Peak Oil/Dragon Line Short Story – Once were Witches


Owen Law - Writer

Today, I’ve been busy working on a short story as a part of Jurgen Wolff’s MAD programme – and, boy, has it been worth it! I’ve completed the story in both its first and second drafts. And the results are posted here below.

This is actually intended to be an entry for John Micheal Greer’s ‘peak oil’ sci-fi short story competition. Basically, he has stipulated that the story should be a realistic ‘sci-fi’ portrayal of post-peak existence. Seeing as I’ve been working on a peak-oil related novel for the past three years, I thought it might be good to set the story against the ‘Dragon Line’ background but introduce some entirely new characters. Its therefore set in Shropshire, post-collapse but just before the invasion of the county by the Ironsides. The difference with the novel is that I’ve left out some of the fantasy elements of Patrick’s quest (who doesn’t appear in this) and focussed merely on the semantics of socio-political existence in post-peak Britain. I’d be interested in what readers think.

As stated above, the third draft will be posted here – after I’ve had a rest and gone back to it with a fresh mind! In the meantime…

 

Once were Witches by Owen Law

 

The noise never seemed to stop. Shuker hid his head between his legs as he shivered in the corner, trying as hard as possible to block out the inane wailing. But it was to no avail. The dank, dark cellar was hellish enough without having to share it with a mad old man shouting insanities and groaning at the top of his voice. The gibberish would be almost amusing if it wasn’t for the fact that it was constant and full on. Long and grimy nails on the end of Shuker’s shimmering hands clawed hard into his scalp as he still fought fallaciously to block out the row. Running dirty fingers through long, mousey hair, Shuker inwardly screamed in frustration. Then the pressure became too much.

 

‘Oh, for God’s sake! BE QUIET!!!’

 

The old timer paused briefly, his companion’s outburst seemingly taking effect. Ceasing his incessant rocking and with furrowed, wrinkled eyebrows concealing almost black, beady eyes, the old man stared upwards toward the ceiling. But the respite was to be short-lived.

 

‘Witches…witches…here be witches! Here be witches! Witches, witches!’

 

Shuker could take no more. Quickly springing to his feet and bounding over to the centre of the room, he grabbed the old man by the collar of his dirty linen shirt. Pulling him in close, Shuker spat the words into the oldster’s face, small globules of flem showering onto his long, white hair.

 

‘No! No! No! There’re no Witches! D’ya hear me? No witches! You and I are not witches! We’re prisoners! Prisoners!’

 

The old man looked on blankly before replying cryptically.

 

‘Like the ‘Precious Bane’. We’ll bear the mark of the Witch, so that all‘ll know…’

 

‘No! It’s not the mark of the Witch. We’re not in a Mary Webb novel, for Christ’s sake! D’ya hear? Shut it!’

 

Instantly, Shuker relinquished his grip on his now subdued cell-mate and slid back to the corner again, lowering his large frame onto the hard, stone floor and bowing his head between his knees once again. His calico clothes smelt foul and putrid following his previous escapade, but it made little difference to Shuker. The feeling of despair was too powerful for him to be repulsed by the stink of his own body odour. And there was little doubt his loony companion would be starting up again soon. Sure enough…

 

‘Witches, witches, here be witches…’

 

What was the point? The misery now overwhelming, Shuker descended further into despair’s depths. So much so that apathy was now starting to set in. He could have cried out to be released from this cramped, dark and claustrophobic dungeon in which he found himself with the deranged fool. They could move him elsewhere, but he knew that’d be futile. They’d just ignore him. Shuker had said his piece, the old man was too nuts to care anyway. Perhaps now ignoring the diatribe would be the best course of action. What other choice did he have?

