The boy was born in a small shanty near the heart of the village. The rain poured down heavily that night and soaked the earth. Inside the shack, the only thing that was heard was the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof and the crackling from the fireplace. An old man sat up against the wall in the corner of the house, holding the baby close to his chest. The mother lay lifeless upon the cot in the opposite corner.
“He’s going to have to take him away,” said the young man that delivered the baby. He was the doctor. The old man looked up at him.
“No. I’ll take care of him.”
The young man looked at him with some worry. He hesitated with what he wanted to say.
“He isn’t yours, Wyatt. And he is small. I doubt he will live long. If he does, then you know where he’ll go.”
The old man shook his head slowly and stared into the fire, deep in thought. Wyatt had known the young man since he was just a boy. His parents had raised him all the way up to be a good man. Wyatt wanted to do the same for the child. No one else would.
“It don’t matter none. I’ll look after him. I’ll make sure he don’t get to him.”
The young man nodded and looked down at the newborn.
“Best wishes then, Wyatt.”
“Thank you,” he murmured.
“I’ll go and get someone to bury her,” the young man said. He opened the wooden door and headed outside into the dark.
The old man sat quietly and wondered about what would become of the child. He knew what happened to the weak in the village. They did not live.
He looked over to where the woman rested. Her face was tired and worn but she was finally at peace. She had seen her child’s face for a few mere minutes before she died. She held the boy in her arms and told him his name, whispering it over and over for him to hear. Before she closed her eyes she looked up to the doctor and apologized to him. Wyatt did not know why. He did not know her. She came knocking on the door for help and he brought her in. Then he brought over the young man to help. That was that.
The fireplace’s light flickered and illuminated the room dimly. He looked down into the face of the boy. His eyes were closed and he breathed quietly. Wyatt smiled a little, taking comfort for the first time in a long time.
The young man had been right though. He was small and would probably never be very strong. But he would live. He would. Wyatt sighed and leaned his head back against the wall.
“I won’t let them take you away. I will keep us safe.”
He looked down once more and the child had opened his eyes. The old man smiled into the gray of them. He held the child’s hand between his fingers.
“Your name is Luke.”
Faint blue light began to pour into the large cell. The sun was beginning to rise over the trees. Luke opened his eyes. He rubbed his hands along the cold stone floor and sat up.
He looked around the cell and saw the other hundreds of children, only a few awake, the rest asleep. He stood himself up and walked over to the only window. Standing on the tips of his toes he looked out the small opening. He reached his hand out into the cold morning air. It was going to be another chilly day. He pulled his arm back and rested his head on the sill. He exhaled deeply and saw his breath spiral out in front of him. He stepped down and retreated to his sleeping corner. He curled up to keep himself warm.
Luke knew what was going to happen next. The Dullahan would come soon. The thought made Luke shiver more than the cold did. The Dullahan was the right hand man of the Monarch. He was the enforcer, and the taker. Almost every day, the Dullahan would take a child from the cells, one who had done wrong or one who was not strong enough to do the work required of them. He would take away whichever one the Monarch thought should be. The village was very crowded and there wasn’t much of anything to go around. The ones who were unfit were killed.
Luke hoped that today would not be one of the days where someone died and if it was, that he would not be taken. Each day he had done his best to do what the foremen had demanded of him. He had picked the carrots, and dug the graves, and tilled the fields. He was not as fast as the other children.
When he was very young, a boy had teased him about how slow he was. He and five other children made their way down the rows of the carrot field to pick them and clean them. Luke had fallen behind the others and was doing his best to keep up. When he looked up the boy met his stare. The boy smirked at him.
“You had best hurry up, ‘lest you want the Dullahan to snatch you,” he said, curling his fingers to look like claws.
Luke was terrified by the thought of that and tried to work faster, cutting corners to catch up. When he was done the foremen scolded him for the poor work and did not pay him. The torment from the boy continued, escalating each time. One day Luke decided he would not have any more of it and he pushed the boy down into the mud, throwing punches as hard as he could. He broke his nose. The boy never picked on him again after that but Luke was scared that he might be taken by the Dullahan for fighting. He had been lucky.
The other children began to stir. The light pouring into the room had turned orange and the sun was high above the pine trees. Luke tried to make himself smaller in his corner. He did not want to be the first person the Dullahan saw when he opened the door. He was thankful that he slept the furthest from the large metal door.
