Eldon’s ax struck the log with a hard blow, splitting it clean in half. Retreating a step he swung the ax over his shoulder, his biceps on fire. His blistered hands burned beneath thick leather gloves. He dragged his forearm across his damp brow, breathing heavily against the crisp silence of the woods. Finally, the countless weeks of chopping firewood had come to an end.
“Done, done, and done!” Will scrambled to collect the last of the logs and placed them in the canvas carrier. “Thanks for finishing the pile, Eldon.” He turned toward Nash, who lounged in the driver’s seat of the wagon, his left leg in a cast below the knee. “That’s the last of it!” he called.
“Good.” Sitting upright, Nash pulled the oak wood pipe from his mouth. “Let’s load it and go. Wind’s pickin’ up, and those black clouds are rollin’ in quicker than whiskey turns to piss.”
“We’d move a little faster if you got off your ass and helped.”
Nash scoffed. “I’m still the driver, ain’t I? Coulda quit on you both last week when I done busted my ankle, but I didn’t.”
“You might as well have,” Eldon muttered under his breath. “He should be giving us half his earnings.”
Will snorted. Ax in hand, Eldon grabbed the other wood carrier, and both men brought their final loads to the wagon. He tossed the ax and gloves into the back and crawled in with the log pile, while Will claimed his usual spot in the passenger seat. Nash cracked the reigns with his good arm, urging the two draft horses forward. The frosty mountain air felt damp with the impending rain, the kind that chilled deep into the bone. Eldon rolled down the sleeves of his sweat-ridden tunic, his muscles finally starting to cool as the wagon bounced along the winding dirt roads.
In a matter of weeks, thick blankets of snow would smother every inch of these woods, and bare branches would become encased in ice, shimmering like crystal in the sunlight. Beautiful to look at, but harsh and unforgiving—like Dominus. Eldon couldn’t help but feel bitter around this time of year. Every winter, millions of residents in the ruling capitol rested comfortably behind safe walls with their energy-powered lighting and centrally heated homes, while the “outliers” lived in the dark ages. Thousands of struggling villages relied on firewood and animal fat to keep warm during the hostile winter months.
Those who didn’t work together didn’t survive for long.
Eldon grabbed his weathered buckskin jacket and shrugged it on, bracing himself as the wagon took a hard left. A break in the trees revealed a dusty grey sky, with the darkest clouds—thick with storm—encroaching from the west. Far off in the distance, thunder rumbled. Then, a deep, unmistakable call between a roar and a howl rode the wind. Then another. Mutated timber wolves, better known as “timbers,” sounding their warning calls to the rest of the pack.
Nash scoffed, giving the reigns a hard crack. “They’d better not be huntin’ us.”
“They’re not,” Eldon said, his breath fogging the air. “The storm’s got them spooked.”
“Since when are those beasts afraid of anything?” Will called over his shoulder, his freckled nose and cheeks turning red from the cold. “Except for you, Eldon. How many you kill last winter? Twenty or something?”
“Shit. Maybe you’ll take out thirty this year.”
Eldon took no pleasure in being a timber slaughterer, though he’d grown used to it over the years. When winter hit, food sources grew scarce, which meant predators migrated toward civilization. It was the law of nature. Survival. His role was to make sure the prey stayed safe and the teeth stayed out. The timbers, designed by Dominus to patrol the territories surrounding its borders, posed the most danger. Their growing packs had cleared out most of the mountains; even the bears migrated elsewhere to avoid them.
When the men reached the outskirts of the village, which sat nestled in a rich green valley surrounded by pines, the first droplets of rain began to fall. The road guided the wagon past the small white church, followed by several houses made of wood and stone, all with thatched roofs and smoking chimneys. Plain wooden fences defined the borders of each property while keeping the livestock contained. In the heart of the village, elevated wooden walkways lined the array of businesses, sparing pedestrian shoes from muddy streets. A handful of people scurried about, finishing their daily errands before the skies opened.
Nash parked the wagon beside the old flour mill, with its shuttered windows and moss-covered shingles. Someday, the villagers planned to convert it into a sawmill to meet the demands of the expanding populace, but for now, everything was done manually. Log by log, Eldon and his comrades unloaded the wagon, stacking the final shipment of wood neatly inside the mill until they could barely squeeze through the door. Come spring, they would place it all outside to season.