 

Burrowing even further into himself to escape, Shuker retraced his steps as to how he’d got here. How’d he ended up like this? Why had he been so stupid? The crime he’d been accused of was different from that of the old man’s, but serious enough to warrant the same punishment. Of that he was sure…

 

*

 

It’d been like some bad dream. A nightmare, truth be told, but not one from which he was going to wake from anytime soon. For Shuker was very much awake and running. Running as fast as he could impeded as he was by thicket and ground shrubbery. Rhododendron, dead bracken and other forest-floor vegetation conspired to trip him up and entrap him as he scurried between the trees of ancient semi-natural broadleaf woodland. Shuker briefly paused next to an old oak and scanned round. He was looking for a bolt hole, somewhere to lie up. Mopping beads of sweat quickly from his brow with his sleeve, he racked his brains. This wood had sandstone outcrops and some little caves and gulleys hidden therein. He remembered when playing here in the old days before ‘the Collapse’, with his mates from nearby Harmer Hill when they were off school. It hadn’t been that long ago. He was only twenty-nine years old. But for the life of him, Shuker couldn’t exactly remember where they were.

 

He’d lived in Myddle all his life, Salopian born-and-bred. Shuker reckoned he’d stay and die here as well. Nobody went anywhere outside of the county boundaries now, not like the old days when people travelled about and went off to work in nearby cities and towns. Equally, there was no going off on holiday to places like North Wales or even further abroad to other countries. That was because the fuel that powered everyone’s lives had become a lot scarcer. It wasn’t that it was running out, it was just that everybody wanted it and there wasn’t enough to go round. Then, the Government had collapsed and the plagues and famine came. Nobody went anywhere after that.

 

His county, Shropshire, was ruled by the New Marcher Lords. They were the masters now, the people the serfs. Everyone was tied to the land, as it had been centuries ago. The Marchers controlled the resources. So, woe betide anyone who took anymore than they were entitled to if they weren’t a landlord. Which was why he was running now. It’d taken a lot to wrench himself from his family and run, hoping that he could find somewhere to hide out till the dust had settled. Then, maybe, he could come for them when it was safe to do so…

 

Shuker’s mind stayed focussed on his immediate circumstances. If only I can remember where that hiding place was, he thought, chiding himself for having forgotten so quickly. That was the whole point, he’d had little cause to come here during adult life because there’s been so little recreational time. It was constant work, work, work just to survive, with little respite apart from the occasional village festivals and events. No free time to just come and reflect on what natural beauty remained in spite of the past recklessness of previous generations.

 

Sod it, press on! It was like high summer. The sun was beating down still between the tree canopy and it was felt like it was twenty-five degrees Celsius even in the shade. Typical weather these days for March. And the woodland happened to live on top of a fairly steep hill, hence the name of the village: Harmer Hill. That was why he was sweating buckets. And, Shuker was being pursued. Not by a foreign enemy or gang, but by his own. The people who he’d shared almost all his life with, neighbours, friends, work-mates. Just for one thing, an indiscretion on his part. For breaking one of the community taboos. Now, as a result of that he was a pariah and an outcast. They called ‘hue and cry’ on him and the posse were following. So, he was trying his best to get away, because he knew exactly what the punishment would be…

 

The fugitive ploughed on up slope, battling through the thicket as he aimed to get to the top. The overgrown path ahead looked familiar. Sure, it had changed a little from when he’d been ten years old, but it was starting to dawn on him that he could remember a little more about his surroundings than previously. Was the outcrop with the little cave to the right or left of the top of the slope? Yes, it must be, left I reckon! Not far then, I’ll keep going and I should hit it soon.

 

Shuker kept plodding onwards and upwards, his bleach-white clothing -normally worn to reflect the harsh rays of the sun when working the land –  now turning a mucky green-grey due to a combination of sweat, dirt and foliage. That was the least of the troubles. Escaping was more vital. He may have felt hot, tired and about to heave at any minute, but the alternative was too disturbing. That was enough to keep him motivated. Shuker was fit and strong, given his age and the fact that he laboured from dawn till dusk every day. He could handle it…

 

Suddenly, he came to a stop as he heard something behind. Standing still between two chest high pieces of bracken positioned either side of the dry earth path, Shuker listened. It was distant, but close enough to be discomforting. Shouting, the shallow pattering of feet and hooves, dogs barking. A howling and yelping sound becoming louder and louder. Christ! They’ve got the hounds out to track him. The Constable must have raised the local Squire to turn out his hunt. With the Government gone, country folk had not had any compunction about returning to the old ways. That meant hunting with dogs had made a comeback, the old past-time that had now become another distraction for the hard-pressed serfs and the self-indulgent nobility in a time of famine and austerity. Except it wasn’t Reynard they were pursuing this time…

 

Almost in a state of panic, Shuker took to his feet again to clamber up the slope to the top. How he could outrun them? Bloodhounds! They’d not disappeared since the ban of the old days, thanks to ‘drag hunting’. Now, back with a vengeance, the brutality of the hunt was even more vigorous. Was that to be his fate? To be cornered like an exhausted, frightened animal then ripped apart? Surely they would be more merciful than that!

