Today's piece is the first chapter from the novel I started last year. This chapter idea had been rattling around in my head for two or three years before I finally sat down and got it on the page. It is presented here pretty much exactly as I first typed it out, warts and all.
“This place fucking stinks!”
“You know Mullen, you say that every time we come through here. Nothing’s changed in the last four years. ”
Mullen was right though. As much as I hate his constant griping, Macon was the worst smelling towns I could remember. Locals said the buildings were permanently saturated with the fumes of the old paper mills but those hadn’t been in operation since before the power went out. Surely 114 years would cleanse the stench. Right?
“Well I’m sorry Breccan, when something smells this damn bad I’ve got to say something. I’m not one to keep my mouth shut.”
“Especially if there’s meat or a beer nearby.”
That was Cahill. Pretty much attached at the hip with Mullen. They were the military wing of our little group; the tank and the brain. Mullen was all brute: fists, swords and blunt instruments. Cahill was the strategist, the archer, the quiet one. Quiet unless he was talking shit to Mullen, his favorite pastime.
We’d been walking for two days. We left Perry on Tuesday. Spent last night camped on the north end of an old Air Base. The runways and buildings littered with what the Old Ones called “Jets”; flying instruments of war from the days before It happened. From before when we had the electricity needed to power these steel beasts. Now they sat stranded, hollow shells stripped of anything anyone found to be useful. I’m sure the warriors of old would hardly recognize the husks that do little more than provide shelter from the rain these days.
Today we were making our way to Macon, the county seat and a vital resupply station in central Georgia. The farmland around Macon was rich and the old highway ran through the center of town, providing a natural lifeline to Atlanta to the north and Tifton to the south. This made the city a natural stopping point for anyone heading north, as we were. It also provided a natural source of power and prestige for whoever controlled the city, as evidenced by the steady stream of warlords who changed places every few years. The changes here were legendarily violent and bloody. Luckily things were unusually calm around the city these days.
Or so we thought.
“Hey Ainsle, any chance of us sticking around for a few days after we re-supply?”
“C’mon Mullen, we’ve already been over this. Macon is just a quick re-supply stop. You’ll have all the time you want for whiskey and women when we get to Atlanta.”
“Damn it Ceara. I wasn’t fucking talking to you.”
“Mullen, If you bother him again I will cut off your balls and make a nice pretty necklace out of them.” She was only partly joking.
Once, Ceara makes her point, Mullen and Cahill usually shut up. There was no use arguing with her. She was the enforcer of Ainsle’s will. He was too soft spoken and kind to raise his voice to any of us. So she did it for him. And we all listened.
Ainsle likely couldn’t hear the exchange anyway. He was easily 200 yards ahead of us, taking point as always. He liked being alone out front, lost in thought yet ever vigilant. Only Cahill relieved him up front, but even then only rarely.
This strong, quiet man off in the distance was the reason we were all here. Friends since childhood, Ainsle, Ceara and I went everywhere together for over 25 years. Then he was exiled. None of us knew why. Even four years later not a word had been spoken about the whats and the whys.
Ainsle harbored a dark secret, dark enough to be forced to leave our tight knit community. The first permanent exile noted in the hall of records for our childhood home of Dublin, about five days southeast of Atlanta.
After the world went dark, when the power went out and the society fell apart people fled the big cities in droves. Once they realized you couldn’t feed millions with rooftop gardens in the middle of a concrete jungle there was little point in staying. They mostly settled in the small rural towns, like Dublin, and over the years created their own laws and identities. As the national government lost its power, the states regained control. Yet most of the power over daily life rested in the cities. While many moved to the country, many more remained in the familiar comfort afforded by skyscrapers and neighborhoods. The cities became centers for trade and were the seats of power for the surrounding areas. Some were run by elected governments, some by warlords and gangsters. Corruption reigned..