He looked again to the children waking up, all of them dirty, cold, and uneasy with what was about to happen. Some of them went to the corners of the room and some stayed where they were. One boy sat himself a few feet away from Luke.
He did not know any of their names. He had never had a conversation with any of them when he was put in the cell. He never reached out to them and them never to him. All of those kids were friends and looked out for each other. It was something Luke envied.
There were seven cells in total throughout the village. All of them with hundreds of children packed inside. The children were put in the cells when there was no one left to take care of them. Many of the people in the village had their children and could not feed them. They sent them to the cells where they would be kept until they could take care of themselves or until they died. Luke’s caretaker had not abandoned him. The Monarch of the village considered him too old to be taking care of children. Luke had been placed in the cells and his departure from the old man was a tearful one.
“I’m too old now, Luke. They’ll be taking you away soon.”
Luke knew the day had been coming for a while. They both sat at the table in the old man’s shanty. Tears welled up at Luke’s eyes.
“I wish I didn’t have to go.”
The old man nodded. “I know. But you have to. Please don’t worry. They’ll put you to work and everything will be fine. You just keep yourself safe. Don’t do anything wrong.”
Luke sat back in his seat and tried to breathe steadily.
“I’ll come and visit you on the days I can.”
The old man nodded again. “Yeah, you’d better,” he whispered, trying to hide his sadness.
It had been five years. Luke visited him every chance he could. He was thankful to have someone he could talk to. While the other children had their friends, he had Wyatt.
The sun had been swallowed up by clouds and it was gray outside. The wind blew into the opening of the cell and the children shivered. None of them had any clothes that would stand up to the temperature. The boys and girls were all dressed in shirts and shorts. Some had a patch sewn into the clothing to signify where the child should work. The ones without a patch were able to do any job. Luke’s shirt had a patch sewn into it. His patch made the picture of two rectangles, side by side, one shorter than the other. It signified he was weak. He could not do anything that required any heavy lifting.
Luke thought about what work came ahead in the day when his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of heavy boots hitting the stone floor outside the cell.
The Dullahan had come. A murmur went through the cell and everyone shifted the position they sat in. Some of the children let out whimpers. Luke heard the lock turning and the noise chilled him. The handle turned and the door was flung open. The Dullahan walked slowly inside. Someone would be taken away today. Luke turned his head to the side and looked out of the corner of his eyes at the Dullahan.
He towered over the world. He wore a large heavy coat that went down to his ankles. His hood draped around the mask he wore. The mask, mangled and scarred, looked unearthly in the gray light. It had two glass, circle eyes that showed nothing of the person wearing it. The Dullahan jerked his head towards the opposite corner of Luke. The glass eyes met with a small, frail looking boy. His cheekbones were visible and his eyes were somewhat sunken in. His shirt had the same patch as Luke’s.
The boy flinched. He knew it was him. Luke tried to make himself even smaller in the corner. The Dullahan moved towards the boy. His boots thumped on the ground and echoed.
All of the children crawled away from where they sat to make a path for the Dullahan. The boy shook his head and could not control his breathing.
“No, no, no, no,” he repeated to himself. He tried to get up and run but he was like a cornered animal. There was no way out. The Dullahan stood over him and grabbed him by the arm. He made his way to the door with the boy screaming and kicking and clawing, trying to fight the Dullahan’s grasp. His last attempt to get away was to no avail and he disappeared from sight as they went out the door. Luke heard his screams echo and slowly fade away. The children sat in silence and waited for the strength to come to them to walk out the door. Slowly, one by one, they all made their way out until Luke was the only one that remained. He got up, his legs shaking, and left the cell.
The autumn season was almost over. A few more weeks and it would be winter. It was going to be a few hard months ahead. The snow would come down and the animals would hide away and the crops wouldn't return for months. Food would be even harder to get. The wind would be bitter. It was already showing.
The clouds hid every bit of blue in the sky, threatening a downpour.
Luke made his way outside. Fence posts and shanties lined the roads. The people without homes leaned up against them, waiting for nothing. The foul smell of animal and human waste permeated through the air. The dilapidated brown barns and homes stood crooked out in the distance.