 

Finally, he clawed his way to the crest of the hill, but already conflicting thoughts were pounding his mind as he clambered for a plan of action. What to do? He’d heard vaguely, years ago, that dogs were put off by water. But there was none here, no streams to bound through or follow. Anyway, that was probably an old wife’s tale. Maybe he should stick with the other plan and head for the crevice to hide? Then again, the hounds would have already have picked up his scent. Maybe he should just keep running away, through the wood to the old A-class road that came from the village? But by then, he’d probably be exhausted and they’d catch up anyway. I’ll take the left and hide, he decided.

 

Bolting along another overgrown path, Shuker fought back the raking vegetation as he ploughed on. Soon, the side of a sandstone outcrop presented itself beyond a small clearing. He recognised it as the place where he’d hidden from his childhood mates, and it suddenly struck him that if they’d joined the ‘hue and cry’ as well they might know to look here for him anyway – those that were still alive of course. With no other option available, he made for the sandstone rock face, the shouting and barking somewhere behind getting louder and louder.

 

Almost tripping and stumbling as he encountered thorny bramble obstructing his path, Shuker reached the outcrop and fell against it. Panting and gasping for air, his heart thumping heavily as yet more beads of sweat rolled down his face and neck, he looked round frantically for the crevice. There it was, just behind some more dead bracken to his left. Without any more prevarication, Shuker dived for the entrance, pulling the vegetation to one side as he hit the deck. On all fours, elbows and knees scraping on the forest floor, the fugitive crawled into the gap. Once inside, he turned himself completely around so that his head was pointing backward in the direction whence he had came. Pulling back the bracken in the hope it might be enough to camouflage his body, he waited.

 

The sounds were drawing nearer now. Shivering with fear in the crevice, despite the heat, Shuker knew that it wouldn’t be long before they were on top of him. There was a slim possibility they’d pass him by, but the probability was just that. Slim. Still as possible, breathing heavily, he tried to remain calm. But when all those hormones are coursing through your system it was a little difficult!

 

Eyes fixated through the bracken towards the path. Nothing as yet, although the shouting and the noise of the hounds was very close now. Hopefully, just hopefully…

 

His heart stopped briefly as an English Foxhound emerged from betwixt the undergrowth surrounding the path. It came to a stop and appeared to sniff the air, its head jutting to the rear briefly then back again. Then it began drawing near before stopping again. Shuker stared at the dog intensely. Please, please pass-by! Please!

 

Then, the hound started barking in his direction. Another appeared behind it, then another and another. All started barking and yelping towards the crevice as more swarmed in, one after another. Drawing in close, the pack collectively focussed on the outcrop. They’d found him. Petrified, cold sweat dripping from his brow, Shuker knew the game was up. He only hoped they wouldn’t attack. At the moment, they were still standing their ground to hold him at bay. Fortunately, they were more used to despatching smaller prey than him. He waited, some pack members growling at him whilst others yelped to signal to their masters that the target had been cornered…

 

Sure enough, a horse cantered from between the thicket and into view behind the dogs before coming to a halt. The Squire, dressed in the customary red-coat and jodhpurs – as if he was at one of his normal ‘meets’ as Master of the Hunt – hailed his companions as the Constable pulled up behind on another steed. The Squire called the dogs to order as the sounds of shouting behind became much louder.

 

‘Barry Shuker! If yer in there, give yerself up!’ hollered the thin-faced Constable as he pulled on the reins to steady his mount. All eyes fixated on the crevice.