To cope, many communities at least partially rejected the old “American” way of life and re-embraced whatever heritage they had begun to forget before the lights turned off. Dublin was a longtime stronghold of Scotch-Irish families so naturally we embraced many of the celtic traits of our forefathers. Traits that were of course bastardized by centuries of “Americanization”, or so said the Old Ones.
So Dublin became a uniquely Scotch-Irish community. Clans became the norm, more close knit communities than actual families. If you were accepted into the clan they became your people, and you theirs. You did not go against the family, and on a greater scale, you did want to run afoul of the elders wishes.
And yet this is what Ainsle, the most fiercely loyal of all of us, somehow did. He so angered the elders that they cast him out forever. Half of Dublin was enraged by the decision, for Ainsle was one of the most beloved members of our close knit community. As is always the case in Dublin, his crimes were not made public, only the punishment. No one believed he could have done something to warrant exile. Yet there he was, on the courthouse steps, announcing to all assembled that he deserved and accepted his punishment.
Before I knew exactly what was happening, Ceara and I were standing on the courthouse steps too, ready to accompany him as always. We knew full well it meant that morning’s breakfast would be the last we shared with our families. Yet we went willingly.
“Something’s wrong” Ceara quietly intoned. Lost in reflection I had not even realized she had wandered up next to me.
“He’s slowing down, letting us catch up.”
She was right. Ainsle was noticeably closer. Ten minutes ago he had been a foggy presence at the far front end of our column. Suddenly we had closed the distance to where we would catch him within the next minute or so at our current pace.
“I’ll go check” I said as I jogged away from Cera, catching Ainsle within a few seconds.
“What’s up big guy. See something?”
“More like smelled. The mill stench can only cover up so much. At least seven of them probably more like ten or eleven. They’re behind those two houses at the end of the street. Either side of the road waiting for us pass.”
His heightened senses still amazed me. He saw, heard, smelled everything light years before the rest of us. And none of us were slouches when it came to tracking. Ainsle was just in a league of his own. It was a recurring theme with him.
The rest of the group sidled up alongside.
“We know you’re there, no use hiding anymore.” Somehow Ainsle’s voice always sounded quietest when he boomed out commands.
A solitary figure emerged from the porch of the house on the right. As soon as he exited the building the breeze caught his stench. The smell of filth, body odor and swamp muck drifted towards us. He looked as he smelled: filthy, full of booze, miserable.
“We’ll be taking your food there travelers. And any coinage or valuables you have as well.”
He was emaciated, clearly underfed. It was no wonder food was his first demand.
“My ass!” Mullen bellowed. “You ain’t getting none of our shit.”
“Quiet Mullen.” Ainsle’s voice was as a whisper.
The figure reached behind his back and pulled a 6 inch blade from his waistband. The remaining eight bandits quickly emerged from behind the houses, each carrying a knife, pipe or other instrument of pain. Within seconds they lined both yards and the road, blocking our entry to the city.
Ainsle remained calm as ever. “There is no need for violence friend. We have several days rations and you are welcome to as much as you need. We are on our way to the town center for resupply and are happy to share.”
The bandit winced noticeably, clearly not accustomed to charitable offers. “Now see, I’m thinkin if you got goods to give away, you got plenty more you ain’t tellin me about. And I want it all.”
The bandits began a methodical march down the road. Murder clearly in their eyes.
Cahill’s bow came up, sighted on the bandit leader. Mullen unsheathed the enormous blade he kept strapped to his back, reached for the handle secured in his waistband at the small of his back.
“Guns boss? We don’t have time for this shit.”
Cries and shrieks began to pore from the mouths of the ambush party. They inched closer, eyeing us cautiously but intent on taking our wares.
Ceara and I reached for our weapons as well, steadying ourselves the battle to come.
The bandits were almost on top of us. We had naturally assembled in a half moon defensive position, eyes open to either flank. The bandits’ war cries filled our ears as they marched closer, malice and murder in their eyes.
“No Mullen. No weapons. Put them away.”