Authors: A.M. Sexton
“What is that?” Aren asked
Deacon laughed. “Ain’t you ever seen a windmill before?”
“Not one like that.
“Runs the generato
rs,” Deacon said. “That transformer at the bottom stores the energy so we still have juice even if the wind stops. Not that it does that too often out here.
“There weren’t any windmills in town.
“Generators run on different things. Most people in town
use coal. These will burn coal too, if they need to, but hauling wagonloads of it out into the prairie ain’t exactly efficient.”
They were getting closer to the farm. Aren could hear the pigs now, and even worse, he could smell them. The stench was horrendous
“Hog farm,” Deacon said when he saw Aren covering his nose with the sleeve of his shirt. “Good news is, no hogs on the BarChi. Cows and horses shit too, but somehow, it don’t smell near as bad.”
“Thank the Saints for small favours,” Aren mumbled
ere greeted outside the barn by six young women. Four of them wore rough-spun trousers and blouses, and Aren noticed all four of them had opened the top few buttons of their shirts. Their necks were tanned, but the soft swells of flesh below their temptingly gaping necklines were pale and creamy, and the girls seemed completely unashamed as they jockeyed for the best position to display them to Deacon.
The other two girls stood apart. They wore ankle-length dresses covered by long white aprons and had lace kerchiefs over their neatly-braided hair. And every single button was done up tightly. They ignored Deacon and came straight to Aren.
“Hello,” the taller one said to him, shaking his hand. “I’m Beth. This is my sister, Alissa. We’re so pleased you’re here.”
Aren felt himself blushing. He could have sworn his throat was closing up, blocking off any words he might wish to speak. He’d spent most of his life in all-male boarding schools, and the rest of it at the all-male university. The only woman he’d ever known at all had been his nanny, but that had been twenty years before, when he was only a child. He’d avoided the society parties his father had thrown and had never gone to the red-light district with his classmates. Whether they were whores or maids or true ladies didn’t matter—Aren had no idea how to behave around women. He looked over at Deacon, hoping for some help, but Deacon was lost amongst giggling maids.
“You’ll join us at the house for dinner, I hope?” Beth asked. She had golden hair and blue eyes, and Aren supposed she was pretty.
“Ummm...” He looked to Deacon again but couldn’t even manage to meet his eyes. Beth followed the direction of his gaze and seemed to think she understood his thoughts.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “The maids will make sure he gets dinner in the barn.
Next to her, Alissa snorted. “Dinner—plus dessert, I’m sure.
Beth glared at her. “Alissa, don’t be crude.
Alissa blushed deep red and ducked her head. She was shorter than her sister and skinnier, with none of her sister’s alluring curves. Her hair w
as darker than Beth’s, and she had freckles across her long nose. She glanced sideways at Beth, then glared with open hostility at the maids surrounding Deacon.
Poor Alissa, Aren found himself thinking. Lost in her sister’s shadow when potential suitors arrived, held hostage by the rules of her class, not allowed to unhook her top button and try for Deacon’s attention either.
“Come on,” Beth said to him, turning towards the house, obviously expecting him to follow. “I’ll show you to the guest room.”
“What about Deacon?” Aren asked. He knew it was foolish, but he wasn’t about to let himself be led like a lamb to slaughter by Beth and Alissa. “Shouldn’t you show him to his room, too?”
Beth seemed at a loss for words, but Alissa wasn’t. “He sleeps in the barn,” she said.
The rigidity of the social structure was starting to become clear. Back in Lanstead, society was also stratified by position and income, but for some reason, he hadn’t expected to find the same type of issues here in Oestend.
“I’ll sleep with Deacon in the barn,” he said, then felt himself blush when he realised how that might sound.
“Don’t be silly,” Beth said. “We have a bed for you at the house.”
“W—well...” he stammered, unsure what to say. He was saved by Deacon, who walked up behind him and clapped him on the back.
“Listen, ladies,” he said, and he seemed to include all six women in that statement, “Aren and I have to get these horses unhitched and brushed and fed, and there’s not much daylight left. If you’ll just bring us a bite to eat, we’ll be happy enough.”
It was obvious the maids were thrilled and the daughters less so, but they all left, and Aren did his best to help Deacon unhook the team, although he felt he probably got in the way more than anything. Eventually, Deacon handed him a brush and pointed him towards one of the horses. The beast stared at him with black eyes, its ears back, and Aren could have sworn it was daring him to step within kicking range.
“I don’t know how,” he said to Deacon
The big cowboy rolled his eyes. “You never used a brush before?
“Not on a horse.
“Not much to it,” Deacon said. “Just go in the direction of the hair.
Aren wasn’t exactly reassured. He was afraid the big mare would suddenly decide she didn’t want t
o be tended to after all, but he didn’t want to look too craven in front of Deacon, so he slowly approached the horse and started to brush. Deacon was in the next stall, brushing down the other horse. He’d taken his hat off, and one of the maids had obviously undone his queue while flirting with him, because his thick, black hair hung loose down his back.
“Can I ask a question without you laughing at me?” Aren asked.
“Probably not.” But his tone was friendly, so Aren asked anyway
“The wraiths are real?
Deacon didn’t seem surprised by the question. “Yup. They’re real. You boys from the continent never believe the stories, but you wander out after dark, you’ll find out they’re true right quick.”
“They only come when there’s no moon?”
Deacon laughed. “That’s another story you boys always have in your heads.” He shook his head. “If it’s dark, the wraiths can come. Only a fool relies on the moon to protect him.”
“But we’re safe as long as we’re indoors?”
“Might be safe enough if everything’s locked down tight, but the only way to be sure is to be inside the net.”
“You seen the wards, right? Over the doors and windows?
“Used to be the wards was enough. But over the years, they stopped working. Don’t ask why,” he said, glancing at Aren. Aren snapped his mouth shut on the words, which had already been half
way out of his mouth. “Nobody rightly knows. But then along came a man figured out how to fix it.”
“By making a generator?
“Exactly. The generator connects them all. Makes a net the wraiths can’t get through.”
“Like a fishing net?
“Well, you can’t act
ually see the damn thing, but I guess it’s the same idea.
“So as long as the generator’s on, it’s safe to walk outside between the buildings?”
“Wouldn’t recommend it,” Deacon said. “They say wraiths can get through the net if they want to. They just don’t like it. Long as we’re all indoors, they got no reason to bother. But you go walking around in the dark, they may just decide it’s worth a try.”
“What do the wraiths look like?”
“Can’t really say. Never seen one. If you watch out a window, you can’t see much. Things blowing around in the wind, dust devils. Some people think they’re in the wind. Some people say they’re invisible.” He shrugged. “I only know they’re there. Seen enough people they’ve killed to know it ain’t a story.”
“How do they kill you?”
“Can’t really say that, either. Never any blood or wounds. Bodies are blue, like they suffocated, or froze to death.”
“What about animals?
“What about them?
“How do you keep the cattle safe? Do you have to bring them all in each night?”
“Wraiths only kill people.
“Saints, I don’t know!” Deacon said, although there was something in his voice that made Aren wonder if he was telling him the trut
h. “That’s just the way it is.”
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