Luke began his walk to his workplace. The ground was slush. He sighed and tip toed on his bare feet through the mud. Over in the graveyard, men were covering the open graves with cloth and tarps to prepare for the coming rain. All of the closed graves had one stone at the head of it. Each one simply etched with the first name of the person who took that space in the ground. The graves sprawled out across a great distance.
Luke turned and walked down the path towards the fields. Not many people were out yet. Only a few were out to go and buy their dinners for the night. He passed the marketplace. At one booth, a cook brought out badly burned bread for the customers to buy. No one turned their nose up at it and it was gone in a few seconds.
Tired, old people sat around on the ground of the marketplace scowling at everything they could see. Luke could feel their eyes on him. Many of them didn’t have anything to eat and wanted to work but could not. That was how life worked. Those who wanted to work were broken and played out while those who had the bodies to do it did not want to. Even though he could not keep up with the work most of the time, he was happy he was able to do it.
Luke arrived at the fields. No one was there except for the foreman. He was raking pine needles.
“Where is everyone?” asked Luke.
“They’re gone. It’s fixin’ to rain, there’s nothing to do.”
“Should I go to the stables then?”
“Ain’t nothin’ for you to do today. Go on now.”
“Do I come back tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
Luke nodded and turned back towards the path. He was glad to have a free day. It had been a few weeks since he had gone to see Wyatt.
The wind was starting to blow hard. Luke looked up towards the sky. The clouds were getting darker. Luke shivered and headed towards the old man’s shanty.
On his way, he passed the heart of the village, the Citadel. It towered over every building and sprawled further than what was needed for just one person. It was three stories tall, built strong and sturdy. It had been there long before the oldest of people had been born. It was the home to the Monarch. Luke had never seen him in his life but he heard the stories of what he’d done. He had left the village long ago with a wagon train of men to trade with the people down the mountain. The people down in the poison. They got ambushed by the people down there and the Monarch himself took on at least a hundred men to bring back what the village needed.
Luke only overheard it secondhand from one of the girls in his cell but he was sure that he did not believe it. That was just not possible. He heard plenty of other stories that people had seen with their own eyes. Those he believed. They were real. He was vicious in those stories. For that, he was scared of him.
He averted his eyes from the building and quickened his pace. He moved down the muddy streets and passed the homes. People had started to poke their heads out and start their day. A few kids not yet old enough for anything, played with a ball in the middle of the road. Two men argued loudly in their yards about who left whose wagon where.
Luke went through the square and finally made it to the old man’s house.
It was a lopsided building nestled into an overgrowth of bushes and trees covered with purple flowers. They were all wilted now but when they bloomed they were pretty. The old man called them lilies. It was a funny word Luke liked to say. Luke peered through the window. The old man wasn’t inside. Luke slid his hand across the wall and moved to the door. He creaked it open and stepped inside. He stopped short and realized he forgot to wipe his feet. He backed up onto the mat, wiped them, and went inside. He closed the door behind him and looked around the single room. The table was placed in the corner to his right, two chairs pushed in. His cot was neatly made and the fireplace had been cleaned. The wooden shelves were almost barren, holding only a few boxes of handmade utensils and tools. The stove underneath had not been used in a long time. His old guitar was in the same place it was the last time he was there.
Luke pulled out his chair and sat down. He heard the bell ring from the Citadel three times outside. Three times meant that someone had stolen something from the storeroom and the Dullahan must collect them. He looked out the window and saw the old man walking up the path towards the house with a bag in his arms.
Luke sunk down under the table so the old man would not see him through the window. The door opened up and Wyatt stepped in and looked down at his feet. He turned his head towards Luke.
“Now you gone and done it,” a low, whispery voice said.
Luke sat up in his seat, grinning.
“You tracked mud into my house,” said Wyatt. He reached up onto his shelf and pulled a rag down and tossed it at Luke.
“Clean it and yourself up, you’re dirty.”
Luke wiped his face and arms then went to clean up the footprints he left. The old man set his bag down and looked at Luke.
“You’re still running around in those rags? You know how cold it is don’t you?” he said, closing the curtains.
“I don’t mind it too much. What’d you go and get?” Luke said, gesturing towards the bag.
. . .
The rain fell down on the roof, pattering away it’s pleasant sound. The fireplace roared and warmed the room, washing away the dreariness of the outside.