 

Shuker realised well that the game was up…

 

 

 

*

 

And that was how he’d ended up here, in this dank cellar with the maddest of maddest village idiots! After having been chained like a beast, he’d been taken back to Myddle to languish and await the preordained fate for his crime. His accusers had shown no remorse as they’d bundled him down the stairs into his new home. It’d been at least two days that he’d been down there, below what had once been Myddle village hall, now largely utilised as a ‘cop-shop’ and courthouse by the Constable and the local Magistrate – who only happened to be one and the same as the Squire.

 

Being kept in a confined space he could handle. But being stuck with the old man was truly torture. He just went on and on and on all the time! Surely that was punishment enough for his ‘crime’, but the ‘gentle’ folk of the village wouldn’t see it that way…

 

‘Once were witches, once were witches, once were witches…’ burbled the old man as he continued with his incessant rocking to and fro on the floor.

 

‘Ah, so you’ve changed your mind now? We’re not witches anymore! So what are we, Harry?’

 

‘Mad’ Harry. He’d been well known as a drunk and lay-about in the village before the Collapse. As kids, they’d used to pick on and tease him. So much so that, at one point, some of the village urchins had been threatened with Anti-Social Behaviour Orders by the old Police force, having at least been forced to sign what they’d called ‘ABC’s – Acceptable Behaviour Contracts. The taunting stopped for a while. Still, Mad Harry himself had never been reprimanded for anything himself, apart from once for being drunk in the street. Perhaps they thought he was too far gone. And the adults just viewed him as a harmless old eccentric. After the Collapse, when he survived whilst other old people died in the village he began to be viewed more seriously. As though he was some sort of ‘Warlock’ that could beat nature. People began to wonder…

 

Still, there was no organised religion here now to keep the serfs in check, just the direct control of the landlords who owned the resources. People had begun believing in the ways of the neo-Pagans as the old Christian ways faltered. No-one really went to Church as they believed God had deserted them. Only the nobility indulged what was left of the Christian priesthood – sometimes…

 

Rumours were rife, though, that things were about to change.

 

‘Ironsides coming’ blurted Harry, glaring at the ceiling. ‘They’ll kill the Witches!’

 

‘What, like you?’ Shuker replied sarcastically as he looked up from his perch. ‘Burn you at the stake, will they? Anyway, how d’ya know they’re coming? Seen it in a vision?’

 

That was one thing Harry had been renowned for around Myddle. His so-called ‘Visions’! Visions that nobody was in the slightest bit interested in or wanted to hear about anyway.

 

‘I saw ‘em. Last night, in a dream.’

 

‘Surprise, surprise! Anyway, yer don’t need to be a prophet to work that one out, chum! Everyone knows they’re coming here eventually to sort out the Duke and his pals.’

 

‘Soon, though. Very soon. The Ironsides’ll destroy the Witches!’

 

That much was probably true. The Ironsides were the puritanical army from the north whose aim was take back all of England from the warlords and restore it to its former glory – but under the banner of Protestantism. Just like in the days of the Civil War. Shuker didn’t know much more about them, apart from the fact that the Ironsides and their leader – who called himself ‘Cromwell’ – modelled themselves on the old Parliamentarians. It was rumoured that Cromwell himself always wore a helmet bearing the likeness of the first Oliver Cromwell and that no-one knew what he really looked like.

 

One thing was certain, everyone feared them due to their reputation for ruthlessness. Their hatred of what was left of Britain’s immigrant population was also well-known, and this extended to anyone else who didn’t fit the mould. The stories of what happened to those deemed not fit to be in their Army were rife, enough to keep children awake at night. And it was likely that the thoughts of them targeting Shropshire kept the Duke of Shrewsbury, the High Marcher Lord in the country, and his henchmen restless in their beds too.

 

‘Those who bear the mark of the Witch’ll be burnt!’

 

‘Yeah, that won’t be me then!’

 

Shuker shook his head dismissively. Silly old fool! Yes, the Ironsides had a low tolerance of old religion practitioners, but Shuker wasn’t one of that ilk. All he’d ever done was till the land to feed his family; Pippa, his wife and the two kids – the ones who’d survived. That was why he was here now.