“You boys done good this year.”
Eldon turned at Widow Cohen’s brash voice. Hands plunked on voluptuous hips, the doe-eyed, fiery-haired woman approached with her usual, seductive gait. A florescent streak of lightning split the sky behind her. A loud clap of thunder, about three miles off, followed suit. The storm was moving quickly.
She leaned into the doorframe, her generous breasts nearly spilling out of her low-cut dress as she admired their work. “My word. We sure are set for next winter, aren’t we? One more log and this building might very well burst.” The heavy wooden door creaked on its hinges as she shut it with a click. She smiled, turning to face them. “I can’t imagine the sheer muscle it takes to provide all this. Thank you, gentlemen. All of you.”
Will shrugged his bony shoulders. “It weren’t nothing, ma’am. We all do our part around here.”
“Indeed, we do.” She cocked her head, smiling at Eldon. “Some of us more than others.”
When Eldon felt Nash whack his shin with his crutch, it took everything not to deck him. Mrs. Cohen never let her bed go cold for long. It was no secret she’d favored Eldon since the day he’d moved to this village six years ago. She sewed him scarves, baked him fresh pastries, and had even answered the door in her undergarments once after asking him to fix her roof. But his interest in human company died a long time ago.
“Bless your hearts, y’all look just exhausted,” she continued, placing a hand on Nash’s shoulder. “Why don’t you fellas come to my place for a nice warm cup of coffee and a sit by the fire? It’s the least I can do to show my gratitude for how much you help this community.”
Nash grinned, dragging his free hand down his scraggly brown beard. “That does sound nice. I might have to take you up on that, Mrs. Cohen.”
“Much obliged, ma’am, thank you” said Will, removing his wool winter cap.
Stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets, Eldon glanced toward the sky, his ears aching from the chill. “That’s kind of you, Mrs. Cohen, but I must politely decline. I’ve got seven miles to ride, and I really don’t want to be trapped here when the storm hits.”
The woman didn’t hesitate to let her disappointment show. “You sure, hun? I’ve got a spare bedroom if you need—”
“Next time,” he fibbed.
She pulled her long red braid over one shoulder. “I’ll hold you to it.”
“I’ve no doubt.” He looked to Nash. “Need me to help with the wagon?”
“Nah.” Nash spit over his shoulder. “You chopped, so I’ll put up the horses.”
Will grinned. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t get trampled. Go on, get yourself home, brother.”
“Thanks.” Eldon nodded, glad to be free of social situations for a while. The solitude of his cabin called to him. A place where he didn’t have to think or feel. He strode to the stable, where Deputy greeted him with a snort and an eager headshake.
“Hey, boy,” Eldon murmured, patting the gelding’s dusty, dapple-gray neck. “What do you say we go home, and stay home for a while?”
Deputy pawed at the ground, and Eldon fed him a couple dried apple slices from his satchel. He preferred the company of his horse to that of mostly everyone. Animals held no judgements, no qualms, and were always around to lend an ear without talking back. Unlike humans, they knew better than to live too long.
With Deputy saddled and tacked, they rode out of the village just the heavier rain began. The wind picked up immediately, whipping several strands of hair loose from his ponytail. He cursed beneath his breath, willing the heaviest rain to stave off just a little while longer. Riding soaked through freezing wind—a nightmare he’d experienced one too many times in the woods.
Clicking his tongue, he kicked Deputy’s flanks, urging the animal’s canter to a gallop. When they reached the shelter of the trees the earthy smell of damp soil hit his nose, and a flash of lightning lit the semi-dark woods. The air rumbled with a symphony of pounding horse hooves, wind hissing through the pines, and rolling, crackling thunder.
They’d made it all but three miles when the rain started barreling down in heavy sheets, pummeling him from ever-changing directions, pricking his face like chilly needles, turning the dirt trail to sloshing mud.
He yanked back the reins, jerking Deputy to a halt when they reached the wooden bridge crossing the creek. It was broken. Rotted through. Eldon barked a frustrated groan. Maybe he shouldn’t have put off repairing it these past couple months. He’d no excuse now, damn it all. When he guided Deputy left of the bridge, the gelding snorted and tossed his head.