“I heard the Dullahan took four today. Took ‘em out into the woods,” said the old man. Luke nodded, chewing on his bread.
“One came from my cell.”
The old man rubbed his eyes and shook his head.
He was once a man that stood over six feet but was shrunken down by sickness. He had lived a long seventy three summers and was still going to work where he could. His face held a certain wisdom that people looked up to.
“You been doing your work?”
Luke nodded. “Every bit of it.”
Wyatt chuckled. “That’s good. What happened today? At the fields I mean. You usually can’t get over here.”
“Foreman said there was no work. I didn’t argue so I came over.”
“Is it because of the rain?”
“It’s never been a problem before.”
“Well, you can help me out today if you’ve got nothing to do.” Luke finished up his bread and the old man collected the plates and brought them over to the counter. He pointed towards a sack of potatoes beside the cot.
“Peel those for me and I’ll cook us up this jackrabbit I caught.”
“You caught a jackrabbit?”
“Wow. Is it a fat one?”
“The fattest. Got him this morning.”
“I’ll peel for you then.”
He passed Luke a dirty sheet of ancient newspaper. Classifieds, it said. Buy a lawnmower. Luke took a knife out of the drawer and set about working right away.
He was excited about the meat being prepared. Children were not paid much for the work they did and any food they bought was extra for themselves. Food was thrown into the cells daily for the children to share. It would have been plentiful for a whole family, but for a few hundred kids there was no bounty for many. Luke was often left with nothing.
He peeled his first potato and made sure that there was no skin on it. He placed it to the side and picked up another. He looked up to the old man at the counter, preparing the jackrabbit. The fire snapped and popped and turned the room a warm color. It was a rare comfort. He looked down at the potatoes and started to peel again.
“We want this stewed right?” asked the old man.
“What other way is there?”
Luke dropped his potato when he heard the front door slam open against the wall. Cold air and rain drops filled the room and the roaring fire was blown out. Luke looked up. Standing in the doorway was the Dullahan. Luke gasped and dropped the knife onto the ground. The old man turned around to meet the glass eyes. The Dullahan did not hesitate. He moved towards the old man and grabbed him around the neck, jerking him violently towards the door. Luke stared in horror. The Dullahan dragged the old man outside and Luke went out after them.
“Stop!” hollered Luke. The Dullahan flung the old man into the mud. He cried out. Luke flew into a rage at the towering man. He threw himself at him, throwing his fists into the Dullahan’s back, using all of his strength to hurt him. The Dullahan turned around and shoved Luke down hard next to the old man. The impact knocked the air out of him. Luke flipped over on his back to look up at the Dullahan. The anger had left his body and had been replaced by terror.
What’s happening? Luke thought. What did we do wrong?
The villagers had stopped what they were doing to see what was happening. Hundreds of them piled in on the sides of the road murmuring.
The Dullahan stared at Luke, waiting for him to make a move. He did not dare go any further. Luke broke his gaze and saw a man walking up the path towards them. His hair was clean cut and combed. He was dressed in a white button up shirt with black pants and shoes. He looked completely different from every other person. Luke heard all the people murmur at his presence. This was him. This was the Monarch.
The man neared them and stood next to the Dullahan. He had a slight smile on his face. He had a certain air about him. It was stale and hard.
The Monarch looked down at the old man. He writhed down in the mud, groaning in pain. “I never thought you’d be a thief, Wyatt.” the Monarch said with the smooth, sly voice of a snake.
This was not right. Wyatt had never stolen a thing in his life. Luke now knew why people feared this person so much. Luke could not tell what this man was thinking or what he would do. His face stayed the same the whole time, not giving off a single flicker of anger. That terrified Luke.
“I ain’t never stole nothing,” said the old man weakly. The Monarch sighed and waved towards the old man like he was swatting a fly.
“Get him up.”
“Luke, run. Just run. Run far.”
“I’m not leaving.”
The Dullahan grabbed his arm and pulled him up onto his knees. The Monarch moved behind the old man.
“There’s a lot of people saying you were out at the smokehouse taking a few things for yourself. There’s not a lot to go around in this place. Not much at all.”
Wyatt shook his head. His voice didn't waver. He would not let it.
“I didn’t take anything. You know it.”