 

‘Once were Witches. Once were Witches. Once were Witches. All those who bear the mark of the Witch are damned…’

 

Mad Harry was going off again on one, returning to his previous habit of murmuring and rocking backwards and forwards. Well, fine, Shuker was resigned to this now. Although the agony of being imprisoned with a fruitcake was pretty unbearable, it was probably nothing compared to the pain he soon would be feeling. And it wouldn’t be because of anything to do with ‘witchcraft’.

 

*

 

The trial had been serious enough that the Squire had been of the mind to elevate himself to the status of a judge and call a jury. He was able to, it was his jurisdiction. Generally, the Duke let his minion sub-rulers treat the people how they liked as long as they towed the line with him. He had no interest in the crime Shuker was alleged to have committed, so he wouldn’t intervene. But the pettiness of the Squire meant he had to prove himself top-dog in the village with some form of legitimacy to shore up his position. Therefore, he rebranded his Kangaroo court as one that upheld the old principle of ‘due process.’ Except for the fact that all the jurors were called from the same village community that had accused him in the first place. So much for ‘twelve good men and true’! Unsurprisingly, the rule of law enshrined in the Magna Carter for centuries died the day the Monarchy had left the country.

 

Shuker waited in grim silence in the centre of the ‘courtroom’, the former main function room of the village hall, chained to an old metal and canvas chair. Surrounded by stern, accusing eyes from those in the makeshift ‘public gallery’, he averted the gaze of every man, woman and child present, instead staring at a crack in the old laminated wooden floor a few feet in front. It was easier if he did.

 

Before him, lined up in a row of three at a wooden table was the Squire and two of his lackeys. Silence pervaded in the air, only to be momentarily interrupted by the squeaking of an un-oiled hinge on a side-door now being pulled open. The attention of all present turned as the jury emerged from one of the smaller rooms to return to their seats.

 

The Squire waited for all to be seated before commencing further with the charade, indicating to the man sat to his right to approach the foreman. The grizzled looking male complied, taking to his feet and shuffling over to the jury. There, he was handed a piece of paper which he promptly took, returning it to the Squire who snatched from his hands. Opening the paper, he gazed at it intently.

 

He then shifted in his seat towards the jury to continue with the pseudo-legal charade.

 

‘Foreman, please be upstanding’ he ordered with all the pomposity believed worthy of his position.

 

The foreman complied.

 

‘Have the members of the Jury come to a verdict which you all agree upon?’

 

‘We have, M’Lud’.

 

‘Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?’

 

‘Guilty, M’Lud.’

 

Immediate cries of triumph from those present hastened a reprimand from the Squire, although Shuker was wondering why. The verdict had been a foregone conclusion anyway, this was all just a farce. He’d find it amusing if he wasn’t so damn scared.

 

‘Barry Shuker!’ rasped the Squire, turning his attention back to the defendant. ‘Be upstanding!’

 

Shuker, with the unwelcome assistance of the Constable to his right, was immediately taken to his feet.

 

‘You have been duly been found guilty of this offence against your village. Is there anything you’d like to say before I pass sentence?’

 

Shuker briefly glanced to his left towards the useless individual who‘d been ‘defending’ him: a former solicitor apparently – although he can’t have been a good one! The white-haired man lowered his head down towards the desk and continued writing something on the Welsh slate tablet he had in front of him. Shuker well knew he was on his own at that point.

 

‘No!’ he replied as he turned his attention back to the Squire.

 

‘That’ll be ‘No, M’Lud’!’ chided the Constable, pushing Shuker on the right shoulder to reinforce the point.

 

‘No, M’Lud!’

 

‘Good. Then it falls upon me to pass sentence…’

 

No surprises there then…

 

 

 

*

 

It’d been early morning when he’d been woken abruptly, his wrists chained together before being dragged out of the cellar and upstairs to the hall itself. Shuker had barely heard the continuing insane chants of the old man as he was led upstairs, still shouting idiotic pronouncements about witches. This had been followed by an unceremonial frog-marching to the courtyard outside, a place where cars had once been parked in the days when everybody owned one and the fuel had existed to power them. The only thing parked in it now was a heavy, oaken frame with a seat and two cross bars in front. Two semi-circular holes in the cross-bars, which formed one when they were clamped together with a pad-lock, facilitated the place where the victim’s ankles would be placed. Stocks, these were known as.