“There, there, boy,” Eldon coaxed, patting the animal’s wet, muscular neck. “Sorry it’s got to be this way. I promise I’ll make it up you with fresh straw bedding and all the apples and carrots your heart desires.” The horse took a hesitant step forward. “Good boy, go on now.” Eldon tightened his grip on the reins. “You can do it. Go on, boy. Go on.”
Slowly, the encouragement worked. Step by step, Deputy trudged through the frigid, rushing waters of the creek. By tomorrow, the high waterline would make it look like a narrow river. When they reached the other side of the bank, something caught Eldon’s peripheral vision, and he turned.
A figure, drenched to the bone, stood twenty yards off, smack dab in the middle of the creek. A ghost? No, a man. His eyes latched onto Eldon’s, the desperate look on his face begging for help.
Before Eldon could make sense of it, the man fell to his knees and then collapsed, face-down in the water with a hard splash. Eldon’s stomach dropped. He sent Deputy flying towards the man, until he was close enough to leap off and help. Adrenaline shot through his veins. He hoisted the fellow up out of the water and dragged him to the creek bed, where he flipped him onto his back.
Oh, Lord, that face. That poor, angelic face, the kind that inspired romantic paintings and poetry. Hair like summer wheat, a Grecian nose, luxuriant brown eyelashes. His supple, bowed lips were blue and pale with lifelessness. He looked no older than thirty, and now he was going to die, right here on this damned creek bed.
“Hey, bud. Hey, wake up.” Eldon shook the man’s shoulders and smacked his cheek repeatedly. His skin felt as cold as ice. “Hey, come on, wake up. Don’t die on me here. Wake up.”
The man didn’t move. Panic rolled over Eldon in nauseating waves. He lowered an ear to his nostrils, checking for breath.
Still breathing.That’s good.
He slid off his leather hair tie, raked his sodden hands through his hair, and tied it back tightly. He exhaled, clenching and unclenching his fists. This man was hypothermic and needed a doctor’s attention, but it was five miles back to the village and only two to Eldon’s cabin. Either way would probably spell death, but Eldon couldn’t just leave him.
The shallow, rushing water lapped at Eldon’s trousers as he trudged to Deputy and unfastened the heavy leather saddle. He heaved it beneath a tree near the bank, praying that by some miracle, it might not be ruined when the rain stopped. Sliding one arm under the unconscious man’s back and the other beneath his knees, Eldon hoisted him into a cradling hold. Thankfully not too heavy, even soaking wet.
Several uttered curses later, Eldon had managed to situate them both onto the horse’s back. He wrapped a securing hand around the man’s torso, back-to-chest, and cracked the reigns. They rode hard and fast through the violent storm toward home, the man’s sandy-blond head bobbing up and down like a buoy with each stride.
When they finally reached the cabin, Eldon didn’t stop to check whether the man still lived. He pulled him off the horse, pounded up the steps, and burst through the front door with his shoulder. Fumbling through the dimly lit cabin, he carried the man across the room and dropped him onto the bed. He lit a fire in the hearth as quickly as he could, and then returned to the bedside to listen for breathing once again.
Weak, but there. Thank God.
Rain hammered against the wooden roof shingles in an erratic rhythm. Eldon’s own breath came loud and heavy, matched by the rapid pounding of his heart. He had to get these layers of soaked clothes off this man. He had to touch him, even if he didn’t want to. With trembling hands, Eldon unbuttoned the man’s wool coat, which fit about three sizes too large. He gingerly pulled out one arm, then the other, and slid the soaked garment out from under him, dropping it to the floor.
A thick charcoal-colored tunic came next. Gritting his teeth, Eldon lifted him into a seated position, grabbed the bottom of the tunic, and pulled up. The man flopped back against the pillow like a ragdoll. A simple white undershirt with long sleeves remained. Eldon, noticing something odd, retreated a step. Despite the man’s lean frame, a round, swollen stomach protruded against the thin clinging fabric.
Eldon grimaced. He’d heard of a disease called draptheria, caused by drinking chemically tainted water. The illness resulted in kidney failure and abdominal distention in the final stages, but Eldon had never seen a case firsthand. If this fellow possessed such an ailment, it looked far too serious or advanced for treatment. Who knew if he would even wake up? Perhaps it was best if he didn’t.