The Monarch straightened his back and pulled a black object off of his belt and held it at his side. Luke had no idea what it was but it made him feel uneasy. The Monarch pulled a part of it back and pointed it towards the back of the old man’s head. Luke flinched.
“Maybe you didn’t steal anything with your own two hands. But you’ve been around too long for me though. You’re still eating up what this village has. That’s the same as stealing to me.”
Luke’s legs shook underneath him and he could feel the hot tears behind his eyes. The Monarch made eye contact with him.
“He should have been gone a long time ago.” The Monarch raised what he was holding level to Luke’s head. He flinched again.
“Get that off of him! I’ll kill you!” the old man spat.
The Monarch showed some kind of emotion for the first time. It was amusement. He brought what he held to the back of the old man’s head.
“Be careful there.”
Wyatt lowered his eyes and whispered to himself so quietly that no one could hear. “I let this happen.”
Luke looked around to the villagers with pleading eyes. They didn’t do anything but watch. His mind was screaming.
Help us! Why are you just watching? Can’t you see?
“Were you just bored today? Is this how it’s going to end for us?” asked Wyatt.
“There were plenty of days for me to do this. Plenty of times.”
Luke could take no more. He stood up and tried to make himself steady and brave. The Monarch and the Dullahan both stared at the boy. The old man had his mouth agape, shocked. His eyes pleaded with him to stay down.
“Please stop,” Luke begged. “Just let us go. He never stole anything. He’s good. Don’t do this to us.”
Their eyes were locked and no one spoke. The villagers were silent. Wyatt lowered his head and stared at the ground. Luke held his breath. He wanted this moment to just be over. They just needed to get away and everything would be alright. The Monarch nodded.
“Alright,” he said. He chuckled quietly. “I’m generous.”
Luke exhaled deeply and shuddered. He felt the relief flow through his body.
The object he held cracked with a flash and the noise exploded in Luke’s ears. The old man fell forward into the mud. The villagers gasped and screamed in terror. Luke’s eyes and mouth opened wide and he felt his stomach drop.
This isn’t real, he thought.
He tried to lie to himself that what he was seeing was a dream but he knew it wasn’t. Luke dropped to his knees and stared at the body that lay on the ground. His face wasn’t visible and the rain poured onto him. Luke could see blood flowing down the old man's head and soaking into his hair. This was the first time he had ever seen anyone die. It was surreal. He looked up at the Monarch. His expression remained the same as before. He lowered the weapon to his side.
“I’ll let you live.”
Luke felt the rage fill his body again. This time it was more intense. He could feel a burning heat rising in his chest. He threw his hands down to the ground and gritted his teeth. The Monarch’s words echoed in his head.
I’ll let you live.
The Monarch walked up to him and extended his hand for him to take hold of. He never felt this way before. He wanted with all of his being to bring this man down, to hurt him. He looked up at the Monarch who looked just as he did when when he walked up to end the old man. He didn't care whatsoever about what he had done.
Letting his anger guide his actions, he let his fury out and threw a handful of mud up at the Monarch. It collided into his chest and neck. Clumps of mud fell from the white shirt back onto the ground.
Just keep going!
He wanted to throw his fists into him but the weapon the Monarch held in his hand kept Luke from doing anything more.
The Monarch looked into the boy’s gray eyes. Luke came to realize what he had just done. He swiveled his head. He saw the villagers staring at the two of them with wide eyes. The women covered their mouths and ushered the small children back inside their shanties. The men stood watching, shocked and frightened. Some shook their heads and walked away. Luke’s eyes met with the Monarch’s again. The Monarch sighed.
“Take him away.”
He turned his back on Luke and walked down the path towards the Citadel.
The Dullahan moved towards him and Luke said nothing. He knew what was going to happen. The Dullahan pulled him off of the ground and began to lead him towards the path to the woods. The village went on.
The rain had begun to slow. Luke could feel the fear in his throat. The Dullahan gripped his arm tightly and did not look back at him as they walked further and further away from the village. Luke had never been this far away from the village before. On another day, he would’ve been excited to leave the place behind him but now he was being lead towards his death and each step filled him with more dread.
The trees were getting closer together. Luke’s heart was racing. He squirmed and tried to slip away from the Dullahan’s grasp but could not.