 

As he was led out of the building and towards them, the surrounding crowd of his community looked on and jeered unsympathetically. The men, women, children and elder folk were present again, many of whom he’d known since he was small. Only a few were unfamiliar, probably visitors from other villages who’d heard about the spectacle and who were attending out of morbid curiosity. The only people noticeably absent from the proceedings were Pippa and the two kids, as they had been from the trial. It was for them he’d done it. And they hadn’t even called his wife as a witness! Still, on balance he’d rather it’d be that they were kept well out of it.

 

The fear and feelings of humiliation at the hands of the mob were substantially less compared to what was in position next to the stocks. There stood a metal brazier on a tripod, burning coals glowing a bright orange colour in the grate with numerous insulated iron rods protruding out and tended by a thick-set looking man with a black hood covering his head. It was this that frightened him the most.

 

Shuker paused briefly to observe it, his flesh feeling clammy and cold as he took in the full circumstances.

 

‘Come on! Move it!’ bellowed the Constable as he firmly took hold of the chains linking Shuker’s wrists to drag him towards the stocks.

 

‘Scum!’ shouted someone in the crowd as Shuker was forcibly sat down on the seat. The whole thing felt unreal as his ankles were lifted into the opened trap and placed in the half-holes. The top beam slammed down onto the bottom to secure his legs, both were locked and secured together by the masked man. As he did, pieces of rotten vegetable began to be hurled towards the captive, one mouldy cabbage hitting the man on the shoulder.

 

‘That’s enough!’ chided the Squire, who by now had made an appearance. ‘Anyone else throwing something at this point will be joining him!’

 

That was enough to make the crowd comply. No-one was prepared to displease the Squire. It’d be almost comical were it not me on the receiving end, Shuker mused miserably. It was like something he’d seen in a comedy film on TV years ago, but it was no laughing matter.

 

The Squire waited for the remainder of the mob to quieten before proceeding.

 

‘Barry Shuker, for crimes against your village and the people who dwell therein, I have sentenced you to be branded. Before I command the sentence to be carried out, do you have anything you wish to say?’

 

Petrified, Shuker shook his head. What was there to say?

 

‘Then let the sentence begin!’

 

What followed thereafter was almost like slow motion. The Constable and another man taking a firm hold of each of Shuker’s arms to restrain him, the Masked Man approached and took hold of the prisoner’s dirty calico shirt. With both hand, he ripped it apart to expose the white, bare flesh of Shuker’s chest.

 

Abruptly, he stood up and walked over to the brazier. Selecting an iron from amongst the burning coals, he turned and approached his victim. Holding the metal rod up high in front of him, the tip glowing orange-red with the end formed in the shape of a ‘P’, the man brandished it menacingly. Shuker shuddered in abject terror as the man moved up closer, sweat pouring down his forehead as he tried to shrink back.

 

‘No, please God! No!’

 

His pleading made no difference. With a nod of confirmation from the Squire, the Masked Man pushed the end of the branding iron onto Shuker’s chest above his pectorals, the flesh immediately burning and melting as it contacted. His nerves ablaze, Shuker screamed in agony as he struggled against the strong men who held him in position. Some of those in the crowd looking on cheered, whilst others turned away repulsed, unable to handle what they were seeing. The man held the iron in place for a few seconds before taking it away to return it to the brazier, children being ushered off as he pulled out another.

 

Shuker panted and groaned, but he barely had a respite before he was pulled up again to receive contact with the next iron. The pain was as excruciating as the last trauma and seemed to go on for ages, even though it was only a few seconds. Again, he sobbed as that iron too was withdrawn, the smell of burnt flesh – something like roasting bacon – permeating the air.

 

Cheering filled the air again as yet more irons were pushed onto his naked skin, one after the other. On and on it went, until his nerves seemed to become dulled and the pain less intense. But just when they’d finally finished branding the slogan into his chest and he thought that his ordeal was ended, the Constable took hold of his hair and pulled his head back.

 

‘Just so that all can recognise you for what you are!’ stated the Masked Man, as he placed two more irons in succession on Shuker’s forehead, the pain coursing through his skull. Again, Shuker screamed in agony.