“Where did you come from?” Eldon whispered, his voice trembling.
Thunder roared overhead, rattling the cabin. At least the poor soul’s last moments would be in comfort instead of a watery grave. Eldon unbuckled the man’s belt and peeled his pants off, adding them to the wet pile on the floor. He swallowed thickly, debating on whether to remove the man’s strange-looking underwear. The shirt first. Setting his jaw, he gripped the damp shirt at the collar and began to tear downward—
Someone called his name.
Eldon stumbled backward, shooting out of his skin. In a blur he grabbed the shotgun from above the fireplace and sprinted to the busted door, where he saw a soaked Mrs. Tate standing on the porch. Powerful relief filled him. She held a basket of herbs, her coarse raven curls piled atop her head beneath a dripping, wide-brimmed hat.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re home!” Her dark-brown eyes lit at the sight of him. “I underestimated the storm, and your house was closest.” She laughed, shrugging off her coat as she stepped inside. “My husband’s going to kill me. He warned me not to go herb picking today, but I was completely out of raspberry leaf for Mrs. Kilmore. I honestly thought I’d have more time before the skies decided to open up and—” She looked at him, her brow creasing. “What on earth is the matter, Eldon? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Only now did he realize he was shaking from head to toe. “I need your help.”
She removed her hat. “Of course, I’ll do what I can. What happened?”
“Come with me.”
In blind haste, he led her to the back of the cabin. It took but a moment for her to spot the man upon the bed. “Oh, mercy,” she breathed, freezing in place.
“I saw him in the middle of the creek while riding back from the village. He collapsed in the water and hasn’t woken since. He’s alive, though.”
Mrs. Tate blinked, hesitating a moment. Then, as if propelled by some force she sprang to action, rushing to the unconscious man and placing the back of her hand on his cheek. “Yes, but barely. He is dangerously cold. Quick, put a kettle on the stove. Do you have any hot water bottles?”
“One, I think,” he answered clumsily, rushing to the kitchen like a bat in daylight.
“Better than nothing. We should move the bed closer to the fire, too. I see you’ve gotten most of the wet clothes off him, that’s good.” She called to Eldon over her shoulder. “We’ll need to get him into dry clothing as soon as possible!”
“Bottom dresser drawers!” Eldon placed the shotgun on the table and lit the gas burner beneath the copper kettle.
“Eldon?” she called, the cadence of her voice rising a fraction.
He turned. She had sliced open the remainder of the man’s shirt with her pruning shears, and now sat upon the edge of the bed, staring at his exposed belly.
“Yes, I… noticed that too,” he stammered, approaching slowly. “Could it be draptheria?”
“Perhaps,” she answered in a grave tone. “But look, see here.” With gentle hands, she turned the man’s head and placed three fingertips to a silver barcode tattooed behind his ear. “A government brand. This man is property of Dominus. Who knows what they could have done to him?”
Eldon froze at the mention of the capitol. “Dominus?”
This was bad. This was very bad. Anyone caught harboring government property was sentenced to death—or life in prison at the very least. There had been rumors of human experimentation for years, but to literally see someone—a living, breathing being—with a legal stamp of ownership filled Eldon with grim terror.
He folded his arms across his chest and began to pace. “I can’t believe I brought him here. They probably injected him with cancer, or parasites, or some man-made disease.” A horrifying thought struck him, and he stopped. “You don’t think he’s a weapon, do you? Sent to exterminate the outer regions? Biological warfare? Maybe they’re afraid of another up-rising.”
“The western regions had nothing to do with that rebellion. We know the laws, and we obey them.” Mrs. Tate sighed, looking down at the man, studying his face. “He’s quite beautiful, isn’t he?”
More than that. He was perfect, and now, Eldon knew why. The man had probably been grown in a test tube at a science facility, genetically engineered to possess the ideal features of what his creator admired in the male sex. Even now, Eldon caught himself wondering what color the man’s eyes were…
Banishing the thought, he cleared his throat. “What should I do with him?”
“Well, he can’t be left to die, that’s for sure,” Mrs. Tate said with a heavy sigh. “We must do the best we can to see that he wakes, and then, we’ll go from there.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“What do you propose, then? Dump him somewhere in the forest? I’m involved now, and whether or not he belongs to the ruling capitol, I refuse to commit murder.”
