price. Come on, I’m serious.”
“Are you scared of them?”
“Seriously, Ruby.” He puts his hands together in a pleading gesture.
I shake my head. He’s ‘serious’ now, but I’ve heard his spiel before. I don’t like Alex when he tells me what to think or feel. I like him when he makes me laugh.
Instead of dragging the argument in a loop around the fence, I skip away from him and towards the outskirts of the village. Even from here, the village is an ugly place. The redbrick houses have strong, concrete foundations, but they’re pitted against our handmade fixes of thatched roofs and boarded up windows.
The word ‘dilapidated’ is too well formed for our village. And just as the once modern buildings can’t handle the rough spirit of time, the people who live in them can’t handle the very whiff of change.
“What are you doing?” Alex says, scrutinising every inch of my expression as I look out at the village. I take a breath and it scares him. “Or what are you thinking – Ruby, please answer!”
I ignore him. My heart beats a little faster as I speak straight from my mind, “You know they will come for me! I’m proud to be my father’s daughter-”
But Alex is faster than I anticipate. Before I can finish my taunt, he grabs around my waist and trips me over his foot. I land on the grass with a light thud.
“You’re difficult. You know that, right?” he says, crouching over me, his eyes still wide with surprise. His full lips are grinning, but his stare is still intense, his grey-blue eyes the colour of dusk. Of indecision. Night or day? Blue or grey? “Be yourself,” but a breath later, “Stop talking.”
I relax into the grass, running my hands through the silky blades. “I’m only speaking the truth.”
Alex peers over his shoulder nervously. “Actually, you shouted it.”
“So what? Why can’t we shout things that are true?”
“You can. You just might not want to when the wrong people are listening.”
“What? You mean the people who scowl at the sound of my voice alone? I’d rather speak my mind and let them put me on trial-”
“I’d never let that happen,” he says quickly.
I give him a surprised look. “By tripping me up every time I speak?”
“Or telling me to shut up all the time?”
“Of course not. Telling you what to do is hard work.” The way he says ‘you’ is riddled with meaning. It takes me a while to work out what that meaning is because I didn’t think Alex had it in him.
“Oh, I see!” My grin stretches. “So you think you’d stand up to The Cult?”
His brows knot together, somewhere between a frown and confusion.
“If the village turns on you, I’ll protect you.” He outstretches his hand to help me up, but it feels more like an unsaid contract, one he’d love me to shake on.
“You know I don’t need you to.”
“I will anyway,” he says, his hand still waiting for me. He hesitates a little before adding, “I can protect you. It’s a promise.”
I sigh. He almost had me, up until that last word. Promise. My dad was the only person who could keep a promise, and it feels wrong to accept another while I’m still waiting on the last. Besides, I see none of my father in him.
In two quick motions, I bat his arm away and tackle his torso. He yelps out in surprise as I wrestle him to the ground, beating his serious side into the dirt.
We scramble around, no different at sixteen than we were at six. His scent is sweet as usual, like a crisp red apple. My black hair falls in front of my face and tickles my nose, blending with Alex’s so that it’s impossible to tell where I end and he begins.
“I thought you were a hunter in training?” I say when I pin his hands to his sides.
“Sometimes it’s easier to let you win.” He tilts his head back, and crosses his legs as if he’s on a sofa.
“Easier? Who cares about what’s ‘easy’?” I squeeze his wrists, ready to battle him. He doesn’t even wriggle. That’s when I realise once again that Alex is only here to distract me. I push away from him and approach the fence instead, staring past the metal bars and at the array of tree trunks, scanning for signs of life or otherwise.
“Why don’t we find Jack and Sapphire?” Alex says as he stands up. Another pointless distraction. When I don’t reply, he adds softly, “The village doesn’t like the way you stand so close.”
“The village doesn’t like the way I breathe.” Even if I spot something out there, I’m not going to reach out for it, whether it’s my father or not. My fascination with them isn’t stronger than my will to survive.
Alex chuckles nervously. “Come on, not everyone can’t stand you. And I’m pretty sure you’re more likeable than the…erm, those things behind the gates, you know? The ones that don’t breathe...”
“‘The ones that don’t breathe’?” I laugh a little too hard, it sounds bitter. “That’s a new one. Do we not have enough names for ‘those things behind the gate’?”
“Some of us prefer not to think about it,” he mumbles.
I step towards him, a dark smile stretching across my face. It’s my turn to tease him.
“What? About the Soulless? The Immortal Wanderers?” I pause to lick my lips as he shifts his weight from foot to foot. “When’s the last time you stared into their eyes, hmm? Don’t you love how those black irises are like tunnels into their hollow bodies? Or do you still shiver when you spot them dragging what left of themselves through the forest?”
“Stop it,” he says, straining to hide his grimace. I take another step closer so that his quickening breath strokes the top of my head, smelling of apples and other things sweet.
“They’re fascinating, right?”
“I’ll leave,” he says, raising his brows. “And I know you don’t want that, not really.”
I shrug. “It’s probably a good thing you’re staying. I obviously need someone to stop me doing stupid things like this.”
I lean against the bars and stretch my arm through the fence – just the first set of bars. There’s another fence over an arms width away so that the Soulless can’t grab us. Still, Alex jumps into action, lacing his fingers with mine and pulling my arm to safety.
“Could you stop trying to get yourself thrown out?” he exclaims, grabbing my shoulders.
“Relax. There’s nothing out there. I’ve been watching, remember?” As I finish speaking, a distant shimmer in the forest catches my eye.
I cock my head and examine the trees – another flicker. My heart jitters with anticipation. Something is definitely moving out there, and fast. The Soulless move like that when they are able to reach someone.
Light flitters between the branches and settles on the figure’s face. I gasp. It looks like my dad. I can’t be certain, but the closer he gets, the more I feel his presence. Even the air smells like his sweat after a long day’s work. His strong voice calls my name in my memory.
Alex registers in my ear, but all I can focus on is the way the figure flies between the trees. The way the person runs, tilted forward with their strong arms pumping fast; the odd glimpses of angular facial features, his broad nose, long forehead – even the quiff of his hair belongs to my father.
My stomach constricts. Three years has passed, but maybe Alex is right. Maybe I’m not as ready to see him as I thought. Not if he’s been ended. I don’t want to see my kind father who raised me with wit and imagination to be presented before me, soulless, like the seeds and flesh scooped from a pumpkin. That’s all that will be left of him.
Unless he had a plan.