 

With the gruesome task completed, the Constable and the other male let go of Shuker’s arms, allowing him to flop back against the seat. Still pained, delirious and groggy, Shuker shuddered vigorously as he lifted his eyes towards the sky. If there was a God, why did he let things like this happen? He could barely hear the words bawled at the spectating crowd by the Squire as someone soaked him with a bucket of cold water.

 

‘Let this be a warning to others who hoard!’ he thundered, as the crowd resumed their showering of rotten vegetables in the direction of the stocks.

 

*

 

Two weeks later…

 

Shuker took one last look around the mud and brick shanty hovel that’d been home for almost the past decade. He and Pippa had already packed up most of what they needed onto the small cart his father had built some years back. Now, his wife and children were waiting for him to join them outside as they sat on the slatted seat at the front, Pippa’s hands on the reins of the placid looking mule they owned now attached to the cart. It was painful in some ways to leave, but they had no choice. The rest of the village now cold shouldered them and it was difficult to work his strip of land. Besides, the old man had been right. The Ironsides were now attacking the county from the north. All able bodied men would be called up in the service of their masters, but – in some ways mercifully – he’d be excused. He was marked goods now, a pariah. That was one benefit, he supposed. Problem was, it was likely many would recognise his crime where-ever he went, or at the very least question the meaning of his branding.

 

Well, they had to go somewhere. Wales was the best option, seeing as he still had relatives there. It was possible the Ironsides would eventually strike there too, but that just had to be accepted as a risk. His family’s options were limited, and they had to survive somehow. Already, his children looked impoverished because they hadn’t eaten since the food had been confiscated. Shuker hoped to God they’d survive the journey.

 

On the side, he spied an old, silver-handled looking glass that had been in his wife’s family for years. They weren’t going to take it, but maybe that might be a mistake? Maybe they could trade it for something en-route? He strolled over and picked it up, examining the reflection that appeared in the mirror. The branded letter’s ‘PH’ were prominent on his forehead, as they’d always be. A slight tear began to fall from his right eye as he observed himself. Shuker knew not what was more painful, the branding itself or the scars he was to bear for the rest of his life.

 

The crime he’d committed was one deemed so serious by the community that they could never forgive him. Shuker had only done it because he was scared that he might not have been able to till the land if the plough had not taken for some reason. Then his children might not have eaten. Amongst the many things bequeathed to him by his father, one of them had been an old rotivator which was still – possibly – in good working order. And to power it, he’d acquired something on the black market. Something which – to be in possession of and deny to other villagers – was taboo. He knew it’d been risky. If he’d tried rotivating the small plot of land it would have been at night, but still that might – would – have attracted attention. But at the end of the day, it had not been worth it. Not for the punishment he’d received…

 

Shuker lifted up his shirt and held the mirror towards his chest. The letters marked on his skin told the whole story, of the times they lived in and what had been lost. He winced again as he recalled his punishment. The words branded onto him: ‘PETROL HOARDER’.

 

The old man said ‘Once were Witches.’ It was true, and what had happened to him was a ‘Witch-Hunt’. Now, the future was more uncertain than ever. Shuker hurled the looking glass back onto the sideboard before striding out of the hovel entrance to join his family, the mirror cracking as it contacted with the top. No doubt old Harry would have called that ‘seven years bad luck!’

 

Frankly, Shuker’s luck couldn’t get any worse.

 

© Owen Law 2011

 

 

 

 


About Owen Law

My pen-name is ‘Owen Law’ (real name: Nicholas Davies.) I’m a science fiction writer specialising in dystopian/apocalyptic visions of the future. I’m from Shropshire, England (on the borders with Wales) and I’m in my forties. I have a background in public services and training. I’ve been working on my first novel, Dragon Line, for the past three years. I’ve also written several short stories, one of which you can find on this blog (‘Matilda Leviathan‘). I currently work in London, but yearn to return to the wilds of Shropshire and Wales one day soon! My interests include writing (of course!), current affairs and environmental issues. My biggest concern, at present, is the twin threats of Climate Change and Peak Oil – subjects which are still hotly debated and which are, in my view, still not taken seriously enough!
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