What will happen to me?
Luke did not know what happened to those who were taken except that they died. Imagining the terrible things that could be done made tears fall down his face. He dug his heels into the mud and the pine needles to try and slow down the Dullahan but he was strong. There was no way Luke could stop him.
The village was no longer in sight. The only thing behind them was the path. The only things in front of them were trees extending towards the sky. The rain stopped. Three bells rang out in the distance.
The Dullahan took no more steps. Luke jumped at the abrupt end. Nothing was special about this place. It looked exactly like what they had just walked through. He looked down at his feet. The path had ended. He turned around. The path behind them was faint and if one had not been paying attention, could have walked right past it. The Dullahan took a few steps to his right and they stopped again.
The Dullahan flung Luke to the ground. Luke sat upon the Earth with every limb shaking. In front of him was a log, damp from the rain. The enormous figure loomed over the boy. He moved to the tree nearest to him. Wrapped tightly around the trunk was a chain. At the end of the chain was a single cuff, open. The Dullahan brought it up in his hands and knelt next to Luke. In a swift movement, he snapped it around Luke’s ankle and stood up.
Will he kill me? Is he going to leave me here? To starve? To freeze in the cold?
Luke tried to look past the glass eyes that concealed the face of the man. He saw nothing. The Dullahan moved again to the tree with the chain. He reached around the trunk and picked up a scarred axe.
It all clicked. The grotesque image of what would be done entered into Luke’s mind and was burned there permanently. Luke spun his head back to the log. He had not noticed the red stained upon it. His mouth went wide. So this is what they did. Luke felt his blood pumping. The Dullahan gripped the axe with both of his hands.
“No,” squeaked Luke, extending his hand out in front of him. He felt his entire body go weak.
This is it.
He felt as if the cuff around his ankle had grown tighter.
The Dullahan moved towards him and grabbed him around the back of the neck. He spun him around towards the log and pushed him towards it. Luke pushed his hands out in front of him to fight against the force.
“Stop! Stop! Please stop!” Luke yelled out frantically, pleading for his life. One final push aligned Luke’s neck directly above the log. He felt the hand being pulled away from his neck. He closed his eyes and waited for the impact.
“Hey!” screamed a voice. Luke cracked his eyes open. The voice grew nearer and nearer.
“Hey! Help! Get back here!”
Luke raised his head from the log and flipped around onto his back. The Dullahan had his axe raised halfway with his head turned towards the voice. Luke looked towards the path and saw one of the villagers sprinting towards them. He stopped a little ways away and gestured behind him.
“Come back! Someone broke into the storeroom. The Monarch wants you back! You gotta come back and help!”
The Dullahan was in a stunned daze. His mechanical way of doing things had been interrupted. He looked back down at Luke and like he did not understand what was in front of him, he slung the axe over his shoulder and walked down the path with the villager. Luke sat up straight and breathed a ragged sigh of relief. He couldn’t believe what had happened. He could have killed him. It would have been so easy but he didn’t. Was he taunting him?
He will come back.
Luke waited until they were both long gone down the path. This was a chance. A chance to get away. His mind was all excited and wild but he did not get carried away. He was not out yet. He had to find something to break the chain. He spotted two flat stones a few feet away from him, buried in the clay. He crawled towards them but was stopped just inches from it. He turned back and saw that the chain had been fully stretched out.
“Damn it!” yelled Luke, slamming his hand into the ground.
The old man would have scolded him for saying that. He was not alive or with him anymore. That thought only lit a fire in Luke.
He squinted towards the path. The two were gone and time was running out. Luke reached his arm as far as it would go.
He moved his fingers closer and closer. Luke strained and reached. His fingertips felt the edge where it was buried. He clawed and unearthed the little blessings and brought them back to the chain.
He sat up and slung the chain over the stone. It was rusty and old but it was still tough. He looked for where the metal had been worn down the most and brought up the other stone. He slammed it down hard on the chain. Clang!
The chain was intact. Luke ignored the sting in his palm and slammed the rock down again. Clang!
“Break,” he whispered.
He slammed it down again and again. The chain had been chipped slightly. Luke smacked it down rapidly. His wrist vibrated and stung from the impact. He looked towards the path again. No one. He needed to hurry. He took in another breath and took one good, hard swing. Snap!