He dragged a hand down his face and uttered a curse.
Brushing the man’s hair off his forehead with her fingertips, her gaze raked over him again and again. Suddenly, her eyes widened, as though some revelation had dawned on her.
“What now?” Eldon asked.
She looked up at him. “This seems crazy, but… I dare to wonder.” She took a deep breath, rubbing her palms together to warm them. Gently, she placed both hands on the man’s bare stomach, and began to palpate.
“No!” Eldon lurched forward. “What are you doing? He could be contagious!”
She slapped him away. Eldon backed off in silence, wondering what he’d tell her widowed husband and five children when she fell sick and died from something uncurable. Why wasn’t Mrs. Tate the least bit worried? Forget hunting apex predators. When it came to bravery, this woman trumped him tenfold.
“Dear God,” she muttered, meeting his eyes. “I think he could be pregnant.”
Eldon blinked. “I’m sorry?”
She returned her attention to her patient. Brow furrowed in concentration, she continued to maneuver her hands skillfully over him. “No… I know he’s pregnant. I’m feeling a uterus, Eldon. I can’t be sure, but I’d say he’s about… somewhere in the middle of the second trimester by the look of things.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either.”
“Then it must be something else,” he said, certain he was in a nightmare. “Maybe a tumor.”
“I’m the village midwife, Eldon. I know a uterus when I feel one.”
“Well clearly you’re mistaken this time—”
The woman shot him a hard look, and he shriveled beneath her stare.
“It’s just—” he grimaced—“he’s a man, isn’t he?”
“Don’t think I’m not just as alarmed as you,” she said, tugging the sheet up to cover the man. “But you saw the barcode on his neck. We don’t know how they’ve made him. We barely know anything about the capitol. Quick, help me move the bed closer to the fire.”
She grabbed one side of the antique brass bedpost, while Eldon hesitantly took hold of the other. Mind benumbed, his body seemed to move of its own accord. Together, they dragged the heavy bed, scraping the wooden floorboards, to a place beside the hearth.
The kettle began to whistle.
Eldon didn’t know what to say, so he spun on his heel and strode to the kitchen, where he began scouring the drawers and cupboards for that blasted water bottle. His head whirled with shock and confusion at Mrs. Tate’s discovery. How could he not believe her? The technology in Dominus was so advanced these days that anything was possible. And Montgomery Tate had been midwife since the day he’d met her—and according to rising rate of mother and infant survival, a damn good one at that. A large part of the village’s growth was thanks to her.
At long last Eldon found the water bottle in the broom closet, hidden beneath a dustpan and neglected ironing board. He filled the thick rubber pouch with boiling water from the kettle, careful not to burn his fingers. An endless sea of questions continued to rush his mind, none of which could be answered. Why did this have to happen to him? All he’d wanted was a quiet evening alone by the fire, listening to the storm outside while polishing the rifle on his lap. He hadn’t planned on seeing anyone for weeks. Now he was breaking the law.
He brought the hot bottle to Mrs. Tate, who had taken the liberty of dressing the man in a dark green tunic and a pair of cotton trousers. The man was swimming in Eldon’s clothing.
“Well, I’m not a doctor, but I didn’t see any outward injuries other than a few scrapes and bruises,” Mrs. Tate said, taking the bottle from Eldon’s hands. Like a caring mother, she tucked it against the man’s left side and pulled the thick bedquilts up over him. “I’ll stay here and look after him until the worst of the storm is over.”
“What should I do?”
She nodded her head toward the busted door. “Make yourself useful and put Buttercup in the barn with Deputy. Poor girl’s been tethered to your porch long enough.”
Grateful for the distraction, he raced for the porch. Pausing just inside the doorframe, he glanced back at the scene inside his small cabin. Mrs. Tate sat on the bed, her expression dripping with empathy for the soul that lay beside her. Or souls, perhaps.
Eldon couldn’t tell what he felt at present. His emotions had run amuck over the past hour. He still wasn’t convinced it wouldn’t be a blessing for this man to never wake again. The idea of surrendering him to the government made Eldon sick, but a large part of him wanted to get on his knees and plead for the man to live. He just didn’t know.